Big Valley

Rural communities find inventive ways to get residents on the road

The grocery store is 15 miles away. Julia Mendoza will drive you there for $2.50.

There may be a parent meeting at the elementary school one night. That ride will cost you $1. The doctor is in Hanford and the immigration office is in Fresno. To get to those places and back home, Mendoza charges $10.

In this tiny town surrounded by the some of the world’s most bountiful farmland, many of the men work the fields and a small group of women seem to run everything else. They take the kids to school. They buy the groceries. They make sure health insurance is available. They travel to Sacramento to lobby lawmakers for safe drinking water.

But all of that is difficult. The Tule fog makes for treacherous travel in the winter, and small white crosses and bouquets of flowers mark the scenes where people have been killed in traffic accidents on the roads outside town. Cantua Creek is also a poor community isolated by unreliable mass transit systems and roads barely wide enough to fit two passing tractors.

So the women got creative. With the help of Central Valley social justice and environmental advocates, they won a grant last year from the 11th Hour Project, which funds eco-friendly programs around the world. The money was used to purchase a seven-passenger electric Tesla van that served as the town’s mass transit system. A second grant this year allowed the town to buy an electric Chevrolet Bolt, which replaced the van.

Mendoza has the keys to the Bolt and, as a result, has become the town’s de facto mayor. She drives her friends and neighbors on important errands during the week, but on weekends her Bolt is available as a ride share for $28 a day. It can be found hooked up to a power cord running out of an abandoned fire station.

“People tell me they wouldn’t do this even if they were crazy,” Mendoza said through a translator, drinking bottled water and sitting in her front yard on a warm October morning. “Then I’ll keep being crazy.”

More than 50 years after Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta united farmworkers in a fight for their civil and labor rights, the small towns of the San Joaquin Valley are organizing behind a new cause: access to transportation. Cantua Creek residents have become far more organized since their transit system began. They recently spent several days at the state Capitol meeting with lawmakers and testifying before a Senate committee for a bill that would have taxed Californian’s drinking water to pay for cleaning up toxic wells, including those that serve their town.

“When you engage in decision-making that impacts your community or quality of life, I think it provides momentum to want to do more for your community,” said Veronica Garibay, a co-founder and co-director of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a social justice organization that applied for the electric vehicle grant in Cantua Creek. “There was already a lot of unity, but now there’s a vested interest in improving conditions and making sure your community is being treated in a just and fair way and receiving the benefits and investments that other communities are receiving.”

The movement is spreading. The Leadership Counsel is working with a mother and daughter who want to run their own shuttle service in Delhi, an unincorporated community midway between Modesto and Merced. Residents of Planada, east of Merced, are working on a program as well.

And in Huron, a small city an hour southwest of Fresno surrounded by fields of almonds, cotton and lettuce, reliable and affordable transportation has been an everyday problem for decades. Those without cars have used an informal ride-sharing system operated by locals known as raiteros. With the help of a state grant worth $519,000, the mayor launched a nonprofit ride share service powered by a small fleet of electric vehicles.

Mayor Rey Leon said it’s about providing equity and economic opportunity for people in rural communities.

“What we are doing in Huron is not just a service for Huron, it’s a vision for other communities as well,” Leon said. “There are huge gaps of service and we want to work alongside our public transportation infrastructure to make it efficient and effective.”

Feeding the world while just surviving

Cantua Creek is a fairly typical rural Valley town. The fields that surround this village of fewer than 500 residents produce cotton, pistachios, garlic, almonds, lettuce and more than a dozen other commodities found at farmers’ markets and grocery stores throughout the world. Nearly every resident is Latino, according to the census. The median household income is roughly half the state average.

“We feed the world,” Mendoza said.

Yet in many ways, the town has been left behind. The drinking water doesn’t meet state standards for safety and quality, according to the state’s water resources control board. The air in the southern San Joaquin Valley is often harmful, exasperated by the region’s topography as a basin between mountains. Transportation systems are unreliable or outdated, residents say, leaving towns in the area cut off from the state’s population centers, health care and nutrition.

There is a school in Cantua Creek, but nowhere to buy a loaf of bread. It takes about an hour to drive northeast to Fresno or southeast to Hanford.

“Communities like Cantua and Delhi and other low-income communities and communities of color, they’ve had to be resilient to survive,” Garibay said.

Mendoza has lived in Cantua Creek for 26 years. While gangs have invaded some of the larger towns in the area, Cantua Creek has remained peaceful. Residents gather in the parking lot of the old firehouse in December to celebrate all they have seen and done that year.

“We take care of one another,” she said. “What more wealth do we want here?”

A few years ago, Mendoza began driving friends and neighbors on errands, mostly for appointments with doctors. It was an undependable system, sometimes leaving people stranded for hours. But Mendoza did it because the region’s bus system was even less reliable and would require long trips for routine errands.

“People needed rides,” she said. “They would ask, so I would do it.”

After the family’s water rates went up four years ago, Julia’s husband, Antonio, called Garibay’s office to ask if there was anything they could do. That conversation led to community meetings, where residents also expressed concerns about a lack of reliable transportation.

Backed by a phone dispatch system, Mendoza takes young mothers to the elementary school for GED courses and classes on how they can become more involved in their children’s education. Friends often seek rides to Saint Agnes Medical Center and the Mexican Consulate in Fresno. When she isn’t shuttling neighbors around, Mendoza delivers hot meals to the elderly for the Salvation Army.

Mendoza is paid in cash for her service. She said some of her neighbors have a difficult time with the concept of riding in an electric car, convinced that it will run out of power and leave them stranded. But that doesn’t happen. Without her, “the husbands would have to stop working to drive people,” said her friend, Blanca Gomez.

“I do not drive, so for me, it means a lot,” said Gomez, who has hitched rides to a doctor in Mendota and a Medi-Cal office in Coalinga. “It is a big service.”

About 85 miles north is Delhi, a large town by Valley standards with a growing population of nearly 11,000. Stephens Street, the main commercial corridor, has two liquor stores, a Dollar General, a Mexican bakery and a used car lot. There’s a health clinic, but no major medical services or banks. Those are in Turlock, a 20-minute bus ride away.

Hayde Berenice Sanchez-Lozano, like Mendoza in Cantua Creek, has operated an informal carpool in the town for a few years. She once drove a friend to the hospital to deliver a baby and shuttles local Baile Folklorico dancers around the region. She’d like to establish a shuttle service for students taking night courses at UC Merced or California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock.

Sanchez-Lozano has a Ford C-Max electric hybrid — which has seating for five people — but wants something larger.

“I love traveling,” she said, “but I wish I could bring more people. To do something like this, you have to have passion.”

Plugging into the community

Down a dirt road — and just beyond a mural welcoming people to Huron — is a startup organization that’s trying to bridge the gap between residents of this farming town and the rest of the San Joaquin Valley. The city is home to about 7,000 people, about half of whom live below the poverty level. On blustery days, blowing dust swirls through town.

The region is served by bus service, but it takes several hours to get to and from major destinations. That has forced many residents to rely on the raiteros.

Mayor Leon, who was raised in Huron and is a staunch advocate for his community, is taking the concept of raiteros and elevating it with a program he helped create called Green Raiteros, a ride-share system of electronic vehicles.

“We are growing an indigenous idea and turning it into a program,” Leon said. “This isn’t about dropping a program into a community. We are growing it from within.”

The program is being operated as part of Leon’s Valley Latino Environmental Advancement and Policy Project, or LEAP. The idea is to provide the residents of Huron with access to zero-emission vehicles that can shuttle them to doctor’s appointments, job interviews, or grocery stores.

The program got its boost with a $519,000 grant from the California Public Utilities Commission. The project is also getting help from multiple partners, including EVgo, Beneficial State Bank, Mobility Development, Shared Use Mobility Center, Schmidt Family Foundation 11th Hour Project, BMW Financial Services, NonProfits United Insurance, and Der Manouel Insurance.

With the funding from the state, the program was able to secure two electric vehicles, a BMW i3 and a Chevrolet Bolt. The funding also paid for an office, dispatch center and garage for the vehicles.

Reyes Barboza Jr., director of operations for Green Raiteros and a native of Huron, is in the process of training volunteer drivers and overseeing the completion of the program’s offices, a former auto repair shop with metal siding.

Barbaoza, a Stanford University graduate with expertise in public transportation and planning, was eager for the chance to run the program. He’s consulted with public transportation agencies throughout the country.

“I have kept in touch with Rey and have always kept an eye on the Valley and was looking for a way to circle back to make a contribution,” Barboza said. “And it happened with this project.”

The Green Raitero’s building already has six charging stations that will be used by the program’s fleet. Outside, four more charging stations will be installed for public use.

As one of the service’s drivers, Barboza has made several trips to Hanford, Fresno and Bakersfield. Most of the trips have been for doctor’s appointments. For now, the program is asking for donations for its rides. It’s working on a payment system that could include vouchers or some form of alternative payment.

“Part of what makes this project fascinating is that we are part of helping to provide this type of technology,” Barboza said. “We have electric vehicles so why not make this type of technology available to everybody?”