(This opinion piece first appeared in The Fresno Bee, March 13, 2021.)
By Kevin Hall
Dr. Robert Bullard is a gentle teacher of painful lessons. Known as the father of environmental justice, he was an important if muted voice at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco a few years ago where he was honored as a “Climate Trailblazer.”
Environmental justice is the study of people on the receiving end of society’s blunt sticks of pollution and poverty, and scientific demonstrations of those blows’ impacts on vulnerable populations. Through the data policymakers can consider the predicament low income BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color ) communities face.
For decades Bullard has published findings on our societal inequities; these result in long-term and immediate disasters, like the deadly freeze that hit him and his fellow residents of Houston last month. That tragedy was intensified by climate change’s destabilization of the polar vortex and compounded by government disregard for the state’s poorest people.
His teachings and the fatal lessons of the Texas freeze can be applied to the emerging debate over Measure C, our countywide, half-cent retail sales tax.
That September 2018 San Francisco gathering was notable for its star-studded line up of actors, billionaires and prominent politicians, but on that final afternoon I saw Bullard headed away from the main ballroom where the crowd was flocking to hear a former vice president speak.
I caught Bullard at the bottom of a long escalator. I described increased air and water pollution coming from dairy digester clusters funded by state cap-and-trade funds; hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars being poured into them; and the pollution impacts on nearby families, primarily the farm workers also employed by these major polluters.
“Money follows money,” Bullard said. “Money follows power.” He wished me luck in a friendly, knowing way. A few weeks later I stumbled across the rest of his maxim as if lying in wait for me: “Power follows white people.”
Bullard had either been too polite to complete the equation or was testing to see if I knew his work well enough to justify occupying his time one-on-one at a global summit. There I was expecting his full attention but couldn’t state the most basic conclusion of his massive body of work in environmental justice. But he knew where to point me, including at me, as great teachers do.
The coming debate over Measure C spending in Fresno County will be difficult. I find myself returning to Bullard’s words for direction. For detail, I turn to the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability’s “Guiding Principles For a Just and Equitable Transportation System in Fresno County.”
How do we best heed the voice of rural residents expressed in Leadership Counsel’s report calling on us “to recognize and commit to addressing the transportation injustices that have been abundant throughout Fresno County?”
Maybe by rethinking where the money comes from — retail sales taxes — and how we calculate the best ways to invest it. Despite the tax’s bigger bite out of low-income workers’ wages, say a farmworker in Raisin City versus a company owner living in Clovis, their communities are treated as entitled to equal shares based on population.
That’s not fair. Because it’s not equitable.
Let’s elevate the status of the workers from whose labor all tax dollars in this county are generated. That first dollar comes out of the ground in the form of food to keep us alive. That bill then circulates through the economy multiple times. And the tax revenue adds up.
Without their work, there wouldn’t be a dollar to tax. There wouldn’t be a Measure C.
Kevin Hall is a Fresno resident and graduate of Fresno State. He formerly reported on farm issues for trade publications and is an air quality and climate activist.
Twenty years ago, local business and political leaders learned an important lesson at the ballot box: People really want clean air. That’s why in 2002 voters rejected the first renewal attempt for Measure C, our half-cent countywide transportation sales tax, and why they’ll be called on to do so again in 2022.
Because this time around it’s about the climate, and our leaders just don’t get it.
Just as the freeway-backers of the tax’s first iterations in the 1980s and 2000s sought to avoid discussion of vehicle exhaust’s harmful impacts, today they reject the evidence of destabilizing weather patterns caused by global warming.
They’d also like to again ignore the increasing number of people living in frontline rural and inner-city communities where climate change and Measure C–funded pollution hit families hardest. Their neighborhoods receive the lowest transportation investments, yet residents must pay a disproportionate share of their income toward the tax, another added cost of poverty.
After “C” was first passed in 1986 to last 20 years, elected leaders immediately altered the ballot’s voter-approved priorities. They moved Highway 168—it had polled badly before the election—to the top of the list, ahead of inner-city and rural needs.
Voters remembered that half-billion-dollar deception 15 years later. They rejected the program’s deadly synergy of freeway construction, sprawl and air pollution that had
Robbed neighborhoods of street and sidewalk repairs
Ignored the transit needs of workers, students and seniors
Isolated people living in car-less households
Denied children healthy lives and everybody full ones
Only 25% of the first Measure C went to local roads and little or none to transit. For 15 years, most of the money went to gouge the “Sierra Freeway” through the heart of Fresno. Better termed the “White Flight Path,” its wide runway now roars with commuter traffic from distant Clovis suburbs and foothill exurbs.
Meanwhile, semi-trucks continued to choke West Fresno neighborhoods with diesel toxins for decades while relief in the form of 180 West was delayed in favor of the northward exodus.
Voters rejected the continuation of such injustices. A coalition of community groups successfully campaigned in opposition with a simple slogan, “Got Smog? Got Asthma? No on C.”
Two years and many hours of facilitated negotiations later, a compromise was reached. Voters approved of its revised spending plan that split the fund into equal thirds of freeway expansion, local roads and alternative modes.
It was a significant shift.
Two decades later, our inordinately expensive, overbuilt freeway network is complete. It’s time to “enhance capacity” with large-scale investments in regional transit and road maintenance. Let’s expand the agency’s mandate to include solar energy production and storage, and prepare to capture the matching federal and state funds now shifting to green transportation systems.
We live in a world racing to end carbon and methane combustion in order to survive. Steep cuts must be made before 2030, mostly in transportation. The secretly assembled committee now claiming to be in charge of Measure C has no sense of the urgency of our time.
This article first appeared in the March 2021 issue of Community Alliance.
By Kevin Hall
“You can only play by the rules that people give you.” –Henry R. Perea, City of Fresno Planning Commission, Feb. 3, 2021
By Kevin Hall
A trio of life-endangering air pollution events hit Fresno early last month. Unlike the smoke from last summer’s wildfires or this winter’s fireplaces, these threats weren’t found in the air but on paper, behind closed doors, and at media events.
On the first Wednesday in February the city planning commission heard a major industrial rezone proposal for West Fresno. On Thursday of the following week the names were released of a secretly selected panel to lead the Measure C transportation sales tax renewal, and the next day a trio of city council members announced a loosely defined plan for free citywide transit.
Embedded in each of these issues is Fresno’s long history of institutional racism:
The Southwest Specific Plan completed in 2017 is an ongoing effort to stop the growth of industrial pollution in West Fresno, but former councilman Henry R. Perea went before the city planning commission seeking to undo 93 acres in the heart of it.
The original Measure C misdirected hundreds of millions of dollars away from inner city and rural communities to build Freeway 168, the White Flight path to Clovis, and community stakeholders, including Labor leader Chuck Riojas, have agreed to a closed door process for “MC3” to extend the tax to the year 2047.
And Tyler Maxwell’s proposal for free buses threatens to become an urban-centric cash grab that hurts long-term funding for rural transit users and Americans with Disabilities Act paratransit services countywide. He is joined by Nelson Esparza and Esmeralda Soria as co-sponsors of the notion.
West Fresno Rezone
“On the broader level, I’m going to ask you to consider this,” Perea ominously told the planning commissioners via Zoom at their Feb. 3 meeting. “We have a new mayor in this city. We have a council that’s working with him and there are different opinions on how this city is going to move forward. And one of them is going to be what type of an industrial base, what type of business community — along with everything else that’s quality of life — we are going to have.”
Community members arguing against the proposal complained they had not received notice of it in advance, particularly the Southwest Specific Plan leaders who led a two-year effort to craft new land use designations throughout the city’s historic dumping ground. They were also stunned to see the rezone attempt come so soon after their volunteer work had concluded and at the hands of a former Democratic officeholder.
When the city council unanimously adopted the plan in December 2017, The Fresno Bee’s Tim Sheehan quoted then-District 3 councilman Oliver Baines: “What this does is lay the foundation for investment in west Fresno,” he said. “It is the single biggest economic development tool that west Fresno has seen in 40 years…And it was driven by the community.”
Perea clearly disagrees. Critics also note that Annalisa Perea’s campaign to replace Soria as the District 1 city council member has raised more than $100,000 as of January 1. At least $28,000 of that came from one major warehouse developer alone, ICC Construction — with $4,000 of that coming through the San Joaquin Valley Latino Leaders PAC which received $5,000 from ICC in December.
“You can only play by the rules that people give you,” the senior Perea, oblivious to his hypocrisy, reminded the people there objecting to the rule change. He gently taunted it would be an “opportunity” for advocates to be heard at City Hall as he pushed for immediate approval.
The commission instead voted to have the applicant meet with the community and come back on March 17, a meeting applicants had sought to avoid and which Perea and District 3 council representative Miguel Arias had not previously worked to create.
Measure C Redux
When the Fresno County Transportation Authority announced members of the “2022 Measure C Extension Expenditure Plan,” nobody knew about the meeting except its twenty-three members. From Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer and Clovis city council member Lynn Ashbeck, to Lee Ann Eager of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation and Jake Soberal of Bitwise, a coterie of powerful interests are claiming the countywide transportation sales tax decision-making powers all for themselves.
Community interests are supposedly represented by Artie Padilla, formerly of the Christian charitable organization Every Neighborhood Partnership. He’s on the committee representing former Fresno mayor, evangelical Ashley Swearengin’s Central Valley Community Foundation.
While religious beliefs may have placed some people on this committee more than transportation expertise, it’s all about business for most. Since its inception in 1986, Measure C has been the county’s largest subsidy to sprawl developers and remains controversial for its expenditure plan decision-making process.
After passage the first time, the FCTA was formed and it then named Freeway 168 as its top spending priority, despite pre-election polls showing voters didn’t support it. Measure C backers had removed the freeway from the list of projects shown on the ballot to gain voter support, but used a loophole to later ignore those wishes.
The first renewal effort in 2002 sought to continue prioritizing freeway expansion but was turned back by voters after the “Got Smog? Got Asthma? No on C” campaign of community organizations led by Mary Savala and the League of Women Voters-Fresno.
A 2004 plan resulted in a split of one-third each for freeways, road repair, and alternative transportation. For the 2007-47 extension, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability’s “Guiding Principles For a Just and Equitable Transportation System in Fresno County” should be applied. The committee would do well to read it.
No Free Bus Rides
First-year councilman Maxwell is calling for free bus service throughout Fresno to begin immediately. Soria and Esparza have signed onto what they’re calling the Zero Fare Clean Air Act. In their March 12 announcement they gave no date for introduction at City Hall, but presumably that should come soon with direction to staff.
Danielle Bergstrom, writing for The Fresno Bee’s venture in nonprofit journalism, Fresnoland, captured the dilemma the proposal poses for the FAX system. Fare box receipts are matched 7-to-1 by federal and state sources. Eliminate those and the money must be made up for in cash. Maxwell first suggested having FAX take it from within its own budget, and still calls for $500,000 in cuts, but now would like to use CARES Act relief funds, assuming they’re available:
“After COVID-19 relief funding dries up, unless FAX can find an alternative source of local money — around $5 million to $6 million per year — to match the state grants, it will be losing close to $30 million to $40 million per year,” Barfield said.
Maxwell is cheerily confident the money can be conjured up somewhere. The Bee reported:
“Maxwell said he is optimistic that whatever revenue is lost from fares can be made up from a combination of savings from eliminating costs associated with fare collection and police patrols for FAX. He’s also depending on public agencies, who currently buy discounted passes, to continue and possibly grow their financial support.”
Maxwell has also eliminated the call for electric buses by 2040 from his original proposal. This might be due to the Regional Transportation Plan’s call for $30 million to be spent on new methane-powered ones. The RTP is the foundational document for all transportation planning and funding. It also determines the Measure C expenditure plan. Maxwell seems oblivious to its existence.
As the RTP begins to lay out the future of transportation investments in Fresno County, Leadership Counsel’s memo reminds — if not warns — staff, stakeholders, and elected officials about the importance of prioritizing the needs of historically disadvantaged communities.
The cumulative impacts of these three air pollution issues of the Perea rezone, Measure C secrecy, and Maxwell’s unfunded transit policy must be considered together. Leadership Counsel has provided the guiding document that all should apply to their decisions.
Black History Month came with a slap in the face to residents of West Fresno, courtesy of Henry R. Perea. The former mayoral candidate, county supervisor and District 1 Fresno City Council member tried to jam a major industrial rezone proposal through the city planning commission on Feb. 3.
“I feel this is very disrespectful. To overturn what we worked so hard for,” said Kimberly McCoy, project director at Fresno Building Healthy Communities, of the Southwest Specific Plan.
Completed after two years and countless hours of community input, the plan was unanimously approved by the City Council in December 2017 with the aim of ending Fresno’s decades of placing major polluters next to homes in the city’s historically redlined neighborhoods west of Highway 99 by stopping all further industrial growth. Existing businesses were grandfathered in, but not their industrial zoning.
“If you know anything about our community at all, you know the hazardous conditions that our residents must live under because of the inappropriate planning for our community,” longtime advocate Bob Mitchell said to the commission.
Now Perea says he wants to take his clients’ zoning back to where they were “20 years ago”—when he was on the City Council and the Redevelopment Agency—so that they can remodel without environmental review or be subject to the new, more health-protective limitations implemented four years ago.
The item is slated to return to the city planning commission on March 17 under the title “Plan Amendment Application No. P20-01665, Rezone Application No. P20-01665.” For many in the opposition, it is simply known as “The Perea Rezone.” Let’s stand with West Fresno residents to stop it.