Climate change shows that it would be foolish to expand freeways around Fresno

July 3, 2021, The Fresno Bee

By Kevin Hall

Metaphorically speaking, Highway 168 is the fuse that lit the Creek Fire, an immense warning flare from our 21st century, rapidly warming world.

The fire’s destruction is civilization’s potential future, and the road represents transportation’s role in the climate emergency. On and off road “mobile sources” produce more greenhouse gases than any other sector. Fresno’s on-road emissions are 25% greater than the statewide average.

Nearly 380,000 acres of Sierra Nevada foothills and mountains were scorched, burned, and in places incinerated; hundreds of homes were lost, thousands of lives disrupted. The blaze ravaged the San Joaquin River gorge, tracing the source of our lifeblood into the backcountry, finally burning out at its headwaters where, fittingly, 168 also ends.

There’s no denying the urgent need to protect all life by preserving and restoring natural landscapes and eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. Nature could not have sent us a clearer demand to act; one we ignore at our own peril.

State and national leaders are certainly responding. Transportation electrification is happening now, beginning with significant infrastructure investments in renewable power generation, transmission and storage. Public fleets of every kind are to be changed over — garbage trucks, transit buses, vans and cars — but the electricity must be there to power them.

Let’s expand our definition of transportation infrastructure, evolve it faster than our weather patterns destabilize.

Looking across the Big Creek drainage at its northern wall where the forest was incinerated.

Where once we built freeways through cities, we must now build our way out of deep carbon deficits. We need solar-powered charging stations integrated with microgrids serving entire communities; transit hubs expanded to become climate resiliency centers.

And we must act to prevent needless death. Hundreds of people, two-thirds of them seniors, perished in the Pacific Northwest and Canada from the record-shattering heat. We can protect people when temperatures soar and summer fires cause blackouts. Solar-powered buildings can provide temperature-controlled rooms, fresh water, communications, and transportation during emergencies.

This takes significant public investment. Fortunately, we have a funding opportunity. The Measure C half-cent retail sales tax for transportation expires in 2026 and renewal efforts are underway. It currently raises more than $80 million annually.

If approved by voters, bonds could be issued now against future revenue for infrastructure projects, a hedge against inflation to ensure lower costs while leveraging state and federal matching dollars. And those matching funds are rapidly shifting away from outdated plans for freeway-based autopias.

Unfortunately, the Fresno County Transportation Authority and Fresno Council of Governments, chaired respectively by County Supervisor Buddy Mendes and Fowler Mayor David Cardenas, are mired in the past.

They’re intent on building more fuses.

The signature project of the Measure C renewal effort is Highway 180 East, the “Sequoia-Kings Canyon Freeway.” Like 168, it would extend our urban sprawl into the wildlands interface, placing lives and property directly in the path of future firestorms.

Climate change denial runs so deep that at a June meeting of the Measure C Technical Working Group, staff actually described the 180 extension as beneficial to the environment, citing a projected reduction in greenhouse gas emissions due to reduced congestion along the rural route.

Mendes, Cardenas and their respective boards, which include three county supervisors and all 15 Fresno County mayors, are so committed to uninterrupted freeway construction they want to remove the sales tax’s 20-year sunset clause and lock-in outdated 20th century plans for sprawl.

Yes, they want to make Measure C permanent — a forever tax — and are now rushing to prematurely place it on the June 2022 ballot while ignoring the greatest threat to humankind in history.

What kind of signal will it take to stop them in time?

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