Moses Stites, general manager of the Fresno County Rural Transit Agency, stands next to a Chevrolet Volt on display in front of the Save mart Center. His agency intends to seek grants to study the possibility of FCRTA buying 25 to 50 of the all-electric cars to provide additional ride options to people in remote parts of Fresno County. Photo by David Castellon
Written by David Castellon
In rural Fresno County, catching a bus to get to a doctor’s appointment, social services office or run any number of errands can be an arduous tack.
In the city of Huron, for example only one bus to Fresno arrives each weekday morning at 8:35 a.m., and reaching the larger city involves multiple stops in other communities, including Coalinga and Easton, before arriving in Fresno a couple of hours later.
There is only one bus going back to Huron, which leaves the Fresno County Superior Courthouse at 3:20 p.m.
In poor farming communities that dot the county, many individuals and families don’t have cars, or the cars they have are needed to transport somebody to work daily, leaving other family members without transportation.
While some can endure the long bus rides into Fresno and frequently long waits if they can’t get appointments near their bus arrival times, some just can’t make it work.
Long bus rides
Huron Mayor Ray Leon recalled such challenges growing up in his city, which was mostly populated by poor farm workers and their families, as it is today.
He recounted taking a three-hour bus ride as a boy to visit an injured relative in a Fresno hospital.
Back then, residents in Huron and other rural parts of the Valley found a sort of solution to their transportation problems in the form of “raiteros,” neighbors with cars — often retired farm laborers — willing to drive people to Fresno and other communities to keep appointments, visit family, run errands, etc.
Sometimes they did it for free, but usually the riders paid the raiteros to cover the drivers’ expanses for gas and wear on the cars.
It’s a system that continues today and still works, said Leon, adding that a couple of years ago, he concluded that system — depending largely on word of mouth for people to find an available ride heading to a particular destination — could work better.
Grant money secured
In fact the mayor was so confident in the idea that the LEAP Institute, a Fresno-based nonprofit he founded and oversees to achieve economic and environmental justice, obtained more than $580,000 in grants to form Green Raiteros, a pilot program to make transportation more easily available between Huron and Fresno.
“Mostly it started with access to doctors appointments, because people were having trouble getting access to health care,” Reyes Barboza, Jr. said of the reasoning behind the idea.
A transit planning consultant by trade, Barboza was hired last month as director of operations of Green Raiteros, which organizers hope to launch by summer.
Part of it will involve developing an online app that people in Huron needing a ride to and from Fresno can use to connect with raiteros going there.
“What our organization is looking to do is to basically help modernize what they are doing, because everything the raiteros are doing is through word of mouth,” Barboza explained. “So we’re trying to make it a little more convenient for them to get the word out.”
He said the program probably would start out as an online resource to find people heading to or near a person’s desired destination and asking for a lift using a computer or cell phone, “but it may evolve into actually scheduling rides.”
There would be a screening process for the drivers involved, and the riders may pay the raiteros some compensation for the rides, though Leon said he wants to obtain additional funding so the program can pay the drivers for their mileage and the riders pay nothing.
A place for electric cars
The funding Green Raiteros has includes $65,000 to purchase and maintain an all-electric car — likely a Chevrolet Volt — with a plan to assign it to one or more of the raiteros to drive people to and from Fresno for free. Eventually, Leon said, “We are going to try to fundraise more [money] so we can afford another.
“We’re initiating it here, but ultimately we want it to be in other communities in Fresno County helping farmworker families.”
Leon isn’t alone in seeing small electric cars as potential solutions to rural mass transit problems.
Moses Stites, general manager of the Fresno County Rural Transit Agency (FCRTA), which provides bus services for the unincorporated parts of the county and connects with the various city bus systems, said his agency is developing a grant application to study the feasibility of launching an electric car fleet to transport people in rural areas around their areas’ bus schedules.
Electric fleet planned
The idea is to purchase 25 to 50 electric cars — probably Volts — and assign them to pick up people in rural areas and transport them to Fresno and other, larger population centers at times more convenient than they could achieve taking busses.
“We don’t know yet who would drive them,” though the study would look at using volunteer drivers, Stites said.
He said using the electric cars — which have a 240-mile range on a full charge — would be cheaper than assigning extra busses to rural areas because they wouldn’t use gas, and some could be deployed to areas of the county the existing bus service doesn’t reach.
Using volunteer drivers could offer added savings, Stites said.
“So that’s why we’re going to explore different opportunities with volunteer drivers and also retired individuals who live in these communities that would afford themselves the opportunity to help their fellow residents in a community.”
Stites said his agency needs $150,000 to fund the study, and the costs of one day launching such a project would depend on how many cars would be bought and how officials decide the program should be run.
Just buying a single Volt would cost $18,000 to $22,000, factoring in discounts a public agency would receive, and FCRTA would have to find a funding source, Stites said.
“We’ve got enough need here in Fresno County where we believe that this program would take off,” he said.