Huron Mayor Rey Leon, at the podium, addresses the crowd of people gathered to mark the start of the Green Raiteros program in Huron.
Written by David Castellon
If you think Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing services are new concepts, you’d be wrong.
Decades before you could order a ride through an app on your cell phone, rural areas across the Valley had “raiteros,” people with cars who would take local residents without cars or easy access – if any – to cabs or public transportation wherever they needed to go.
But raiteros have always been an informal system, with some drivers willing to give their neighbors rides for free or opting to charge them for the rides – sometimes exorbitant amounts.
But that’s changing in the tiny city of Huron in west Fresno County, where Mayor Rey Leon and others have launched a test program that puts a new twist on an old idea.
Last week, the group launched “Green Raiteros,” having purchased a pair of all-electric cars driven by volunteers who essentially chauffeur residents of Huron and surrounding to doctors visits, schools, shopping centers and other places too far for them to get to if somebody couldn’t drive them.
“It’s flowered and going to be a huge service for the community,” Leon told a crowd gathered last week in front of the former Huron mechanics shop being converted into the headquarters of the program.
Organizers noted that the service also will take people to other communities, Hanford and Lemoore among them, with Fresno being about the farthest the volunteer drivers will go.
“Basically, we think it’s a good idea, and it’s something that’s needed,” Guillermo Benito Vasquez, a retired field worker from Huron, said through a Spanish interpreter.
He said he and his wife, have been buying rides from raiteros for the past decade, but they’ve frequently missed appointments at doctors offices as far away as Fresno because raiteros didn’t show up. And when they did, the raiteros charged $80 to $90 per trip.
“I surely did feel it, but we had to pay it – no choice,” he said of the cost, which he and his wife have had to incur, on average, two or three times a month.
Leon noted that Huron is one of California’s poorest communities, with many residents unable to afford their own cars, yet for some residents 20-30 percent of their income goes to transportation.
Though it may not be free for everyone, as the program will charge fees on sliding scales based on passengers’ incomes and the distances of their trips, those involved in Green Raiteros say their drives likely will be cheaper than using traditional, paid raiteros.
Green Raiteros was developed through the Latino Environmental Advancement & Policy (LEAP) Institute, a Fresno-based nonprofit Leon founded and oversees to achieve economic and environmental justice for Valley communities, along with volunteers in and around Huron.
The group obtained a $519,400 in grants to form Green Raiteros. That money comes from a settlement New Jersey-based NRG Energy made with the California Public Utilities Commission over energy market manipulations committed in 2001 by Dynegy Inc., which NRG fully acquired.
Leon said the program also is being funded by a $69,000 grant from the Schmidt Family Foundation.
The two grants will pay for leasing the headquarters, staffing and administrative costs, and the purchases of two electric cars – a new Chevrolet Volt and a used BMW i3 – both of which local residents got to see during last week’s ribbon cutting for the Green Raiteros’ headquarters building.
Leon and the other speakers at the even touted how not using gas-powered vehicles will save the program money and is good for the environment.
And for now, the program will run with four volunteer drivers who will drive people based on their availability, though plans are to go no later than early evenings.
Though some are comparing Green Raiteros to Uber, the Huron program still is decidedly lower tech, with people needing rides asked to call 559-900-2656 at least 24 hours before they need to go someplace.
And unlike Uber, people going to the same areas at around the same times may have to share their rides there and back with others.
But like Uber, Leon said he hopes to one offer some pay or stipends to the drivers and allow for people to arrange for their rides through apps on their cell phones.