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Vanpool to Help Farmworkers Afford Commute

The Santa Barbara County program will help transport the laborers, who spend a large portion of their wages getting to work.

June 18, 2005|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Come next spring, farmworkers in the Santa Maria Valley will have a more economical way to commute to and from the area's strawberry and broccoli fields thanks to a new vanpool program.

The Santa Barbara County Assn. of Governments voted Thursday to allocate $150,000 for a demonstration project expected to provide vans and vehicle insurance to help hundreds of workers living in the valley get from their homes to farms as far as 20 miles away.

"It represents a real hardship for workers.... They are paying a large portion of their wages to get to work," said Jim Kemp, the association's executive director. "Anything that will help [the farmers'] workforce to make it more stable and improve morale will be to their benefit."

Using money earmarked for the state's Transportation Development Act, Santa Barbara County will allocate $100,000 to the program; the remaining $50,000 will be provided by the city of Santa Maria.

"Consider the value of the farmworker: They're a major component of the benefits that we as consumers realize through their sweat and tears," Santa Barbara Country Supervisor Salud Carbajal said in an interview Friday. "It's important [that] we do all we can to support their needs, especially when you consider they are among the lowest-paid employee sectors in our state and local community."

Officials say the program will be patterned after one that serves more than 800 workers in Kings, Tulare and Fresno counties; the workers pay about $20 a week for a round-trip commute.

"It's a good step forward," said Jessica Scheeter, executive director of the Coalition for Sustainable Transportation. "When you consider agriculture is one of the main economic factors for North County, this is huge."

The group surveyed more than 400 farmworkers in Santa Barbara County last fall and determined that fewer than 5% have a valid driver's license and that eight in 10 respondents were unsatisfied with their commute. Nearly 85% of those surveyed said they worked in the Santa Maria area year-round and almost 91% said they would use a bus or vanpool five days a week.

About seven in 10 respondents admitted to using a raitero, or unofficial cab driver, who provides carpools for a weekly fee of $20 to $25. Their primary concern was safety as the vehicles are often in disrepair and uninsured, Scheeter said.

"I'm really happy to see the county and the city taking a lead to explore vanpools and to implement a demonstration project. This has the potential to meet the need of many in the farmworker community," she said.

Santa Maria City Engineer Rick Sweet said the goal was to design a vanpool system that could be incorporated into the area's existing transit system. Although the program will initially be subsidized, he said the idea was to eventually make it self-sufficient. "We're not providing free transportation," he said. "We're talking about providing a vehicle.... Funding for the vanpool would have to come from those who use it."

Sweet believes that the program can provide safe transportation in new vehicles driven by farmworkers with valid California driver's licenses, for less than the fares charged by raiteros. Although details of the program are not complete, if the Kings County model is used, van drivers would be compensated by not having to pay the transportation fee. "We believe we can provide the service for less," Sweet said. "We're just trying to provide them a better situation."

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