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Vanpool speeds into 2nd year

Check out the article by Steve Pent in the December 7th Santa Maria Times
(courtesy of EdHat).

Santa Barbara City Councilmember Grant House’s comments in response to the article:

COAST’s work on Unmet Transit Needs (UTN) in North Santa Barbara County
revealed the need for this kind of van service stemming from farmers’
unwillingness to provide rides to backbreaking work in the fields due
primarily to liability concerns.  Public transportation seemed unable to
deliver regular transit service to frequently changing seasonal
destinations.

After providing white papers on Unmet Transit Needs to the County from 2002
to 2006, the hard work of project leader and board member Alex Pujo
uncovered models in other rural counties, idle vans sitting in neighboring
San Luis Obispo County, and possible sources of funding to initiate the
program. Melinda Burns, then with the Santa Barbara News Press, reported
extensively on the workers living in Santa Maria.  The McCune Foundation
provided funding to assist in the research and outreach for COAST’s UTN
project which also resulted in the start up of The Breeze bus service
between Lompoc, Vandenberg Air Force Base, and Santa Maria.

The program has been modeled after the successful farmworker van program in
Kings County.  The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors with leadership
from Supervisor Salud Carbajal supported using vans with drivers recruited
and trained from the affected population.  A win-win for all involved, we
wish the project continued success.

Grant House
Councilmember
City of Santa Barbara
ghouse@santabarbaraca.gov
805 564-5319

Click here to see the Santa Maria Times article

Vanpool speeds into 2nd year
By Steve Pent/Associate Editor

December 7, 2008
Ag Worker Transportation Program vanpool driver Celestina Rangel checks
strawberries Tuesday in a First Harvest field west of Santa Maria. A native
of Oaxaca, Mexico, Rangel has been with the program eight months, carrying
an average of eight to nine passengers every day to the field. Len
Wood/Staff
Celestina Rangel is up early every morning to begin her first job – getting
a van full of strawberry workers to a Guadalupe field by 7 a.m.

Then she joins them for a full day’s work in the fields. Late in the
afternoon, she drives them back to Santa Maria.

This is not your ordinary carpool to and from work. It’s part of the Ag
Worker Transportation Program (AWTP), now in its second year of operation
under the administration of the Santa Maria Organization of Transportation
Helpers (SMOOTH).

Rangel, a Oaxaca native, has been with the program eight months, carrying
eight to nine passengers on average every day to a First Harvest field. Two
months ago, at the height of the season, she had a total of 15 on board.

Rangel used to transport workers in her own van, but had to turn many away
because only seven fit in her vehicle. This posed a problem for some to get
to work.

“Some employers thought one invented that as an excuse to get off work,” she
recalled.

Then her own van was involved in an accident caused by someone else, she
said, and the cost of fixing it was more than the vehicle was worth.

Then she found out about AWTP. She applied at SMOOTH and was approved as a
driver after a two-week application and training process.

In October 2007, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors launched the
program by approving the purchase of nine used vans from Kings County, where
a successful program already was in operation, and authorized applying for a
state grant to expand the fleet of vehicles.

A total of $220,000 was secured for the pilot program from the county, the
city of Santa Maria and the state. In addition, Caltrans notified the county
a year ago that it had received an award of funding for nearly $3.1 million
from the state’s AWTP.

And in March of this year, wondering whether current vans were being used
sufficiently, the supervisors authorized the purchase of eight new vehicles,
not the 25 originally planned.

The program is touted by supporters for providing safe, affordable and
reliable transportation to and from work for agricultural workers, while
reducing the incidence of unlicensed and/or uninsured drivers and the use of
unsafe vehicles.

But it’s not without its critics. Some say public dollars should not be
tapped to transport workers for a private industry, while others oppose
providing a government subsidy for a workforce that is made up largely of
illegal immigrants.

On a recent trip, Rangel began her rounds at 6 a.m. by picking up two
different passengers at their houses, three workers in front of the Good
Samaritan shelter on Morrison Avenue and another three on Cook Street, a
couple blocks from the Blosser Road intersection.

Passenger Miguel Benitez has been using the service for seven months. He
said he used to travel in a private van, but AWTP is more secure.

Alberta Valent’n, Rangel’s neighbor, has been with the vanpool for about six
months. She said she used to pay someone $3.50 a day for a ride, “but this
service is a lot more flexible.”

As a driver, Rangel sees obvious benefits to the program.

“You don’t need to spend on tires, oil changes – the van (program) does it
all,” she said, adding that for unlicensed workers especially, “there is the
benefit of not having your car taken away.”

Then there is the economic incentive. Her riders pay an average of $3 a day,
a savings of up to a $100 a month.

Rangel is also delighted with the rigorous set of safety measures that are
in place for the van.

“They (SMOOTH) are right on top of the check-ups, maintenance, ensuring that
nothing malfunctions, that’s what I like about it,” she said.

On one occasion when the van refused to start, Rangel called the SMOOTH
office with the onboard CB handset, and a replacement van arrived within
minutes.

The program now has 12 vans, with three more to be purchased in February for
the start of the spring season, according to Jim Talbott, SMOOTH executive
director. Five of those will be traveling to Firestone Vineyards, up from
the three now going there during the off season.

“We’ve kept pace with the demand,” he said, adding that growth has met
SMOOTH’s expectations. He noted that the budget allows for the purchase of
up to 34 vans.

AWTP isn’t just for fieldworkers, but for packers, coolers, horse ranches,
wineries, nurseries, and ag offices as well. One of the vans travels all
over, including Santa Ynez and Guadalupe, he said.

“It’s a win-win situation. The vehicles are safe, we’re taking unsafe
vehicles off the road, and there is less emissions,” concluded Talbott.

Some community members are not so optimistic. Program critic Andy Caldwell,
representing the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business (COLAB),
recommended that the county wait until after the pilot program had produced
sufficient results before spending money to purchase any more vans.

“Will this program succeed? Shouldn’t we see if it will be self-sustaining
first?” Caldwell asked at a board meeting at the end of March.

Talbott explained that the program is performing at the expected farebox
growth, meaning that year-to-date fares cover 15 percent of operational
expenses, with 25 percent expected when 12 vans are put on the road come
February.

“To give you a comparison, SMAT (Santa Maria Area Transit) generates a 20 to
21 percent farebox recovery, and that is a fully matured, highly-used
system,” he said.

When the vanpool reaches 25 vehicles, the program will be at 50 percent
farebox recovery, above the state requirement for continued funding, he
predicted.

Rosemary Luque, AWTP

project manager, also sees a lot of growth in the program.

“It has enormous potential. The program was approved in October 2007, and by
January we had three in operation,” she noted.

Learning from the experience of the similar program in Kings County, AWTP
has been able to avoid a number of pitfalls

“They’re the trailblazers; they’ve worked out all the kinks, so we don’t
have to reinvent anything,” she said.

“We’ve tailored our own program, though,” Luque added.

All vans are equipped with a number of features: fire extinguishers updated
every year;

45-day inspections; full service using CHP forms every 6,000 miles;
upholstered seats; rhino lining on the floor instead of carpet; first-aid
kits in line with CHP standards; a complete contact/carrier information
packet on board in case of an emergency; a GPS system; and fares posted on
the sides of the vans.

The standards for drivers are also high: They have to keep a daily log of
each passenger because fares are determined by miles; conduct a daily
inspection of the van; and mail to SMOOTH the fares they’ve collected via
money order as well as all gas receipts (they’re given a fuel card to fill
up the tank).

Luque noted that for some drivers, the process is too involved because of
all the required paperwork, and 20 percent have fallen out of the program
because of it.

But so far, only two prospective drivers have been turned away while 31 have
been certified, three of them as back-ups in case of illness.

And drivers have been forthright as far as turning in accurate paperwork.

“Drivers are so grateful with the program that they don’t want to submit
something that is not right,” Luque said, even though there are no
incentives for drivers except not having to pay for their fare.

December 7, 2008

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