Granted millions of dollars in state transportation money, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties are set to become the latest counties to join an agricultural ride-share program for unlicensed and uninsured farmworkers.
Each county was recently granted $3 million to purchase vans and cover the expense of operating the transportation program for three years.
“From a transportation policy standpoint, this is a good program,” said Keith Millhouse, a Ventura County transportation commissioner. “This is good for farms and businesses in Ventura County, which benefits everybody.”
The new transportation system will be patterned after a 5-year-old program established for laborers in Kings, Tulare and Fresno counties in the southern San Joaquin Valley.
Ron Hughes, executive director of Kings County Area Public Transit Agency, said the farmworker program has grown by more than 20% each year, and now includes Kern and Madera counties. At the peak last year, Hughes’ agency had 120 vans serving growers and their workers in the five counties and expects to need 160 vans this year.
“I’ve been doing this for five years and we haven’t had many problems,” Hughes said. “We haven’t had a single injury accident in the life of the program.”
But critics said the state should not be subsidizing a program that they believe benefits illegal immigrants.
“The reason we have the large-scale illegal immigration is that we keep coming up with ways to accommodate people who are breaking the law rather than enforcing it,” said Ira Mehlman, media director of the Federation of American Immigration Reform. “Another option is to just crack down on people who are driving without insurance and licenses.”
But transportation officials said the vanpools provide a legal, safe and less-polluting way for farm laborers to share a ride to work.
“My response to people who are frustrated with illegal immigration, I say: ‘Talk to your federal legislators,’ ” Millhouse said. “No one wants unlicensed, uninsured drivers out on the streets.”
In Ventura County, the Transportation Commission plans to use its Caltrans grant to purchase 30 vans and to operate the ride-share program through 2011, officials said.
With each van able to carry 14 passengers, a weekly $25 fare per rider is expected to generate enough for the program to become self-sufficient after three years.
Ensuring a stable and reliable workforce can only help local growers better compete, said Leslie Leavens-Crowe of Leavens Ranches in Santa Paula, which farms about 1,000 acres of avocados and lemons.
The Ventura County Transportation Commission is set to vote next week on whether to contract with a private company to operate its program. Santa Barbara County already has contracted with a nonprofit group, the Santa Maria Organization of Transportation Helpers, or SMOOTH, to run its program.
Matt Dobberteen, a transportation official with Santa Barbara County’s Department of Public Works, said SMOOTH handles outreach to farmers and laborers, screens the driving records of volunteer drivers and ensures that those selected pass a medical exam and complete a drivers’ training program. The training includes details on collecting fares, program administration and how to report an accident.
To get a quick start on its program, Santa Barbara County bought nine vans retired by Kings County. The 2002 General Motors vans are equipped with two-way radios and a global positioning system to allow organizers to track the location and speed of each vehicle every two minutes.
Henry Vega, president of Costal Harvesting Inc., which supplies up to 1,000 laborers to Ventura County farms each year, said the program should be popular among growers and farmworkers.
“I know it’s controversial to use public funds for this pilot program,” Vega said, “but this will be one big gorilla off our backs so we can make sure workers” arrive at work safe and on time.