HURON, Calif. — The infrastructure bill proposes a big investment in electric cars. Families could get up to a $12,500 tax incentive to buy an electric car, and the bill will fund tens of thousands of charging stations across the country. But, some say the money should also be allocated to making electric cars part of public transportation.
One rural community has developed a successful public transportation system using electric cars. They hope their work can be a model for cities across the country.
“My community is a rural farmworker community,” said Rey León, the mayor of Huron, California, a town of 10,000 people in the center of the state. “We are also the brownest city in the country, 98.7% percent Latino, and 12 languages are spoken here.”
In Huron, there are many cultures, but not many ways to get around.
“We are geographically and linguistically isolated,” said León.
There is no Uber, no Lyft, and no taxis. There are very few buses, and they don’t have many routes. In this widespread community, many people don’t have cars. So, people are left with few options to get where they need to go.
León grew up here and he learned early on how isolating and frustrating a lack of transportation infrastructure can be.
“My mother got cancer, and after that, she needed a lot of rides to the doctor, and when I wouldn't be in town or I would be out of state for work, she would let me know that she wouldn't sleep at night because she was so nervous that she couldn't find the ride, and that was disturbing for me,” said León.
His feeling of hopelessness drove him to run for public office and start a nonprofit. As the mayor and a community leader, León has one mission on his mind: bringing resources, like transportation, to his central California home.
“It's not easy working in the fields, you know, you can't get days off and you don't have a 401k, so this is one way to kind of give back to, to those families that were like my family growing up,” said León.
One of his biggest projects is now quietly rolling around town. It’s a fleet of electric cars called the Green Raiteros.
“Our mission is to provide comfortable, safe and secure rides to farmworker families to medical appointments. That's our focus,” said León. “We're the first electric vehicle ride-sharing program for a rural area.”
It was important to go electric here because this region is an area of the country battling a problem many cities have: consistently bad air pollution.
“The San Joaquin Valley has been one of the most contaminated air basins in the nation,” said León. “At least we can stop the damage.”
David Mercado heads the Green Raiteros. On any given day he’ll drive 50 to 60 miles one way to bring people to and from their doctor’s appointments.
“I really like helping the community,” said Mercado.
Most of the people Mercado and the Green Raiteros help are seniors, and many don’t speak English, so Mercado will accompany them to their appointments if the person needs help.
Serafin Cortez uses the Green Raiteros service often.
This help comes with no cost to both their customers and to the planet.
“We all live here; we all have to help out. Mother Earth can only take so much,” said Mercado.
The Green Raiteros program is getting attention from other cities across the country as an infrastructure solution to connect rural communities.
“It's beautiful that it's garnered so much attention so that others could see what you can do,” said León. “We could grow the green economy and not just support help planet Earth, but also build up and empower communities, communities that need it the most.”
Both León and Mercado are working to expand Huron’s fleet and make these green rides available for all kinds of trips, not just medical appointments.
“We want to blow this up. I want to blow it up to where it gets everywhere. There's nothing like it around,” said Huron.
León has focused on infrastructure investments all throughout his town for his entire career, and he knows the importance of innovation.
He had to get creative to secure the funding for the electric car ride-share fleet, but he said it was well worth the effort to help lift his community.
“While I have life, while the blood still flows, I have a lot of hope,” said León. “Hopefully, President Biden pays attention to the amount of work and the amount of produce that comes out of these types of cities and communities and gives back with infrastructure that could improve lives and quality of life.”
In the future, León is hoping to secure more grants to expand this program to eventually take farmworker families on camping trips to nearby national parks.