Could parolee and inmate labor be the answer to Fresno’s ‘third-world’ freeway conditions?

Litter collects along the side of Highway 41 in central Fresno.
Litter collects along the side of Highway 41 in central Fresno. Fresno Bee file

Fresno city leaders and officials with the California Department of Transportation during a meeting on Thursday expressed interest in having parolees and inmates work to clean up trash and weeds along Fresno’s freeways.

Fresno City Councilmembers Miguel Arias, Garry Bredefeld and Paul Caprioglio hosted the meeting at City Hall with Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol, officials from Mayor Lee Brand’s administration and more. The councilmembers expressed their frustration about the state of Fresno’s freeways and sought answers from Caltrans about what could be done.

“It comes down to priorities. … It is not a priority for the state. I think our elected leaders should give you money for maintenance of our highways,” Bredefeld told officials with Caltrans District 6, which stretches from Madera to Kern counties. “They made it a priority to build a choo-choo train for billions of dollars, but not … for maintaining freeways. … And we’re all reaping the results of that, which is we look like a third-world country. It’s horrendous. People are very unhappy about it. It comes down to state priorities.”

Bredefeld said he’s interested in meeting with Gov. Gavin Newsom to address the problem.

John Liu, deputy district director for maintenance and operations in Caltrans District 6, said the district has 20 workers to maintain about 1,100 acres of landscape. The number of acres needing maintenance is likely to grow.

To supplement that work, Caltrans uses two vans of seven to 10 parolees each to pick up litter through a state-funded program.

Until 2011, Caltrans partnered with the Fresno Police Department to have low-level offenders pick up litter. That ended after Fresno County closed its auxiliary jail.

Most people picking up litter on Fresno’s freeways are Adopt-a-Highway volunteers, Liu said.

For Caltrans, health and safety issues posed by homeless encampments and litter remain higher priorities than landscaping, Liu said. Needles and human waste from homeless encampments put Caltrans workers at high risk, so Caltrans spends thousands of dollars contracting with hazmat teams to clean up the camps.

Plus, when the camps are removed, the homeless “ping-pong” back into city limits, where they’re then shuffled into county territory and back again, Arias noted. But, with new state funding for the homeless crisis, he sees a “light at the end of the tunnel.”

After an hour-long discussion, the parties agreed to have another meeting and invite Fresno County officials, board members for Measure C (county transportation tax) funding and Fresno County Superior Court’s presiding judge to discuss how to pursue a more robust parolee and inmate program to tackle the freeway litter.

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Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.