Wednesday, August 2, 2017

More Evidence that CEQA Abuse is out of control in California

Mass Transit projects meant to improve the environment around airports and across the state continue to be obstructed by broken environmental law.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Fair and fact-driven individuals now have stronger case of why state environmental law needs reform. The epidemic of trivial lawsuits blocking in-fill residential development and transit projects have long been obstructing innovative progress to make the planet cleaner and are thus hurting the environment. Why does the state legislature allow this to continue?

This blog has documented several examples of such abuse. This includes the suit against the Perris Valley Line extension and the development of a badly-needed community college campus in Wildomar. Now we have even more to add:

California's high speed rail project has been one perfect example. Opponents have long been using broken CEQA law to block the progress of developing a 21st century statewide mass transit system connecting the Golden State's urban cores. The latest set back deals with a policy ruling from the State Supreme Court relative to California and federal law that will open the door to more CEQA lawsuits. To be clear, if any segment of the proposed routing will in fact cause grave damage to ecosystems or habitats, I have no problem with that section being challenged. But several of these suits are driven by the greed of power, not to protect Mother Earth. 

In LA County, Metro's expansion of its rail transit network, built along existing developed areas and corridors are being obstructed by trivial cases, again enabled by broken CEQA law.

Add to that, CEQA madness at LAX which has had its $5 billion transit plan taken to court by a private parking lot company not to look out after pollution and traffic congestion in the area, but because connecting a train line to LAX would hurt the pay-to-park industry. That's because the plan prohibits shuttles from entering into to the terminal area and instead use the ground transit hub. Loopholes in the law have enabled these lot companies to build up a legal argument against improving mass transportation infrastructure in the name of the environment. To be fair, the industry has a valid argument, but to force their interest above the public's through CEQA is abusive.

I can go on for days talking about other trivial cases, but enough. This is more proof that CEQA needs reform. We need strong environmental law that will protect the planet from polluters, no question. We need to maintain an impartial means to challenge projects in court that don't comply to law, no question. But we also need policies where environmentally friendly projects are not subject to environmental suits just because somebody opposes or competes with their industry.

Two laws that would potentially stop this are: 1. CEQA reform as mentioned above. 2. State law where if somebody files a lawsuit that is found to be frivolous, the judge can order the suing party to pay for 100% of the court costs plus the defendent's attorney bill.

The playing field needs to be competitive, level and fair. The company of where I work constantly innovates because I know that game-changing technology improvements are being introduced everyday and I know that products that we use now will one day become obsolete. The market is competitive and such competition allows for innovation and quality improvements. And we should never abuse the law to stop such creativity, period. There are ways for the parking lot industry to compete and continue to profit and grow through innovation by making the lots more attractive, safer, and affordable with seamless connections to/from the ground transit center.

It's long past time for Californians to stop accepting this abuse of the law which is damaging the environment--California can't build the bullet train, LA Metro can't expand its rail lines, LAX can't install a peoplemover line, infill developers can't expand housing on developed land--all in the name of the environment? This is all a bunch of nonsense, and it has to stop.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Better Public Transit Alternative for Corona Dial-A-Ride

Ridesharing incentives and subsidies are being experimented through various entities to encourage more public transit use. This can be a productive means to replace and improve general public Dial-A-Ride paratransit bus services.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

The City of Corona of which operates the Corona Cruiser bus transit system and respective paratransit services has proposed to phase out its Dial-A-Ride services to the general public effective January 2, 2018. The plan is to have the curb-to-curb services be specialized and available only to seniors (age 60 and older), persons with disabilities and/or to persons who are certified under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).

The city has opened up a public hearing period and has set up meetings to collect comments related to the proposal starting July 31. The city has posted a flyer detailing the meeting dates on their website, aboard paratransit buses, and how comments can be submitted. The comment deadline is August 14 and City Council hearing/meeting on August 16 at 6:30pm.

Some other facts: According the Corona Transit Short Range Transit Plan FY 2018-2020, Dial-A-Ride had just over 63,000 trips in FY 2015-2016, about 10% of which were either general public or Metrolink transfers. Doing the math, the proposal will impact about 6,300 annual trips; so alternatives on top of improving the Corona Cruiser system should be explored. In addition, about 9% of paratransit appointments are no-shows and the city is planning on developing a no-show policy to address this issue.

My Two Cents

As written, the benefits of this proposal is clearly cost savings and improved productivity. Circle City can utilize the saved operating resources to other areas of transportation operations such as improving the Corona Cruiser bus system routing, scheduling, peak-hour frequency and service span. While the city will work on transitioning these riders from Dial-a-Ride to the Cruiser, the obvious drawback is transit mobility displacement for the 6,300 non-specialized annual trips--mainly those who are too far distant from the Corona Cruiser fixed route system. Because Corona has several low density areas not served by the Cruiser, another option needs to be explored to prevent displacement. So how do we resolve this in the most productive means?

Just this last April, researchers have provided the Riverside Transit Agency with the answer through the First and Last Mile Mobility Plan study, a solution the City of Corona should seriously consider.

Adopting the First & Last Mile Strategy

Corona should offer replacement service to general public Dial-a-Ride so that those impacted by this change will continue to have a means travel door-to-door via public transit. This is on top of the city's plan to improve the Corona Cruiser services.

While cost and budgeting is very important, Corona needs to be careful not to create a mobility barrier for riders who are too far away from the fixed route services. The goal of the plan should be to increase transit ridership through developing strategies that address such first-and-last mile barriers to transit use while keeping costs in check. To be clear, first-and-last mile is the experience that links people to and from the higher density areas, the Corona Cruiser and connecting RTA bus routes and better links their origins and destinations. Riders often rely on other ways to get to and from the bus stop or transit station.

In place of city-operated general public Dial-A-Ride service, Corona can and should partner with private ridehailing companies such as Uber and Lyft and the taxi industry to bridge this gap. Those needing a ride within the existing Dial-A-Ride service area and hours of service would continue to dial in through the city, pay the existing fares ($4 general public, $1 w/ valid Metrolink ticket to/from the station) and the city would subsidize the balance. The only difference is instead of boarding a paratransit bus, the rider's trip would be through a partnered taxi company or Uber or Lyft driver. The cost for such trips are far less than aboard paratransit. To be clear and by law, seniors and disabled would continue to be served directly through the city via the bus simply due to the required ADA accommodations such as the wheelchair ramp. However, general public would be served via the taxi or ridehailing providers.

Other transit agencies have found ways to help curb costs, including partnering with the private sector and subsidizing such trips. Such partnerships would allow Corona to not only save money by taking general-public riders off their own paratransit fleets but it would also grow--not shrink--transit mobility options for these 6,300 annual trips with better, more customer-focused services. Thus, it will prevent Corona from having to make the ever unpopular decision to make door-to-door transit cuts to the general public despite population and economic growth.

These innovative ridehailing companies have been at the forefront of ridesharing throughout the country and have begun working with transit agencies, cities and private companies to provide first and last mile connectivity.

In addition to maintaining the current fare policy, here are a few other features Corona may want to consider adopting:
  • Riders would receive discounts for travel to and from a bus stop/hub/Corona Transit Center within the existing Dial-A-Ride service area
  • Expansion of transit pass and ticket options
  • Discounts for travel to/from special public events within the city
  • Discounts during rush hours
  • Employee credits to and from a bus stop/transit center
  • Monthly Pass partnerships with businesses and employers
  • Mobile application integration - integrate with transit ticketing apps to offer passengers a seamless multi-modal experience
  • Co-Marketing - work with RTA and the private sector to market rideshare and transit use
The City Corona could have a first-rate, cost-efficient public transit system that connects every area of the city together. Now they have the opportunity to put these options into action. Let's get Circle City moving!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Carpool Lane Crackdowns: Can better enforcement get them moving?

by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Carpool lane cheating has become a serious problem up in the Bay Area and such an epidemic is likely in other areas of the state. That's despite the fact that a carpool violation ticket is about $500 plus court fees.

The regional transportation agency up north, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, wants stepped-up statewide law enforcement in the diamond lane. Not only that, it has requested that the legislature make such crackdowns state law by including language in another existing bill.

MTC Senior Public Information Officer and spokesman John Goodwin reported the stunning carpool lane violations to the local news Chanel KPIX 5: "It’s one in five [vehicles] in the morning, one in four in the afternoon are really vehicles that aren’t eligible to be in the carpool lane." Add that up, Bay Area carpool lane traffic consists of 20% violator cars in the morning and 25% during the p.m. rush hour. The same stats could be true for SoCal and that could be a reason why carpool lanes don't move...

I have to agree with MTC's proposed solution: Enforce the law until the violations stop. Write up those tickets...$500 per pop. If we get those violating vehicles out of the HOV lane, I wouldn't be surprised to see speed improvements to the point where they could comply with federal standards. If we are to guarantee speeds of 45 MPH or more in the carpool lane, let's get the cheaters out before we look into raising the occupancy requirement to 3.

One exception though in relation to the fine...If a driver is caught cheating beyond a reasonable doubt by putting a doll, mannequins or any other prop in a passenger seat in attempt to fool law enforcement, the mandatory fine should be $1,000. There's been some very clever tricks out there including one involving a cut-out of President Donald Trump's head and these tactics work until the driver is pulled over for an unrelated moving violation. There needs to be a means to stop this. I don't like advocating for punitive penalties like these, but it seems to be the only way to deter such bad behavior.

To be clear, there will be times where non-carpool drivers absolutely need an option to get somewhere quickly and many are willing to pay their way into a faster moving lane. To restate, The Transit Coalition generally supports congestion pricing within high occupancy vehicle infrastructure; thus if a carpool lane is moving along and has room for additional cars, let the solo drivers legally buy their way in at the market toll rate so as long the lane keeps moving. Carpools would continue to have priority and travel toll free without a transponder requirement.

But let's get the cheaters out of there once and for all.

Monday, July 10, 2017

California Must Pass the Smarter Smart Growth Law

It's a stone cold fact. And stacks and stacks of research back it up. California is in a housing affordability crisis.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

We have a grave social and economic problem: The homeownership rate is at its lowest since the the second World War. Renters spend way more than 30% of their incomes on housing-related costs. 25% of the entire nation's transient population live in the Golden State; that's despite the fact that we house 12% of the total U.S. population. People cannot afford to live here and the situation has become very serious given these stats.

The state legislature is finally doing something about this as scores of bills have been introduced and debated this season. There are way too many to do a fair analysis of them and chances are there will be 11th hour changes. But I will say we need serious reform.

The Transit Coalition has called for California lawmakers to pass a variation of the Smarter Smart Growth Law which is legislation that removes all unnecessary red tape and hurdles for developers to improve in-fill, transit-oriented housing infrastructure. That is to tackle a fundamental Economics 101 issue which is balancing the supply-demand ratio. As it stands right now, there is more demand and strain on the market than supply. That drives these outrageous purchase prices and rentals and crams more people into tight quarters.

Densely populated regions like Riverside, South LA, and several corridors in central Orange County are currently urban areas filled with people but built with suburban style development: Multiple families dwell in homes designed for single families; roadways and streets are jammed with vehicles given limited public transportation alternatives. You would think that such areas would be project gold mines for the development industry with all the market demands for expanded housing and other transit-oriented development. But all kinds of government rules, regulations, fees and other obstacles prevent the builders from making any money on the project; thus, nobody is willing to build.

The primary cause of this situation is excessive bureaucracy at both the state and local level. Vital rules like fire codes, earthquake-resistant material, and emergency access must remain, but trivial matters like a mandatory CEQA report for an infill redevelopment project or having to do a conditional use permit in areas already zoned need to be revisited. Last year's passage of the Granny Flats Law is a good start, but more must be done.

In addition, government-funded safety-net programs, shelters, and drug rehabilitation homes operated through the private sector need to be expanded to address the transient problem and the resulting blight. The only real "shelter" out there for many people living on the streets is incarceration. There needs to be places where these people can go to receive the help they need so they can be healed, turned away from destructive addictions and become productive members of society. Feeding people on the streets and providing them with clothing is good, but sheltering them with caring mentors and spiritual advisors will be game-changers for the homeless problem.

This is what the Smarter Smart Growth Law is all about: Legislation that will solve the housing issue. Imposing rent control regulation or throwing more tax money at the problem does little. The government cannot directly control supply-demand pricing in a market economy. But it can fight against the problem with a firm message and solutions to make it less costly for developers to improve options for all Californians regardless of class, race or ethnicity.

It's now time for the California legislature to stop the nonsense, pass the Smarter Smart Growth Law and lead the way out of this crisis.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Still Parking for Public Transit at Murrieta Wal-Mart

by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Back in the beginning of April, "Public Parking Prohibited" signs were posted at the parking lot entrances to Sam Walton's discount department store in Murrieta. Reading the signs from a literal standpoint meant customers only were allowed access; no more commuter parking.

However, 2 1/2 months later, I was able to confirm that commuters are still able to utilize the parking lot during the day for the RTA CommuterLink bus stop located at the Murrieta Wal-Mart without fear of towing, at least for now. I saw this myself. In addition, I was able to get some information locally. To be clear, I don't like using unidentified anonymous sources as facts for this blog as I don't want you the reader thinking I made this stuff up.

So to back up this confirmation, I went over to this location just after 5AM in the morning and saw for myself that scores of commuters are still allowed to park along the outer areas of the lot to catch the bus and the private vanpools. This is 75 days after the parking restriction signs went up. That being said, it appears to be business as usual.

It would be wise for public officals to keep the riding public in the loop, look for and secure an official designated Park & Ride location for the Murrieta area, and improve and streamline parking access for the Promenade Mall Mobility Hub stop. Southwest Riverside County has a robust workforce. Most of them commute long distances. We need infrastructure so that they can leave their cars at a secure lot and board one of these HOV's to and from work.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Carpool Lanes: Should Riverside County "Open to All" outside of rush hour?

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

The answer is no. However the debate has surfaced again.

The State Assembly voted overwhelmingly to advance a bill to relax the HOV 2+ restrictions during off-peak hours and weekends in Riverside County. Nearly four years ago, the state targeted the 134 and 210 Freeways in Los Angeles County; The Transit Coalition opined that 24/7 enforcement was necessary in LA County and Governor Brown agreed when he vetoed AB 405 in 2013.

AB 91 targets the freeway carpool lanes in Riverside County but excludes 91 Express Lanes. The Transit Coalition's position and Brown's 2013 veto statement does not support the opening of the carpool lanes to all road users in such a fashion but to be absolutely clear, off-peak traffic patterns on some freeways may correctly dispute this. The keyword is "some". Therefore, the workable means to address this problem is not by opening the HOV lane floodgates from Sacramento, but to allow local authorities statewide to manage the carpool occupancy requirements and enforcement periods on a corridor-by-corridor basis.

Traffic and civil engineers should be the ones tasked to write up the formulas and specifications based on the raw traffic data to aid local leaders in managing such lanes. The same holds true of determining whether such facilities should allow for continuous access or have dedicated access points. There are some Riverside County freeways like SR-60 through east Moreno Valley that experience very few vehicles in both the carpool and general purpose lanes outside of peak hours; thus, this corridor doesn't need 24/7 enforcement. But some sections like the I-215/60 segment east of Downtown Riverside or the I-215 in between Riverside and San Bernardino fare differently. That HOV section may need to be kept at 24/7 with improved public transit services; engineers should decide on that and advise the politicians, not the other way around.

Generally speaking, policies need to ensure the carpool lane remains moving at all times during regular traffic conditions. A firm valid objection to AB 91 or any other similar proposal is creating a circumstance where opening up the carpool lane to all would fill it beyond capacity during off-peak hours with solo drivers and slow it down. Because SoCal's freeway network is so vast, carpool lane usage policies need to be managed locally.

One caveat to this discussion: If there's a sigalert, traffic collision, construction, maintenance work, hazard, or any other acute road incident that is tying up traffic in the general purpose lanes outside of rush hour, allowing law enforcement and Caltrans to temporarily open up the high occupancy vehicle and toll lanes to allow all traffic to pass through would absolutely be justified. This includes relaxing access lane-change restrictions by allowing drivers to cross over the double white/yellow lines. Digital freeway signs would announce such permissions.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

RTA's FY18-FY20 Short Range Transit Plan

Corona and the I-15 transportation corridor must not be excluded from proposed SR-91 express bus service.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

It's that time of the year again when the Riverside Transit Agency will revisit its mobility plan and fiscal year budget.

RTA conducts this SRTP update each year in order to remain eligible to receive external funding. In addition, the plan offers the public, stakeholders and other agencies to review and provide comment. There are two big service adjustments planned for this cycle:
  • Mid-year implementation of CommuterLink Route 200 service connecting San Bernardino and Anahiem via the 91 Express Lanes with proposed hourly weekday headways and limited weekend service with departures every two hours.
  • RapidLink Gold Line service implementation in late August with 15 minute headways during rush hours.
In addition the plan calls for a number of improvements for local lines, numerous transit mobility hub upgrades, and enhancements to the Dial-A-Ride Plus program, which provides additional paratransit service beyond the federally mandated 3/4 mile boundary. Did I mention many new transit centers dubbed as "mobility hubs?"

Proposed: The Inland Empire Connector - CommuterLink 200

Coming up in the New Year of 2018, RTA has proposed to launch a very promising CommuterLink Route 200. Unlike the other 200-series routes, this backbone express line is planned to operate every hour on weekdays with limited weekend service of two-hourly intervals. From the east, Route 200 is slated to go from the San Bernardino Transit Center and connect with the Riverside Downtown Metrolink Station, Lemon Street in downtown near the county buildings and courthouses, La Sierra Metrolink Station, Village at Orange transfer hub, ARTIC, Disneyland, and the Block at Orange area. Along the freeway sections of the route, the bus will utilize the carpool and the 91 Express Lanes as its virtual transitway. The fleets will be full-size 40 feet CommuterLink buses.

That's all the proposed information I have regarding this line, but it will provide a long-overdue all-day transit line for the 91 corridor, and by utilizing HOV transit infrastructure, it will draw additional choice riders from driving solo in their cars into taking the bus.

Finally...There will be a quick and reliable means to get in between Riverside and Orange County outside of rush hour given the hourly weekday frequency. That's the good news.

The bad news is this new line is proposed to replace Route 216, which currently spans between Downtown Riverside and the Village at Orange with intermediate stops at the Galleria at Tyler and the Corona Transit Center. That means the Corona station stop, now used by Route 216 is proposed to be excluded from Route 200. This is speculative, but I predict the failure to include a 91 Express Lanes connector to/from North Main Corona could have led to this proposal to remove the Corona stop in this process.

Another issue appears to be service redundancy with Omnitrans Route 215 in between San Bernardino and Riverside. I assume some kind of a fare or transfer arrangement will need to be made for this section and that it will remain at its current frequency and service span. In addition, the initial Route 200 proposal does not include the Galleria at Tyler transfer hub nor will it directly connect with the RapidLink Gold Line. Those also need to be dealt with.

To be clear, the Route 200 proposal is not yet final given that it's bundled into a SRTP document and chances are a separate public comment period will be needed in order to advance it. People originating from or headed to destinations in Corona or along the I-15 corridor need to demand that they not be excluded from Route 200. This connection to/from O.C. must be maintained with some kind of feasible and practical alternative.

But this fundamental flaw demonstrates exactly why high occupancy toll lanes need transit infrastructure. If you don't connect the lines, transit services get threatened.

Fortunately, the finished 91 Express Lanes through Corona left room for a future second direct connector to/from the I-15 North and I've noticed there may even be room to spare in the median to build a third direct access ramp to/from West Grand Avenue given this extra shoulder space. If that drop-ramp can be engineered into a future project, that will be HOV transit mobility gold for North Main Corona (no pun intended)! Buses and carpools would only need to travel a few blocks from the Corona Transit Center and neighboring park & ride lots to access the HOT Lanes. Stay tuned for more information...

Proposed: RapidLink Gold Line

I've blogged a bunch of RTA's longtime proposal of bringing limited stop, rapid service for the Magnolia and University Avenue transit corridors in between Corona and Riverside. It's almost here! The RapidLink Gold Line is proposed to start late in August with 15 minute headways during rush hours for the entire route span.

To keep it short, if you've ridden the local Route 1, you know that "Stop Requested" bell goes off at nearly every stop and any mid or long range regional trip can become slow and tedious, especially during peak commuter travel periods. I've experienced it firsthand and with only 14 total stops, RapidLink will provide a quick and speedy alternative to get up and down this corridor during the rush hour. Hope to see it expanded to all day service very soon!