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!

Friday, May 5, 2017

The 91 Express Lanes can really get Southern California Moving

The new HOT Lane extension through Corona promises relief from congestion and many people are taking advantage of it. What simple policies can be adopted to guarantee travel speeds?

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

When it first opened in 1995, back in the days when one way off-peak tolls were under a buck, the 91 Express Lanes became one of the first FasTrak-automated toll lane facilities around. Built with private funds, the Express Lanes were the solution to provide capacity improvement to the SR-91 corridor at a time when no public funds were available.

On the surface, the public-private partnership appeared noble; the operator California Private Transportation Company would assume the risks involved and the state would get additional transportation infrastructure at no cost to taxpayers. It sounded like a perfect solution.

However, buried in the agreement between CPTC and Caltrans was the disastrous non-compete provision that created a 1 1/2 mile no-improvement zone along each side of SR-91. The clause prohibited any improvements along the corridor for a 30 year period. As the Inland Empire grew, transportation officials knew that a new agreement had to be made.

Photo: OCTA
In 2003, the Orange County Transportation Authority purchased the 91 Express Lanes which eliminated the non-compete provision, clearing the way for further infrastructure and transit improvements.

Following the purchase, the toll lanes underwent a complete marketing makeover with the new 91 Express Lanes logo, the catchy blue and white toll rate and message signs, and new transponders. In addition, the toll lanes became a High Occupancy Toll facility with the announcement of the "3 Ride Free" incentive where carpools or other HOV's with 3 or more passengers and a registered FasTrak transponder can travel toll free except eastbound between 4-6pm Monday through Friday.

The elimination of the non-compete rule also allowed for the development of the Riverside County extension of the 91 Express Lanes to the I-15 junction.

The New 91 Express Lanes

In March, officials launched the opening of the extended HOT lanes into Riverside and south Corona, thus creating the four-lane, 18-mile Express Lanes within the median of the 91 Freeway in between SR-55 and I-15. The facility offers one intermediate access point at the county line near Green River Road for motorists to enter and exit as well as a direct access ramp at the I-15 freeway to/from the south.

As a separate project, the Orange County section was revamped with federally compliant signs, white double lines that separate the HOT Lanes and general purpose lanes, new delineators, and new paving.

As mentioned, vehicles with three or more people travel toll free except eastbound, Monday through Friday from 4-6pm. During this PM rush hour period, these HOV 3+ motorists pay 50% of the posted toll. The carpool discounts are applied by using the dedicated 3+ Lane at the toll gantries.

This extension is a milestone moment for the Corona Crawl.

Continuous Improvement

As with any other transportation project around, continuous improvement of the corridor will be perpetual. This includes adopting policies that will keep the 91 Express Lanes moving at guaranteed speeds of at least 45-50 mph during rush hours.

Because travel demands along the 91 corridor are so high, the Express Lanes too have been filling to capacity for both sections. That means immediate solutions must take place. One noticeable issue is bottle-necking at the toll collection points with weaving traffic between the two toll and single 3+ carpool lane as the prime suspect. Bottle-necking is also present at the end of the Express Lanes headed eastbound for the branch that continues into Riverside. On top of adjusting tolls of which officials are currently executing, two other solutions which can be executed immediately can resolve that. Here is what should be considered:

Adopt FasTrak Flex Carpools with 3 or more passengers can then use the switch on their transponder to declare their carpool and not have to weave to the single 3+ Lane to receive their discounts.

Prior to starting their trips, motorists will indicate the number of occupants in the vehicle by moving the switch on the transponder to the appropriate setting (1, 2, 3+). 2-person carpools will still be charged the full toll on the 91 Express Lanes and 3+ HOV's 50% eastbound from 4-6pm on weekdays.

Because the 91 Express Lanes already offers a switchable transponder option for account holders that use LA's Metro ExpressLanes, the only major work that will need to be done is to reprogram the toll gantries and enforcement beacon lights to support FasTrak Flex and use Flex as the main transponder.

HOV 3+ Only When demand increases and travel speeds fall below 45 mph despite high posted tolls, the 91 Express Lanes should automatically close access to non-carpools with the message displayed on the electronic signs reading “HOV 3+ ONLY w/ FASTRAK”, indicating that the non-carpools will not be allowed to enter the Express Lanes until average speeds go above 45 mph.

Toll paying drivers already in the Express Lanes when the sign displays “HOV 3+ ONLY w/ FASTRAK” will be able to complete their trip and not be mandated to exit at the County Line.

Another issue that should be considered is simplifying the intermediate access point at the County Line by restriping the third exit/entrance auxiliary lane as one continuous access weave lane instead of separate sets of exit and entrance lanes. That means motorists should be able to use the entire 1-mile stretch of this section to enter and exit the Express Lanes via the weave lane legally. This will reduce bottleneck conflicts in this area. Currently, there are a multitude of sections with double white lines without the delineator posts separating the lanes. The double white lines define the exit and entry points but can get very confusing if one is not paying attention to the signs. Thus, it can become very easy for drivers to make lane change mistakes and accidentally cross over the double white lines with no intention to evade tolls or cheat the system.

San Diego's I-15 Express Lane system has it right.

All officials have to do is restripe the intermediate exit/entrance lanes as a single full mile, continuous access weave lane and separate the two Express Lanes with a single section of double white lines or even have this section be continuous access too depending on traffic patterns. The mile-long continous-access section will better allow vehicles entering and exiting to accelerate or decelerate via the weave lane and to store additional potential vehicle queues which will ease pressure and reduce illegal lane changes in this area.

On the public transit front, there is official word that the 91 Express Lanes is slated to get a variation of Rapid Express bus service for the corridor with departures every hour during the workweek with the route starting at the San Bernardino Transit Center and ending at Disneyland with service to ARTIC. This will be a big story. A tri-county, all-day bus route along the 91 with hourly frequency on weekdays...How will that impact the existing RTA Route 216? How can the existing Corona Transit Center and the Village at Orange hub points play roles in this too? What about weekends? The analysis is coming...

Monday, April 3, 2017

No more Public Transit Parking at Murrieta Wal-Mart

by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

I'm in the process of writing up an analysis of the new 91 Express Lanes in Riverside and hope to have this published later this week. I've taken four round trips aboard the HOT lanes during its first few weeks in service, all of them except for one have been in a 3+ carpool. The lanes have been a blessing. We finally have some decent HOV infrastructure through Corona and I've found that both branches of OCTA Route 794 have been re-routed to use them. With the 91 Express Lanes serving as a virtual transit way for this line, I predict that it and the connecting Park & Ride lots will see some sharp growth in the months to come. More on this soon.

Speaking of Park & Ride lots, I need to break the story of a situation in Southwest Riverside County. The Murrieta Wal-Mart Park & Ride, one of the busiest commuter lots in the region that serves RTA Route 206 to Corona, Route 202 to Oceanside, the future Route 205 to the Village at Orange, and about a dozen private vanpools is slated to be closed to commuters. Management posted towing warning signs at the lot entrances which bans public parking. Customers only from now on.

I was able to confirm this issue and got some information from local management and passed it on to RTA so that action can be taken so that hopefully, a replacement bus stop next to a public lot can be found. To be clear, since I have contacted somebody locally, I really cannot publish any details of the disposition or what was discussed, but it appears very clear that Sam Walton wants out of providing commuter parking just because this store has gotten so busy.

I am thankful that the retail giant has provided the Park & Ride section ever since the dawning of Lines 202 and 206, but with growth outpacing lot capacity, I can understand why this action was needed to occur from a business standpoint. If I were the district manager and saw my store's parking lot filled with non-paying commuter traffic, I'd execute the exact same thing.

The reason this is an important story is that most of Murrieta's residents commute out via the I-15 freeway. Public Park & Ride lots with commuter transit and vanpool options are essential given these demographics. To have such Park & Ride infrastructure cut off at these transit stops for an extended period of time will negatively impact traffic in through an already congested corridor and seriously hurt ridership aboard the 202 and 206. RTA needs to secure an alternative site, follow the lead of the private vanpool companies and stop these buses there, immediately. There are a number of official Park & Ride lots out there that deserve transit services.

I'll keep a close watch on this story as it unfolds.