Thursday, September 20, 2012

Some Facts behind HOT Lane Transponder Mandates for Carpools

Traditional enforcement should be considered in lieu of "Nanny Lanes".

Ever wonder why some agencies such as Metro and OCTA mandate FasTrak transponders for carpoolers in their respective HOT lanes? A 2011 Policy Study by the Reason Foundation combined with a 2007 federal report and preliminary studies from the I-15 Express Lanes project in San Diego County show why. By mandating all vehicles and carpools to preregister before using a toll lane facility, HOT lane policy enforcement is a simple snap. If somebody enters without a transponder and hasn't registered: lights, camera, violation notice in the mail.

Better public revenue is also a point made to support transponder-only carpooling according to these reports.

Okay, good enough, but...

Remember the Goal of HOT: Get SoCal Moving!
What may be good for better enforcement and revenue may not be good for getting Southern California moving, a possible reason why SANDAG rightfully retained its policy for free non-transponder carpooling for the I-15 Express Lanes and probable cause of local opposition in Orange County which helped prompt the OCTA's Regional Planning and Highways Committee to recommend shelving the I-405 toll lane project through Fountain Valley.

Statistics back Casual Carpooling:
Policies which mandate preregistration for carpools is a disincentive to rideshare in the first place.

According to a 2012 study of congestion pricing by UC Berkeley, casual carpooling attracts users not just because of time and cost advantages but also because casual carpoolers like traveling for free, giving a stranger in need a ride, and using a dedicated set of lanes on the freeway. Ironically, free access to an HOV lane is advertised as an incentive to carpool. What happens when a preregistration roadblock is put in the way?

"Nanny Lanes" in Atlanta:
A November, 2011 poll by InsiderAdvantage and WSB-TV reported that Atlanta's HOT lane facility with an ill-advised toll policy of mandated preregistration shows that nearly half of the region's commuters believe that the I-85 Express Lanes has made traffic actually worse for the corridor. In contrast, the I-15 Express Lanes with its sound toll policy has better balanced traffic distribution and cut down significantly on commute times.

But get this: In Atlanta, holders of personal toll accounts who decide to rideshare one day have to change their "toll mode" on their accounts to 3+ HOV at least 15 minutes before using the roadway either online or by a mobile app; forget flipping the car's transponder switch or using a separate 3+ lane...

No wonder why HOT lanes are often mislabeled as "Lexus Lanes", or more accurately "Nanny Lanes": Casual 3+ carpools in Atlanta simply cannot or will not use their HOT lanes simply because they are mandated to preregister to freely use the facility. The result according to UC Berkeley: a drop in carpooling. Private carpoolers should be treated like adults when they decide to freely rideshare and contribute toward better mobility. Bureaucratic policies hamper their efforts as the stats show. The Georgia state government is working on fixing that colossal mess.

Balancing HOT Enforcement with Moving Southern California:
So how can an agency balance free mobility with violation enforcement and steady toll revenue? The answers are clear.

Steady Toll Revenue Stream: Designate the HOT lanes for carpools while raising the tolls on other traffic further, thus keeping the toll revenue neutral while providing a greater disincentive to driving alone. Use dynamic congestion-based tolls to better redistribute traffic flow between the express and free lanes. Tolls go up as traffic increases; tolls lower as congestion goes down--Simple economics supply-and-demand.

Traditional Police Enforcement: Enforce HOT lanes like HOV lanes have been enforced in days past--use the police. By definition, a peace officer's job is to enforce the law. If a solo vehicle evades a toll, have the police ding the driver with a $400 carpool violation ticket. Equip the CHP with mobile enforcement transponders, enforcement beacons and other fool-proof tools; that's how it's done in San Diego County. If internal statistics or complaints show chronic problems, charge the cops to do a carpool sting operation like this one in San Francisco.

Facts also confirm issues regarding automated enforcement; OCTA, for instance, reports that a whopping 60% of automated violation notices from the 91 Express Lanes are dismissed (only 11% pay up, 20% go to collections).

Above all, officials need to encourage ridesharing in the toll lanes: Abolish the transponder and preregistration mandates for carpools who are freely showing what they can do to get Southern California moving.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Inland taxpayer transportation money being tossed around at colossal rates

The Transit Coalition takes the misuse of public transportation money seriously as it pays for your mobility. We don't want that money to be wasted.

The celebration of the new and improved Omnitrans.

The two county-seat regions in the Inland Empire are caught up in a game of political football with your public transportation dollars at hand.

Omnitrans' Rebranding Project:
Press Enterprise Columnist Cassie Macduff wasn't too pleased when the reporter discovered that the Omnitrans Board of Directors was never consulted over the transit agency's $1.9 million rebranding project. The proposal was reported to be approved as a line item buried deep within Omnitrans' budget. Fortunately, the final bill for the graphics and printing turned out to be well under budget at approximately $500,000 which included this rebranding ceremony.

Future rail service to Redlands.SANDAG and Omnitrans' operating budget:
At the same time, Omnitrans is not happy about what the San Bernardino Associated Governments is up to with their proposals. SANDAG is figuring out how to pay for the $130-$150 million Redlands Passenger Rail project which will likely be a Metrolink extension to Redlands or a dedicated light rail line. Normally, affected transit agencies would back rail upgrades. However, Omnitrans shot back after analyzing SANBAG's reports; the transit agency claimed it would lose a whopping 20% of its bus operations budget toward contributions to the rail line's price tag. Although nothing has been finalized by the SANBAG board, the Transit Coalition believes the idea of tapping into Omnitrans operating budget to pay for the rails is a wrong move.

At present, there are no commuter or express buses overlapping the proposed rail corridor to restructure. Maintaining Omnitrans existing service or even adding rail feeder service is key to the region's continued transit growth. The Transit Coalition would like to see a first-rate rail line linking San Bernardino to Redlands, but it must be done right. SANBAG must find a sound means to pay for the train; tapping deeply into Omnitrans operations and causing a 20% decrease in bus service--absolutely unacceptable.

The Downtown Riverside Transit Center:
In Riverside, the Transit Coalition called for officials to keep the Vine Street Transit Center Project and the Riverside City Council agreed. Most of the project's secured funds will be spent toward the new transit center. However, due to federal deadlines combined with the 2008 public buyout of the Riverside Greyhound bus station, $3 million of the funds must be spent on upgrading the existing Downtown Terminal Station. Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge treated this funding situation as a lesson. The city would be wise to spend the $3 million on capital items that could be repurposed at the Vine Street Station later, such as benches, live next-bus-arrival signs, information kiosks, security cameras, and trash cans.

The Transit Coalition takes the misuse of public transportation money seriously as it pays for your mobility. We don't want that money to be wasted, but it is an ongoing issue. Whether it's hiding a multi-million dollar rebranding project as a line budget item, raiding a transit agency's operating budget for capital improvements, or the lack of oversight in building a transit center on time, political football games with precious public transit dollars is a serious problem. It must stop.

Another reason why both Trains and Buses are good for Southern California

The Transit Coalition is pro-bus and pro-rail, and the two can coexist and complement each other.

A Metro Red Line train. Los Angeles Metro is defending its rail expansion practices against critics that say expansion of rail in Los Angeles County is a boondoggle and has cannibalized bus service. One persistent criticism is that Metro Rail does not build ridership. However, a more nuanced look at new rail lines compared to previous bus service in those corridors reveals that ridership actually goes up in new rail line corridors.

Overall, the 183 Metro bus lines serving 1,433 square miles in Los Angeles attract an average weekday ridership of 1.1 million. The five rail lines, on the other hand, which only have 87 miles of track, serve 351,000 riders per average weekday. This is precisely why per-mile operational costs on Metro Rail are lower than buses. The same will be true for the Westside Subway Extension, for example. Not only will the subway extension offer a better ride for existing Wilshire Blvd. bus riders on the 20 and 720, but allow the network to take even more riders to the Westside.

Bus service is paramount to feeding riders into the rail lines. The Transit Coalition is pro-bus and pro-rail, and the two can coexist and complement each other. View the Future Vision of Inland Empire Mass Transit to see what's in store for the Inland Empire.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Bridging the Transit Gap between LA and the Coachella Valley

Commuter buses are back and future intercity train service promises to bridge the transit gap between LA and the Coachella Valley. Let's get it moving.

Bus service between Palm Desert and Riverside has arrived. SunLine Transit has established a commuter link between the desert city and the Downtown Riverside Metrolink system. The route started operating on Monday and features twice-daily service for six bucks a ride. The agency will operate two trips into Riverside during the morning peak hours and two return trips in the afternoon. Although an end-to-end trip lasts nearly 2 1/2 hours, most passengers will likely utilize the route's intermediate stops. The route is considered a supplement to rail service between Los Angeles and the Coachella Valley should it eventually become a reality.

A Union Pacific train. Officials in Riverside have already backed a proposal to establish rail service between Los Angeles and Indio. It was a unanimous vote on a motion that urges Amtrak to get going on their plan to upgrade their Sunset Limited service. The plan would put a daily Coachella Valley stop on the route between LA and San Antonio. It also calls for consideration of multiple daily departures on a Surfliner-like intercity service between LA and the high desert. We believe such a route would be very productive.

The expansion of inter-city passenger rail service between Los Angeles and the Coachella Valley has been widely supported since the early 1990's. Therefore, if the tracks and stations are already in place, then what exactly is preventing the extra trains from leaving the station? The rail right-of-way linking the Los Angeles basin to the Coachella Valley is operated by the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR), not by public agencies. UPRR continues firm opposition to any new Amtrak service on its tracks through this area. Despite widespread public support, local and state officials have no unilateral powers to force UPRR to permit expanded Amtrak service. Public agencies would also have to invest at least $500 million for a new set of tracks.

However, there may be a possibility that Class One private railroads including UPRR which long ago discontinued passenger service could reinstate and directly operate passenger trains in the future. Should UPRR desire to move forward with this concept for the LA-to-Indio corridor, public officials should clear the way for the railroad to do so and allow UPRR to stop their trains at existing transit stations. Public incentives to offset any losses connected with passenger service should be considered and discussed in lieu of the massive $500 million public investment.

Photo © Flickr/Jerry Huddleston CC-BY-SA 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Don't Scrap the Vine Street Transit Center Project

Should the City of Riverside really shelve plans to build a transit center next to the Riverside Downtown Metrolink Station?

BigIdeas. Could the private sector be inclined to salvage a worthwhile Downtown Riverside multi-modal transit center project at its Metrolink station? With transit rerouting yet to be analyzed and public funds in jeopardy, the City of Riverside has considered  shelving the multi-modal project altogether and instead decide to renovate the existing downtown bus terminal...Not good.

According to the  Riding in Riverside Transit Blog and from previous field studies, the existing Downtown Riverside Terminal lacks capacity for existing and planned expanded services including future rapid buses.  A neighboring public parking lot would likely need to be acquired and converted into bus bays to accommodate the new BRT. Adding on-street bus stops is likely out of the question; several express buses already layover on the neighboring streets.

The Transit Coalition would like to see the transit station developed at the Metrolink station complete with outlets for private bus carriers such as Greyhound in conjunction with a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over the 91 freeway seamlessly linking the station with the downtown core. A public-private partnership with a developer, private bus carriers, and/or investors, in which The Transit Coalition has advocated in the past, may be the long awaited answer to get this stalled transit project moving. Incentives to get the private sector to invest in Downtown Riverside must be considered by local officials if Riverside is to have a robust transportation system with a local job market.