Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What the Heck Happened with the Riverside Transit Center?

Political football games with transportation money is destructive to Inland Empire mobility.

I much prefer Johnny Cash. As communities around California seek to reinvent their streets to be more multimodal this will be an additional challenge that must be addressed. Millions in dedicated funds for a proposed transit center in Downtown Riverside was locally de-obligated and assigned elsewhere, upsetting local bus riders. At their November 13, 2012 meeting, the Riverside City Council voted in a 6-1 majority to reaffirm its commitment toward building a multi-modal transit center on Vine Street near the downtown Metrolink station. The City agreed to work with the Riverside Transit Agency to work out differences over the project; however, some of those "differences" combined with federal deadlines and regulations came with a disastrous price tag for the Riverside riding public.

RTA had secured approximately $7 million toward this project from various public sources; the federal funding portion however was strapped with spending deadlines. Because officials failed to see how moving the existing transit hub several blocks east to Vine Street would affect the connecting bus routes, RTA decided in September to shelve the Vine Street location and instead spend $4.5 million of the transit center's funds to redevelop the existing Downtown Terminal station. The city and the local business community then expressed concerns about that plan, thus more fuel was dumped on the political fire.

Even though the City of Riverside can commit the Riverside Transit Center project to any public site it pleases, RTA has fiduciary responsibility over the project's funds, not the city. What the city can and should do instead is designate the Metrolink station block as a specific plan and offer local property tax incentives and rebates so that private developers and entrepreneurs can invest and build the transit center combined with a much-needed free market job site. This win-win funding concept has yet to be adopted.

With the Riverside Transit Center mired in public financial regulations and deadlines, RTA changed course and emptied the project's fund. At their October 2012 Board of Directors meeting, RTA redirected nearly all of the Riverside Transit Center's project funds toward the Twin Cities Transit Center in the Temecula/Murrieta area.

A cliff of paper. From the perspective of the riding public, this is a complete disgrace to Inland Empire mobility. Multi-modal connectivity between the downtown core, local buses and trains at the Riverside Downtown Metrolink station is very limited. That is very clear. To be fair, the Twin Cities Transit Center down south promises to address a growing region in the Inland Empire and coordinating the project with future high-speed rail is finally in the talks. But what is disappointing to the Riverside public is the lack of cooperation between local and federal officials to get the worthy Vine Street Transit Center built with the $7 million in funds already collected, among other issues (Page 5).

$7 million is more than enough to start up a first phase of the project by adding additional bus stops along the existing streets and moving the hub and bus routes over. The truth is the project was so strapped with rules and regulations that such a logical and cost-effective move wouldn't likely work on a sheet of legal paper, but work fine out in the real world. These political roadblocks must be reformed. Unnecessary federal regulations and political football games with transportation money only delays worthwhile projects, adds layers of cost, and is destructive to Inland Empire mobility. It will be continually confronted by The Transit Coalition

The Riverside City Council also indicated that RTA was potentially moving to a grid-based bus system based on a post on the Riding in Riverside Transit Blog. It's far too early to determine what proposals are in store, but Riverside County's street layout and demographics make a countywide grid-based bus system absolutely illogical. We all remember in 2000 OCTA's ill-advised Point-to-Point grid system that negated ridership systemwide. That colossal blunder led OCTA to alter several of its routes back to a hybrid grid and hub-and-spoke model. RTA's current system operates smartly on this hybrid system: The majority of routes connect at a major hub, fan out over the region, and emulate the grid system with direct service via major streets before rejoining again at the next hub. Aside from some changes outlined in The Transit Coalition's Future Vision, RTA should maintain its current route model.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

LA Metro ExpressLanes and Casual Carpoolers

LA Metro officials have to rethink their solutions toward casual carpoolers.

The current ExpressLanes policy. Los Angeles Metro officially launched the Metro ExpressLanes along the I-110 freeway, a pilot, one-year demonstration program. The program included the conversion of the carpool lanes into tolled express lanes (also known as HOT Lanes). Tolling along this corridor began late night on November 10, 2012 with the I-10 toll lanes set to launch later in 2013. All motorists including carpools are mandated to have a FasTrak transponder to enter the facility; HOV traffic must use the Metro ExpressLanes switchable FasTrak for toll free travel.

A Good Opening Weekend:
So far, the lanes are off to a good start, after opening to the public last weekend. Granted, using the lanes will cost as much as $15.40 per use, but these are mere grumblings that officials will take in stride, as the toll lanes intend to provide congestion relief and needed revenue. ( These letters to the LA Times, however, suggest differently.)

TTC's HOT Lane Position:
The Transit Coalition advocated for free non-transponder carpooling along the Metro ExpressLanes, but Metro never adopted the concept citing enforcement issues. Nevertheless, the Coalition's HOT lane campaign page illustrates how non-transponder HOT lanes can be enforced effectively by the CHP in lieu of an automated system. TTC's A Better Inland Empire HOT campaign page goes deeper into the facts.

Keep on Carpooling, Patriots:
Moving forward, several motorists are certainly disappointed, but should accept the situation and explore ridesharing alternatives offered by Metro and the private marketplace. Existing casual carpools should continue to share the ride as a means to reduce traffic. Carpooling is a patriotic act of combating congestion. Same holds true for using public transit. The truth is that the I-110 HOT lanes according to Metro will operate at speeds of at least 45 mph, even during peak hours. Metro claims the main freeway lanes will also benefit, but the verdict will be shown as commuters hit the road during the next few weeks. Let's hope we don't end up with a repeat of the I-85 toll lane disaster in Atlanta.

Carpoolers. Seeking Solutions for Non-Registered Casual Carpoolers:
Meanwhile, officials have to rethink their solutions toward casual carpoolers, HOV traffic coming from the Inland Empire, taxi cab drivers, private sector bus lines, and all other HOV patrons who may be negated by the transponder policy to prevent a drop in the number of private carpools for the corridor. The good news for transit advocates and the public is that the responsibility and pressure are now on Metro and LA officials; if free mobility and ridesharing do not improve for both the HOT and regular lanes along the I-110 freeway over the course of the pilot period, the notion of converting carpool lanes into transponder-mandated HOT lanes as a means to reduce congestion will be struck down, thus opening the door for possible non-transponder carpooling in the Metro ExpressLanes.

However, Metro believes the agency has developed a sound toll lane facility and we should continue to explore ways to improve the corridor, especially for those who share the ride, either by public transit or private carpool. There are two ways the Metro ExpressLanes can affect I-110 mobility: First, as Metro claims, the express lanes will improve free mobility for both the HOT and regular lanes. Or secondly, the transponder-only HOT lanes could be a repeat of the I-85 toll lane blunder with worsened traffic congestion in the regular freeway lanes with the drop of casual carpools from the express lanes. If the former, stop-and-go traffic will be the thing of the past. If the latter, Metro made a big mistake of mandating FasTrak transponders for carpoolers.