Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Let's tour and critique the RCTC-Proposed I-15 Tolled Express Lanes in Riverside County

A virtual tour and opinion piece of how the proposed I-15 tolled express lanes can benefit Riverside County transportation.

Concept of I-15 facing north just past Railroad Canyon Road

"Express Lanes - 2 Miles," an overhead sign along northbound I-15 might say just past Railroad Canyon Road by 2020. From a future transit center, commuters can hop aboard a soon-to-be public express rapid bus and be at work in Orange County in about an hour, cruising along in the express lanes. Or, a family can hop aboard a private bus line headed to Disneyland Resort and enjoy a quick trip there.

Working to improve traffic capacity and operations on Interstate 15, the Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC) and California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) District 8 are exploring multi-modal lanes for the highway from just north of the I-15/ I-215 separation near Murrieta, northward to State Route 60 (SR-60) near Ontario.

The project includes the study of two build alternatives with a no-build alternative. Alternative 1 proposes to add one Carpool (HOV) lane and one regular lane in each direction from SR-74 to SR-60 and one HOV Lane from I-215 to SR-74. Alternative 2 will add two Tolled Express lanes and one regular lane in each direction from SR-74 to SR-60 and one HOV Lane from I-215 to SR-74. Both would support fast trips for buses and carpools. The widening of the freeway will occur by utilizing the unpaved center median whenever possible.

The proposed I-15 Corridor Improvement Project (CIP) stretches approximately 44 miles in length, traveling through Murrieta, Wildomar, Lake Elsinore, Corona, Norco and portions of unincorporated Riverside County.

RCTC I-15 HOT Lanes Graphic

What are the I-15 Tolled Express Lanes?
Tolled Express Lanes are RCTC-proposed dedicated lanes with limited entrances and exits that provide travel time savings, trip reliability, a facility for rapid express buses, as well as congestion relief in the general purpose lanes if usage policies are written correctly. RCTC proposes to develop the toll rate policy and will be compatible with the current toll system used on State Route 91 in Orange County.

RCTC proposes that all vehicles that use the tolled express lanes be required to have transponders, an electronic FasTrak reader captures the transponder ID and bills the account established by the driver. The Transit Coalition opposes the transponder requirement for carpools and seeks to abolish the FasTrak mandate for any 2+ or 3+ HOV for both corridors to encourage carpooling, attract private sector transit bus lines, and to better redistribute the traffic flow (read more about TTC's position here).

Tolls collected from solo motorists would be used to pay for the project's construction along the corridor. RCTC reports that no public funding has been allocated for the HOT lanes; however The Transit Coalition believes the state can and should provide funding for this project. Local officials must continue to hold the state accountable for its actions and ensure state transportation tax funding is making it to the highways and rails as it should.

Concept of I-15 facing north at Highway 74

Future Concepts: Heading Northbound on I-15
Under Alternative 2, the northbound I-15 carpool lanes would become a pair of high occupancy toll lanes at Highway 74. The southernmost HOT lane entry point would be here. Any 2+ carpool and any other high occupancy vehicle with at least 2 persons should be able to get on free and go without needing to pre-register. The express lane toll for solo vehicles should also vary, based on the amount of traffic in the HOT lanes and travel speeds of the regular lanes (supply-and-demand congestion pricing). In the example pictured above, the I-15 is free-flowing at 65-70 MPH all the way to the 60 freeway; so the maximum posted toll is $0.60. During peak congestion, a solo motorist can expect to pay up to $8-10 to travel to SR-60 and about $3-5 to SR-91.

At this entrance to the I-15 Express Lanes, three toll amounts are displayed on the overhead toll sign. The top amount displays the minimum toll amount of $0.50 to the next HOT lane exit, Indian Truck Trail. The second row displays the toll amount to travel to the 91 Freeway which is $0.50 because the freeway is free-flowing. The last amount shows a $0.60 toll to the 60 Freeway, the end of the Express Lanes. The bottom, "CARPOOLS 2+ NO TOLL" displays the 2+ occupancy requirement needed for toll free, non-transponder travel.

Tolls may change as traffic conditions change, but solo motorists always pay the toll displayed on the sign upon entry; toll amounts are locked in upon entry.

Concept of I-15 facing north a mile past Lake Street

Conceptual Access Point north of Lake Street
I-15 Commuters originating from northern Lake Elsinore headed north normally use Lake Street. A HOT lane access point a mile north of Lake Street would yield many benefits for carpools originating from Alberhill and other communities in the area. Also pictured is a sign listing possible direct exits/ramps from the HOT lanes. These ramps would be designed for park & ride patrons and rapid express buses headed to/from future transit stations, each located a block or two from the ramp. The RCTC-proposed direct access ramp to the 91 Express Lanes is also included on the exits list.

Conceptual Access Point near Weirick Road
Another intermediate conceptual access point should be placed near Weirick Road, allowing traffic to/from Temescal Canyon communities streamlined access.

RCTC Proposed 91 Express Lanes Access Point at Cajalco Road

RCTC-Proposed Direct Access Ramp to SR-91 Express Lanes
RCTC has proposed adding a new tolled express lane direct connector to and from the 91 Express Lanes to the I-15 Express Lanes. This will provide direct access from eastbound 91 Express Lanes to a new median express lane southbound on I-15 and from a new northbound median express lane on I-15 to the westbound 91 Express Lanes. Traffic entering or exiting I-15 at Ontario Avenue, El Cerrito Road, Cajalco Road (pictured) and points south will be able to use the direct connector to or from the 91 Express Lanes.

RCTC Proposed 91 Express Lanes Access Point at Magnolia Avenue

The Transit Coalition believes that it is essential for carpools to have free access to HOT lanes without a requirement for transponders and objects to pre-registration policies that would result in a reduction of carpools instead of single occupancy vehicles.

If HOT lane policies are set correctly, free mobility will be a long-lasting reality for HOV traffic traveling along Southern California freeway corridors. With public express buses, 2+ or 3+ private HOVs, motorcycles, and private sector bus lines having their own set of dedicated free-flowing lanes through traffic-choked corridors, the public-private benefit would be enormous.

Please note that this tour and HOT lane ideas presented are conceptual and have not been endorsed by any public entity.

Read more about TTC's position here.

Bridge-gate: The $10 Million Bay Bridge PR

Another reason why HOV's should not, under any circumstances, pay to use the Oakland Bay Bridge, the proposed I-15 Tolled Express Lanes through Riverside County or any other high occupancy toll lanes statewide.

The new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. An investigative story by the Sacramento Bee shows that the California Department of Transportation might be guilty of wasteful and unnecessary spending of taxpayer transportation dollars. Caltrans officials overseeing construction of the eastern segment of the $6.4 billion San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge approved a contract with a public relations company that was going to cost California taxpayers close to a whopping $10 million in transportation money.

You've read that right: $10 million from taxpayers' pockets to pay for marketing of the eastern half of the newly reconstructed and retrofitted Oakland Bay Bridge which would include producing a book and a video documentary. Does the $6.4 billion earthquake-resistant eastern segment of the Bay Bridge warrant a legacy complete with a book and a video? Clearly, that is up to private authors, historians, the television industry, and other sectors of the free market to decide, not a state transportation department. But the $10 million for PR now becomes a symbol of how wasteful the state can be with our transportation money. To be fair, the Brown administration ordered Caltrans to cancel this contract, but the governor was forced to since the story broke. We all owe a big thanks for the Bee for uncovering what could have been a state-level Watergate in the San Francisco Bay.

The Transit Coalition has seen some of the strangest transportation proposals out there, but we have never seen a $10 million state-funded transportation project PR before. These public scandals have happened before and there are likely others that have yet to be uncovered. We all remember the folks from the State Department of Parks and Recreation from who illegally hid $54 million. The money games are in full swing. And now, both The Transit Coalition and the public have more of a reason to oppose budget-related transit cuts, question proposed fare hikes, and confront ill-advised proposals of high occupancy toll lanes which require HOV's to pay to use.

A vision of HOT Lanes on the I-15.

A conceptual art piece pictured above from A Better Inland Empire shows an officially proposed HOT lane entry point at the I-15 Freeway at Highway 74 in Lake Elsinore looking north. This concept shows what the proposed entry point may look like if it rightfully supported free non-transponder carpooling together with rapid express bus service and supply-and-demand toll rates for solo drivers.

State and Riverside County public officials cite the lack of public funds for construction of these lanes as their reasoning behind their proposals to require carpoolers to pay tolls and/or preregister for transponders in order to use them. Officials in San Diego county have also jumped aboard in their long term plans for the I-5 and I-15 freeways through the countryside, but if the state continues its wasteful spending spree with your transportation dollars, both the Coalition and the public will continue to confront toll mandates for carpoolers along our freeways. Why should any carpool patriot or a private sector transit operator have to work harder everyday and pay tolls to use the high occupancy lanes so that Caltrans can have a $10 million PR? The state agency has some explaining to do.

To our local transportation agencies and the state: You want extra construction money to build multi-modal HOT lanes which support free non-transponder carpooling, better distributed traffic flow, and offers a quick throughfare for rapid express transit buses and private sector coaches and charters? Close the loopholes and cut the waste; strike out the $10 million PR.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Metrolink Perris Valley Line Lawsuit: Frivolous or not?

Both the state and the feds need to close the legislative loopholes for transportation environmental impact reports.

Several Riverside County transit riders and commuters have been long wondering: When exactly will the Metrolink Perris Valley Line extension project finally break ground on construction? Transit officials estimate spring or summer of 2013 as the Riverside County Transportation Commission was awarded state funds for the project. It is currently awaiting federal funding, and a lawsuit filed against the project will be finally over by then. $53 million has been obligated to RCTC from the California Transportation Commission. $75 million from the federal government is awaited, after which the $247 million Perris Valley Line project will be fully funded. RCTC must be prepared and be ready to confront any possible delays from the federal level to prevent anything else from delaying groundbreaking. We've been patiently waiting...

The Metrolink Perris Valley Line. As many of you are aware, the proposed Perris Valley Line Metrolink extension is being challenged in court with its trial scheduled to start in January. An opposing organization called Friends of Riverside Hills filed a lawsuit in August 2011 challenging the Environmental Impact Report for the rail project, claiming RCTC failed to adequately detail the noise and pollution impacts of excavating dirt around the tracks and other aspects of construction. The case was merited to go to trial last April. The group represents residents living in the residential areas near UC Riverside.

To be fair to all parties involved, we live in the United States of America and we citizens have a right to peacefully organize, freely participate in robust debates, and challenge each other on issues. That's a welcomed reality of living in a free democracy; otherwise The Transit Coalition wouldn't exist. Friends of Riverside Hills is challenging RCTC fair and square as its lawsuit has legal merit; that's why the case has been allowed to go to trial. However, the issue at stake is a classic example of how a small issue can become a big judicial problem; a loophole which should be addressed by lawmakers.

It's a clear fact that moving dirt around and grading sites are basic steps for just about any major construction or development project, even those that don't require an EIR. Both the state and the federal government must consider revisiting transportation legislation to prevent minor claims like those addressed by Friends of Riverside Hills from having legal merit in the future. This will prevent future transit and highway projects from being mired in unnecessary expensive litigation which ends up being paid for by local and county taxpayers. Obviously, there should be written rules, mandates, and limits to keep dust pollution and noise caused by grading and construction to a minimum. The law should state: If the construction contractor violates these terms, pollutes the air or becomes too noisy, the firm, not the taxpayer, gets fined.

Under the current system, RCTC is mandated to conduct a detailed analysis on dust and noise pollution caused by transportation construction. Friends of Riverside Hills found there wasn't enough data reported in the project's EIR and now the case is headed to trial. This current system allows for a pure waste of local transportation resources. Protection against construction-related dust pollution and noise is absolutely vital and it can be regulated under better written state and/or federal law, not litigation. If such provisions were in place, the Perris Valley Line construction contractor would have been held more accountable for any construction-related pollution and noise, RCTC would know which areas of the corridor would need to be quiet-zone designated, Friends of Riverside Hills would have ended up with a frivolous case and the lawsuit against the long-overdue Perris Valley Line would have been thrown out by any impartial judge. This legal loophole must be closed by the state and feds, and it needs to be done soon.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Political Chaos with the Hemet Transit Center

Unnecessary Bureaucratic Red Tape is sapping proposed Riverside County Transit Centers at epidemic levels

The location of the proposed Hemet Transit Center. Political money games and the lack of cooperation between public entities are sapping worthy Inland Empire transit projects once more. Again, The Transit Coalition has to remind the state and feds: You have to know what's it like to be in the real world.

This Google Maps satellite aerial imagery shows the general location of a city-identified site and a prime location for a proposed transit center in the City of Hemet. The multi-modal station was proposed to be developed adjacent to a proposed courthouse in the heart of the historic downtown core complete with a transit village.

In reality, developing the transit center, a courthouse with a public square and a future Metrolink station in this area would be very desirable for this Inland suburb starved for free market economic growth. However, according to this RTA Budget & Finance Committee Report, delays at the state level combined with potential de-obligation actions from the federal government has led to nothing except for bureaucratic red tape for the Hemet Transit Center. RTA thus decided to conduct a site feasibility study to determine another optimal transit center location.

This is an outrage because plans for the Hemet station have already been in the works for nearly a decade by local officials. This is why the lack of cooperation with the state combined with overregulation and spending deadlines with the federal funds is bad for transportation projects - too many hurdles which negate Inland Empire transit development. This has happened before. RTA was forced to empty nearly all of the funds for a very desirable transit center project at the Riverside Downtown Metrolink station. According to the latest public documents from RTA, the alternative site for the Riverside Transit Center which is currently under study is now the site of the proposed Moreno Valley Transit Center, located on the western edge of the City of Moreno Valley at a proposed station for the Metrolink Perris Valley Line; the transit hub is now labeled the Northwest Transit Center. Basically, the Downtown Riverside Transit Center is back on the drawing board sitting with a near empty fund. Both the state and the White House should be outraged as The Transit Coalition is.

Moving ahead, the City of Hemet does have some local control over their transit center. Because the city envisions the development of a transit village adjacent to the transit center, why not entice private developers to come in by designating the transit center and courthouse block as a specific plan and offer tax incentives to the entrepreneurial class to build both of the public buildings and the courthouse square as part of the village complete with private sector jobs? The truth is Hemet is starved for a private job marketplace. Its residents could use some logistics, manufacturing, distribution and other blue-collar jobs. That is a smart way in getting Hemet back to a healthy state.

If local officials are serious about getting both the Riverside and the Hemet Transit Centers built next to the Metrolink rail system without going through a decade of planning, they must take the unnecessary regulations off the backs of the private sector and incentivize them to come in and build the facilities. Local officials need to have the desire and the will to have Riverside and Hemet not only survive, but to thrive. Meanwhile, both the state and the feds need to get out from their desks, visit the affected transit center sites themselves, and see what upper-level regulatory reform needs to be done to move these projects forward. The bottom line of this story: Government roadblocks continue unchecked, our transportation projects are being delayed at epidemic levels, and the riding public is paying for it.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Private Sector, Toll Lanes, and the LA-to-Vegas Transit Corridor

Public entities should support the transit improvement efforts of the free market.

Megabus returns to LA. Moving people between Southern California and Las Vegas is in the hands of the private sector. No question. With the cooperation from public transportation agencies, there's a great chance multi-modal mobility for the LA-to-Vegas corridor will improve with the growing competition between operators in the marketplace: XpressWest HSR, X-train, Greyhound, numerous charters, and now the Megabus.

The Stagecoach Group has brought the intercity coach back with multiple daily departures to Las Vegas. Riders can board Megabus either at Los Angeles Union Station's Patsaouras Plaza or at the Riverside Downtown Metrolink station, two very productive choices. Megabus also plans to operate express service to northern California cities from Union Station.

While Megabus will operate nonstop trips, Greyhound buses will continue to provide local intercity service between Southern California and Vegas. Several other private buses, coaches and charters also utilize the corridor. Expect ongoing transit improvements and promotional fares from the marketplace; competition will continue to grow with the implementation of Megabus and the proposed passenger rail lines. Public entities must therefore support the transit improvement efforts of the free market.

Right now, the Cajon Pass portion of the I-15 freeway which links Southern California into the high desert is heavily used and often becomes congested during peak travel times. The San Bernardino Associated Governments is currently studying the feasibility of potential HOT lanes between the 60 Freeway and Victorville. There's no report of whether SANBAG will mandate transponders for all HOV's (better if they don't), but if Vegas-bound buses and other 2+ or 3+ HOVs have a dedicated set of free-flowing lanes through the traffic-choked pass, the public-private benefit would be enormous.

At the moment, LA Metro, OCTA, and the Riverside County Transportation Commission want to mandate transponder registration on all HOVs in their HOT lanes, including private bus line entrepreneurs who want to invest in the LA-to-Vegas corridor, all in the name of automated enforcement. Does that make sense to you, the rider? After just 16 days in operation, LA Metro has handed out a whopping 12,297 automated citations since the opening of the I-110 Metro ExpressLanes, the majority of which are likely from non-registered HOVs and not from solo cheaters. (The Los Angeles Daily News also featured an article on this very subject.) There's a large possibility that a portion of the violating HOV traffic will simply migrate back to the regular lanes in lieu of registering. Not good.

Early complaints posted on Metro's Facebook page already indicate that the main freeway lanes have worsened since the FasTrak mandate took place. To be fair, Metro claims the increased congestion will go away as motorists adjust to the rules of the road. However, if the non-registered HOV's flock back into the congested general purpose lanes, it will be the I-85 HOT lane disaster all over again. The Transit Coalition hopes this hypothesis of worsened traffic in LA does not hold true. Otherwise precious resources will be wasted and the notion of converting HOV lanes into transponder-mandated HOT lanes to reduce traffic congestion is dead, period. Metro, OCTA and RCTC will then have some explaining to do to defend their positions.

A view of HOV lanes from a bus. Meanwhile, if you want better transit and lower fares between Southern California and Las Vegas, government agencies must give the private bus operators incentives to invest, not place a regulatory burden on the entrepreneurial class. The extra administrative overhead and internal costs of maintaining a HOT lane transponder account and each of the registered buses would mean higher fares from private bus lines. Same holds true if their buses are stuck in traffic instead of productively using the HOT lanes. A non-transponder HOV policy for HOT lanes makes it more efficient for private bus carriers and commercial HOV's to compete in the LA-to-Vegas marketplace and for riders to have a quick and efficient ride up and back. Better mass transit includes better services offered in the free market.