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.

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