Thursday, August 15, 2013

Getting around the excuse-making with the 91 Express Lanes extension

Conceptual Smith Avenue Direct Access Ramp

Getting the 91 freeway corridor moving between the Inland Empire and Orange County has been a challenge for the last two decades. The Riverside County Transportation Commission is set to break ground next year on upgrading the corridor through Corona by expanding express bus services, adding a general purpose lane, and extending the 91 Express Lanes through Corona. RCTC illustrates the layout of the proposals which we believe don't go far enough despite the fact that Riverside County taxpayers are going into massive debt to pay for such upgrades combined with Californians paying some of the highest taxes in the nation. The Transit Coalition's future vision of the congested corridor is very similar, but mimics the existing I-15 Express Lane facility in San Diego county with the exception that the center median will be fixed--not movable--and that the occupancy requirement for carpool is 3+ instead of 2+.

The vision includes additional intermediate access points and direct access ramps to adjacent transit centers and park & ride lots which would provide express bus transit infrastructure and speed up travel times for existing and future bus routes and private carpools. The vision also includes expanded Metrolink and potential reinstated high speed intercity passenger rail service provided by BNSF or another operator.

The Coalition's 91 Future Vision appears to conflict with analyses conducted by RCTC and the Orange County Transportation Authority in regards to opposing mandatory tolls for 3+ carpools during the PM rush hour and supporting intermediate access points. According to the agencies, if the corridor supported free non-transponder 3+ carpooling 24/7 and had additional intermediate access points, traffic congestion in the HOT lanes would result, thus defeating the purpose of the HOT lanes. That notion is questionable. Time for some straight talk on these points to weed out the excuses from the facts:

Free 3+ Carpooling vs. 50% tolls during the afternoon rush hour:

In May, 2003, shortly after OCTA acquired the 91 Express Lanes for $207 million, the agency allowed 3+ high occupancy vehicles with a FasTrak transponder to travel free in the HOT lanes except during the PM rush hour where tolls are 50%. The 4-6PM eastbound toll was included because traffic studies at that time show the lanes operating at or near capacity. OCTA officials therefore concluded that the additional traffic generated by free 3+ carpooling would have congested the lanes.

To be fair to OCTA, high occupancy toll lanes were in their adolecent years back in 2003. The agency simply did not have the data that The Transit Coalition now has in regards to alternative solutions to prevent peak-hour congestion in the HOT lanes. We cannot fault OCTA on this; however there is enough data now to support the change. As mentioned before, the 91 corridor has such a high demand for carpooling that the occupancy requirement for carpool should be maintained at 3+ for now; it could be lowered to 2+ during off-peak hours once future infrastructure and additional lanes are built out.

Opening the 91 Express Lanes to additional 3+ carpoolers will bring these additional HOV's into the Express Lanes, no question. To prevent congestion, some of the toll-paying non-carpoolers will need to use the general purpose lanes. As other HOT facilities have shown throughout the nation, that can be acheived two ways:

  • Designate the HOT lanes for toll-free travel for 3+ carpools while raising the tolls on other traffic further as traffic volume along the corridor increases. This will keep the toll revenue neutral while providing a greater disincentive to driving alone.  
  • 3+ Carpools only - Should the HOT express lanes reach capacity, dynamic regulatory signs would permit only high occupancy vehicles to enter the facilities until capacity opens up for toll-paying traffic. FasTrak traffic already in the lanes would be permitted to complete their trips.

Of course, adopting free non-transponder 3+ carpooling for the 91 Express Lanes will significantly reduce agency toll revenue since more free carpoolers are traveling than toll-paying traffic, but as mentioned before, under no circumstances should high occupancy toll lanes be used as cash fountains. Ongoing displacement of state transportation tax money needs to stop, those resources need to be returned to our local agencies to fund transportation infrastructure, and such resources need to pay down the debt for the 91 Express Lanes and the extension into Riverside County. Once that happens, our local agencies will have no excuse to toll carpoolers in the high occupancy lane.

Intermediate Access Points/Direct Access Ramps:

Upon completion on the extension, 91 Express Lanes access points will be provided at these locations:

  • Western Terminal: SR-55 and SR-91 Interchange
  • Intermediate: On the 91, west of the Green River Road Interchange for drivers heading in either direction
  • Eastern Terminal: I-15 and SR-91 with a direct access ramp with the I-15 to/from the south.
RCTC analyzed additional intermediate access points in Corona through an engineering study and did not adopt the proposed entry/exit points. The design variation 2 plans of a direct access ramp at Smith Avenue in Corona are also not part of the project. Traffic weaving and congestion were cited as concerns. As mentioned before, there is a solution around this which was not taken into consideration: Whenever the express lanes are too congested for additional traffic at the intermediate points or direct access ramps, signs would only permit 3+ HOV traffic to enter or tolls would simply be higher for non-HOV's. This has been demonstrated before elsewhere and the public cannot accept this as an excuse to not link the Corona Transit Center with the 91 Express Lanes.

Moving more people in the 91 Express Lanes:

We must make this point clear once more: High occupancy toll lanes need to be designed in ways to move more people, not cars. The potential consequences of mandating 3+ carpoolers to pre-register for a FasTrak and pay rush hour tolls have been the subject of much debate. These consequences include:
  • Many carpoolers reverting back to SOVs or sitting in traffic in the general purpose lanes as demonstrated in LA and Atlanta.
  • New solo vehicles being attracted to the corridor as a result of the additional capacity.
  • All general purpose lanes, including any newly added ones, becoming congested while eliminating a free-flowing alternative to those who choose to carpool with 3 or more but do not have a toll transponder.

This is why the state needs to get its act together and stop mispending our transportation dollars. This is why high occupancy toll lanes need free non-transponder carpooling. It's time for both the public and our local agencies to stop the excuse-making and hold the state accountable for funding our infrastructure projects which includes a robust SR-91 transit corridor.

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