Monday, September 30, 2013

Speeding up the slow progress of building true RTA RapidLink service

Several public transportation studies long show that establishing a bus rapid transit alternative for the Magnolia and University Avenue corridors is desirable and feasible. True BRT involves dedicated stops with ticket vending machines, dedicated transit lanes through high density areas, traffic signal priority, 10-15 minute service frequency or better, and early morning to late night service span. Major transfer hubs could also be staffed with teams of volunteer transit ambassadors to assist riders in purchasing tickets and getting them to the right connecting local bus.

The Riverside Transit Agency has been exploring this alternative for a number of years now. The hold-up of getting BRT or even limited stop runs of existing services onto Riverside's streets has long been funding. We really cannot fault either RTA or the Riverside County Transportation Commission on this. Both local agencies are at the mercy of a stubbornly soft Inland Empire economy which provides the local resources. The misspending of transportation dollars at the state level which we pay into also contributes to this madness.

The fact that the cost of public transportation infrastructure is artificially inflated certainly does not help. The State of Indiana, for example estimates that upgrading a railroad crossing with automatic warning devices and gates is about $250,000. Fair enough. Ohio estimates $200,000 per upgrade. In contrast, according the Press Enterprise, Riverside County officials estimate the cost to upgrade a Perris Valley Line rail crossing in Box Springs to be anywhere from $3-$4 million. Even if the surrounding streets required upgrades, that is more than 10 times the cost of a single family home, which requires far more construction labor. We'll take a closer look at the Box Springs railroad crossing drama before making any judgement, but the inflated cost to upgrade the grade crossing is absolutely questionable to say the least.

Also, the City of Riverside must coordinate RTA's RapidLink plans into its Riverside Reconnects project, even if that means using articulated buses as the selected technology in lieu of the streetcar. By the way, here's our take and position on the city's streetcar proposal.

RTA RapidLink funding and proposed phases

Back to BRT. In June, RCTC issued the 2013 Multi-funding Call for Projects (Call) in order to acquire transportation funding from the federal government. RTA reports that available funds from the feds under Call adds up to around $116 million:

• Congestion Management and Air Quality Program (CMAQ): $61 million
• Surface Transportation Program (STP): $52 million
• Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP): $3 million

Money for BRT falls within the CMAQ program. Specifically, the CMAQ program is geared toward transportation projects or programs that are air quality beneficial and provide congestion relief. Hey, shouldn't any major transportation project not contribute toward dirty air and actually address traffic congestion? Anyway, under CMAQ, eligible transportation projects generally include construction activities on highway and arterial capacity enhancements, signal synchronizations, intersection channelization, bicycle and pedestrian improvements, and transit enhancements. BRT is one of these.

RTA staff applied for funding to implement Phase 1 of the RapidLink BRT service...Well, it's not quite BRT just yet, but limited stop service will certainly provide a speedy alternative to slow local bus rides to get across town by bus. The Phase 1 service involves launching peak hour limited-stop bus runs that would operate concurrently with Route 1 between UCR and the Galleria at Tyler bus transfer hub. Here's a map of the proposed route and stop locations.

Under Phase 1, the limited-stop service would serve 15 stops in each direction during peak rush hours as compared to 55 stops in each direction on the local Route 1 between UCR and the Galleria at Tyler. Service will start at 5:30 a.m. and continue through 8:30 for the morning rush hour and from 2:30 p.m. - 5:30 p.m. in the afternoon. The interval between limited stop buses would be 15 minutes. RTA predicts Phase 1 will start in January 2015 pending a public comment period. The agency reports that Route 1 records 7,586 weekday daily boardings, far above the system-wide weekday average of 822 weekday daily boardings among 40 routes which excludes the trolley circulator routes.

Phase 2 extends the limited stop services west to the Corona Transit Center with additional runs during off-peak hours.

Phase 3 would involve all day service implementation on weekdays from downtown Riverside to the Corona Transit Center with additional transit stop amenities, similar to OCTA's Bravo! limited stop runs of Route 43 along the Harbor Boulevard corridor.

Speeding up and getting true BRT onto Riverside's streets

As we've mentioned, a priority for both local elected officials and the state is to encourage the private sector marketplace to invest back into the Magnolia and University Avenue corridors with the jobs that go with it. The state must also stop bowing to the will of labor unions which inflates infrastructure costs. Voters need to hold those in power accountable. These solutions are absolutely necessary to help speed up the slow process of getting true BRT into the dense areas of Riverside County which would transport a productive labor workforce.

Under the current economic and political climate, RTA is forced to restrict its Route 1 corridor upgrades to peak hour limited-stop runs for now. Certainly limited stop bus service costs less than a fully implemented BRT service such as LA Metro's Orange Line and portions of the sbX BRT. However if the state demands its public infrastructure costs to not exceed marketplace rates and as more private investments come back to Riverside with both the entry-level and high paying marketplace jobs that go with them, should they, true BRT would come at faster rate.

RTA and the City of Riverside would then be able to quickly upgrade high density transportation corridors like Route 1 complete with true BRT stop amenities, dedicated transit lanes through dense areas, traffic signal priority, and frequent 10-15 minute service from early morning to late night including weekends by 2015. RapidLink would not just be peak-hour limited stop runs Route 1. That's a rapid reality.

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