Friday, February 28, 2014

Do you support High Speed Rail?

Ask anybody living in California this question: "Do you support high speed rail?"

HSR Dissenters generally don't want taxpayer money being wasted.
HSR Supporters generally have had enough of this...
Answering a direct "Yes" or "No" to this question can be like taking the bait in a trap. What's the trap? Saying "Yes" could imply that one could care less about the bloated HSR price tags paid for by taxpayers and the flawed leadership related to the statewide project.

Saying "No" could imply the support of staying with the status quo in terms of getting around the state: More highways and airports. That translates into more cars on the roads and eventually traffic. We've had a long history of that! There's a lot misconception about high speed rail going around the state and the media today, so we will do what we can to set the record straight.

High Speed Rail is Proven Technology

Steel-on-steel, electrified high speed train technology with separated grade crossings has been proven beyond reasonable doubt all over the world to be an efficient and safe form of mass public transportation. HSR has shown it can accommodate more passengers at higher speeds than cars between two or more city centers, thus being more capacity and energy efficient. Rail travel also has shown to be less weather dependent than air travel. Many countries have developed high-speed rail that connect major cities. There is a solid case for HSR. This is not pro-rail ideology. These are facts. And it is therefore a fact that this technology works.

California has its share of major metropolitan centers and urban cities. The county seat cities in the Inland Empire, Riverside and San Bernardino, are two prime examples here at home. The three major cities of course being Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco for the state. It is therefore very feasible to incorporate steel-on-steel, electrified, high speed passenger train technology into our statewide transportation infrastructure connecting these points together with intermediate stops for local trains and separated grade crossings. Again, the technology has already been proven to work all over the world. It can work here.

Flawed HSR Leadership in the State

With that said, there is a lot of very valid and constructive criticism about how the State of California is handling getting statewide HSR infrastructure planned and built. One problem of course is the inflated per-mile cost that was still not quite addressed in the 2014 Business Plan. Like the 2012 Business Plan, CHSRA estimates about a $68 billion price tag for the Phase I project, connecting San Francisco with Los Angeles via the Central Valley and Palmdale regions plus the branch to Anaheim. The total distance is 520 miles. Based on the 2014 plan, HSR will cost taxpayers a whopping $131 million per mile. Compared to other systems, that is a high price tag. Where exactly and specifically is that money going?

To compare, the 1983 LGV Sud-Est bullet train in France cost $5 billion in today’s U.S. dollars. The distance is 254 miles, or about $20 million per mile. The Shinkansen HSR in Japan cost $20 billion in 2010 dollars. The per-mile cost added up to $63 million, a bit on the high side which earned the line its share of criticism. China's Wuhan-Guangzhou line was $17 billion, or $28 million per mile. To be fair, the Chunnel HSR system under the English Channel linking England to France costed nearly $500 million per mile in today's US currency as that project faced all kinds of serious problems. That was the first rail tunnel of its kind and scale. Tunnel boring also remains expensive.

Also, the media exposed that the CHSRA handed out $8 million to rail simply submit losing bids to the project. That was waste. Also last year, excessive bureaucracy was exposed in terms of labor. In the private sector, when an employer posts a job opening, it selects the most qualified candidate to do the work. However for this project, 10% of the high speed train's labor force had to come from the "disadvantaged", which would potentially include ex-convicts, high school dropouts, foster children, and union apprentices. Almost a third of all work hours had to go to workers who live in "economically disadvantaged areas." Forget hiring a crew that is the most qualified to do the job. The money fountain is out of control. To be fair, it is noble to establish entry-level and lower-responsibility jobs for the disadvantaged, but those support job positions need to be offered by the private sector.

We want to see High Speed Rail done right!

We can go on all day about CHSRA problems and there are several valid points that we missed including the lawsuits and lack of leadership to negotiate fairly with NIMBY obstructionists in the Central Valley, but we should not throw out proven transit technology with the flawed leadership. Turning a vital statewide HSR infrastructure master plan into a self-serving, political pet project aimed toward pouring excessive taxpayer money into the special interests--especially labor union leaders and contractors--represents transit obstructionism at one of its worst.

Moving forward, Governor Jerry Brown, who backs HSR has to take a leadership role to get statewide high speed rail done right. That includes ordering, enforcing and proposing zero-tolerance rules on political pandering and getting the per-mile costs down to the market rates. Set a straight and fair master plan to get the costs down to at least the Shinkansen system's per-mile costs.

Brown has to be honest with the people and present these facts if he wants to retain support for HSR. Yes, that may involve working with the feds and having to do some hard-ball pitching to a stubborn ideological state legislature. The federal government is willing to cooperate as it extended the spending deadline of federal funds. With the flaws and facts already exposed, anybody in the state legislature opposing sound proposals to fix HSR and clinging to political ideology that keeps the HSR price tag high will be exposed and held accountable by voters.

It is clear that voters have had enough of this madness. California voters on November 4, 2008, with the passage of Proposition 1A, trusted the state with the $9.95 billion in borrowed seed money to incorporate proven HSR technology into our infrastructure with the private sector and the feds paying for the rest. There are now a growing number of Californians who no longer trust how the state is handling high speed rail and want it stopped. But if Brown wants to move forward in getting a first rate HSR system for the state, he must lead the way out of this mess, get the costs down, and for goodness sake, get the state to stop the special interest pandering at our expense.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

New Hopes and Opportunities for San Bernardino

The San Bernardino region is home to many high density destinations such as CSU San Bernardino, the Loma Linda University Medical Center area, and several government services in the downtown area. It is well on its way to becoming a more transit-friendly region for both local and out-of-area commuters and travelers.

Government officials broke ground on two key projects that will make this happen: The downtown San Bernardino Transit Center project, and the Metrolink extension into downtown. The riding public has much to gain. The popular Metrolink San Bernardino Line and numerous existing express buses are proposed to connect at this major hub. From there, out-of-area riders can seamlessly get to the major destinations aboard the soon-to-open E Street sbX line. Likewise, numerous Omnitrans routes that already pass through downtown will also connect, providing better options for local area riders.

The City of San Bernardino has a key opportunity here to become a desirable urban center. If officials get serious and take a leadership role in ridding the city of its miserable crime, the area can become a true transit-friendly destination that people would be proud to call their home. Besides the Loma Linda area down south and the CSUSB campus up north, the region is currently mired street gang crime and limited private sector job growth. We cannot afford to have these robust transit facilities that will be built mired in vandalism and crime only a few years later.

The solution of combating San Bernardino gang crimes is complex but officials should take into consideration any ideas that have already been proven to work. That includes broadcasting firm public messages for parents to properly raise, discipline, and spend more undivided time with their children and allowing the non-profit sector to expand youth center facilities so that troubled youth can positively establish healthy fraternal bonds with peers and caring adult mentors. This can be as simple as allowing private groups to offer additional after-school youth programs and social time at area middle and high school campuses. Evidence shows that both of these solutions will help keep kids out of gangs.

For those already in the gangs, it's a matter of cleaning up the streets, locking up those involved in crimes and rehabilitating youth exposed to the criminal world of whom desire to turn away from it. Flooding troubled areas with additional investigating and patrolling law enforcement--even if it be volunteer reserves--is necessary to deter crime and catch such criminal activity. Our jails and prisons should have mentorship programs available for inmates and incarcerated gang members. Yes, jail and prison budgets are tight and the governments will have limited public resources to tackle this challenge on their own. However, such programs can be provided by working with the non-profit private sector and prison ministry outlets. These options should be available for inmates who really desire to turn away from the criminal culture and reintegrate back into the community once their sentences are served.

The excuses of omission to this grave problem needs to stop and officials need to debate and propose real solutions to make San Bernardino streets safer and to allow youth and children to grow up and become productive selfless workers. We never know if one of these youth has what it takes to find a cure for cancer and AIDS, gets the nation to be fully self-reliant on fuel and energy, or has the answer to efficiently mass-desalinate ocean water. San Bernardino can be a true destination in the years to come.

Monday, February 24, 2014

RTA looking to solve the "First and Last Mile" problem

A major problem that many bus riders face is a situation known as the "first and last mile" problem. This is a situation where the riders' origin and/or destination is far away from a transit bus stop. Choice riders often elect not to take the bus for this very reason. Officials want to study various multi-modal options to address this. Recommended strategies will of course vary by region. This study was designated to satisfy state law of developing objectives to reduce greenhouse gases. In addition to the goal of making the Earth cleaner--which is very noble, providing extra options for people to get around certainly should be a prime objective for this study. RTA will seek a total of $171,600 of federal grant money through Caltrans to pay for the study. Caltrans has budgeted $1,800,000 in FTA Section 5304 funds for this program with a maximum grant award of $300,000 per application. The Riverside County Transportation Commission is behind this effort.

It's no question that the Inland Empire's spread-out development is contributing toward the heart of this problem. Riders living in many single family tract and ranch developments will have to do some walking or bicycling to get to/from a bus stop. That has long been a reality. It will continue to be a reality. Some commercial office parks in the county are also developed far away from RTA-served streets. The western business park district in Temecula is a prime example.

There are several proven solutions out there that RTA and local government officials should consider as the transit agency explores ways to address this problem both for local and express travel.

First & Last Mile - Local Trips: Getting productive transit service through lower density areas continues to be a challenge. Dial-A-Ride service open to the general public and transit routes that deviate have both long been desirable, but proven to be an expensive alternatives. For mobile riders who are not eligible for RTA's current Dial-A-Ride service which is available to seniors and the disabled public, complete streets have proven to make the journey between the origin/destination and the local bus stop safer and more friendly.

With the area's spread-out development, a non-motorized solution is to incorporate additional multi-modal amenities into existing streets. That could be as simple as adding missing sidewalks in tracts and developing cul-de-sacs in ways where the street dead-ends for cars, but continues on for bicycles and pedestrians, thus cutting down on the amount of time to get to the main road without needing to drive a car. Private communities can have these access points gated. Another solution to debate is allowing property owners whose backyard is adjacent to a major road but separated by a wall can be permitted to drill out a non-motorized gated access point.

It has also been proven that connector roads through lower density rural areas can be made more transit friendly simply by adding bicycle lanes and pathways that would connect the rural region to the major highway with the through-bus service.

First & Last Mile - Longer Regional/Commuter Trips: Park & Ride lots have long been a proven solution during commute hours for choice riders where a commuter can drive from his/her home to the local lot, leave the car at the home city, and then ride RTA CommuterLink, Metrolink, or a private carpool the rest of the way. Another solution that is proving well is enticing the marketplace to invest in more car-sharing services at receiving transit hubs where inbound transit riders and carpoolers who need access to a car during the day have this option. Prime candidates for such service would be receiving transit hubs and train stations in Orange County. That will help entice more ridesharing for the 91 Freeway corridor.

Hopefully RTA's proposed "First and Last Mile Strategic Mobility Assessment" will bring to light these facts. In addition the study aims to accomplish the following:
  • Evaluate first and last mile transit connectivity at facilities with existing or forecasted high ridership concentrations throughout western Riverside County.
  • Identify strategic sustainable improvements needed to maximize connectivity options to and from transit facilities.
  • Ensure all alternative modes of first and last mile motorized and non-motorized travel are well integrated to encourage regional transit use.
The study also promises to address the following:
  • Extensive analysis and site evaluation of transit centers, Metrolink train stations, major transfer hubs, high density activity centers, and park and ride lots.
  • Development of service alternatives with recommendations.
  • Stakeholder outreach activities to identify site specific solutions with the best potential to increase ridership and intermodal connectivity.
The Transit Coalition is well aware that the "First and Last mile" problem is a major barrier to transit use. Regardless of whether or not RTA is awarded the federal funds to complete this study, we will continue to address this issue here with real solutions.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Good Day for the Metrolink Perris Valley Line

Although ground has already been broken, The Riverside County Transportation Commission hosted an official ceremony kicking off the long-waited, long-overdue construction phase of the Metrolink Perris Valley Line. RCTC scheduled the event for today near the site of the March ARB station. Construction is scheduled to continue through 2015. Riverside Transit Agency officials have begun planning of how to integrate connecting bus routes with the extended service. We're counting on RTA to streamline the local bus routes in the Temecula and Murrieta areas to speed up cross-regional transit trip times outside of the rush hour for commuters headed to/from the Southwest area.

Metrolink - Positive Train Control

In addition, Metrolink announced the roll out of trains equipped with Positive Train Control. Positive Train Control (PTC) is a GPS-based safety technology which has the ability to significantly reduce the chances of train-to-train collisions, control derailments caused by speeding trains, and stop trains that veer off along incorrect rail branches or spurs caused by switches set in the wrong positions. Metrolink has published a detailed report and a video of how the technology works.

We predict PTC will be a vital asset for our regional rail transit system as fewer train wrecks will occur. PTC certainly won't stop motorists from driving around crossing gates nor prevent right-of-way trespassing, but it will certainly help prevent a repeat of the disastrous 2008 Chatsworth collision.

Positive Train Control and Garfield The Movie

An idea from Hollywood in 2004: Garfield sneaks his way to a Positive Train Control-like control panel booth in Los Angeles Union Station to remotely stop a departed Amtrak train in the film Garfield The Movie.
By the way, a footnote and idea from all this came from Hollywood last decade. Garfield The Movie, released in 2004--four years before the Chatsworth wreck--features a scene where Garfield the cat sneaks his way into a PTC-like control booth set in Los Angeles Union Station in an attempt to remotely stop and bring a departing Amtrak train back to the station in order to...Well, we won't spoil it, but Garfield fools with the controls, gets many trains routed onto the wrong tracks, numerous collisions are about to occur, but he eventually hits the "All Stop" panic button to stop the trains. He then routes his target train back to LAUS to continue his mission. Watch the movie to see where that fictional fiasco went, but for now, the real PTC has come.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

French Valley Parkway: Government Bureaucracy at its Finest

Government Waste: Do we really need to go through a complex approval process just to change out a few signs and add temporary striping to the right shoulder area?
On Monday, we exposed some potential unnecessary spending relative to Phase I of the French Valley Parkway interchange project. From a field study, we've noticed that some of the temporary infrastructure that will be removed once Phase II commences only a few years later were built as if they were permanent. That includes a concrete retaining wall that wouldn't be necessary had Phase I included the full project grading of the area. But the waste doesn't stop there. Also embarrassing is the costly amount of unnecessary bureaucracy mandated by the state that the City of Temecula has to go through in order to get Phase I fully open to the public.

Keep in mind that officials have been pressured to expedite the full opening of both Phase I and II because of safety on the I-15 freeway. It is now mid-February and the newly constructed Phase I is still not fully operational. The upgraded Winchester ramp opened late in January, but the French Valley Parkway offramp has yet to open. Some of the dangerous driving conditions has subsided, but the long line of stopped vehicles still occurs during peak hours and busy shopping days. So what is holding up the opening of the French Valley Parkway segment? Government bureaucracy and a complex approval process are to blame. According to Assistant City Manager Greg Butler through the Press Enterprise, Caltrans inspected the site. The state agency found that modifications to the signage and additional striping on the right shoulder were needed. Okay, fair enough.

However, the process of getting these simple fixes done is mired in unnecessary red tape, even with the long queue of stopped cars exiting Winchester and the safety hazards that goes with it. The city can't just ask Harris & Associates, the construction firm contracted for Phase I, to change out the non-compliant signs, paint the stripes, and be done with it. According to Butler, the city must first submit plans--even with these minor changes--to Caltrans. Caltrans must inspect those plans. Then, the city can complete Caltrans' request, of which must be inspected again by Caltrans. Do we all see where some of this bureaucracy can be simplified and streamlined? Such unnecessary work adds up to government waste. Worse yet, the highway still has a safety hazard. To be fair, state inspections are absolutely necessary and plans for large-scale projects should be reviewed ahead of time. But for a case like this, here would be an efficient, streamlined approach:
  1. Harris & Associates finishes construction of French Valley Parkway, Phase I.
  2. Harris & Associates requests Caltrans to do a full inspection of the site.
  3. Caltrans inspects and says: Change a few signs and add some additional striping on the right shoulder.
  4. Harris & Associates does as Caltrans says, within a week or less.
  5. An authorized Caltrans official is called over, inspects the changes made, and opens the offramp.
Does that sound reasonable?

French Valley Parkway is a vital infrastructure project, but it should not be mired in such government waste. That's exactly what's happening with California's high speed rail project: Good infrastructure looking bad all due to unnecessary spending and bureaucracy.

Moving forward, the opening of the Phase I southbound French Valley Parkway offramp will help clear a hazardous southbound queue line bottleneck that has contributed toward numerous collisions in the area including a recent fatality and an RTA bus collision a few years ago. But both Phase II and the development of high occupancy vehicle and transit infrastructure will be necessary components to get this region fully moving again safely: The former will redistribute heavy traffic demands and clear the both the northbound and southbound I-15 freeway bottleneck at Winchester Road. The latter will entice more people to rideshare to/from Temecula in both directions. Let's get these projects moving but without the government waste this time!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Was there some Government Waste with the French Valley Parkway project?

French Valley Parkway Interchange layout: Construction crews finished Phase I which included an offramp from southbound I-15 to Jefferson Avenue. Phase II will be undergoing its design phase which will include barrier-separated collector lanes. Future long-range plans calls for high occupancy vehicle express lane infrastructure in the median area which is shown in purple.
As southwest area officials go through piles of red tape to get Phase I of the French Valley Parkway Interchange opened, we took note that the finished infrastructure of this first phase is perhaps one of the most questionable construction projects we've seen. With precious state transportation dollars continuously being re-purposed elsewhere combined with inflated infrastructure costs, one would think that the City of Temecula and the California Department of Transportation would do what they can to not spend more than what is necessary while at the same point, expedite this project to clear a very serious safety bottleneck.

But no. Some parts of the design of Phase I shows that the spending spree of transportation dollars continues to go unchecked no thanks to unnecessary bureaucracy and lack of oversight. From a field study, we found three items of interest--Two very questionable, one good. And we've included quite a few pictures and diagrams to make them clear: 

Half-Graded French Valley Parkway Segment:

When Phase I was being designed and built, we expected the road segment that connects the I-15 to Jefferson Avenue would be fully graded to support the full build-out master plan of French Valley Parkway so that costs would be streamlined.

That did not happen.

Only the northern half of the segment was graded and built. The southern half was left untouched, leaving literally a half-built roadway over half-graded land sliced where French Valley Parkway's center divider is proposed to be. Because the southern half of the road was never graded, the northern side had to be supported by a temporary retaining wall. However, that wall was built as if it were to be permanent infrastructure--made of out concrete with a top metal railing found on many bridges.

If Phase I included the full grading of the interchange, this temporary retaining wall would not have been necessary.
To add the icing on the cake, this wall also includes an artistic rock pattern. When Phase II commences with the construction of the south side of the road, this wall and its rock pattern design will have to be demolished, so we hope you enjoy it for the few years it will be up.

This kind of planning is certainly questionable to say the least and we hope government officials have a good reason why this phase first phase was built the way it was. And we're not buying any bureaucracy as an excuse. 

Jersey Barriers

It has long been a common practice to use portable Jersey barriers when its use will be temporary. Follow this link for an example of this for a multi-phase interchange project out in Arizona.

Phase I did not follow this lead. A concrete barrier segment was placed at a turning point in between the southbound off-ramp at French Valley Parkway and the westbound segment of the roadway going toward Jefferson Avenue. It was to help guide and warn vehicles of the sharp right turn at this point. This turning point will become an intersection at Phase II.

The temporary Phase I barrier in the circled area may have fared better fiscally if portable Jersey barriers were used instead of a fixed one.
However, this barrier was constructed like a permanent freeway median, not with portable ones normally used for temporary purposes. Again, when Phase II commences, this barrier will have to be demolished, whereas portable barriers can be re-purposed elsewhere.

We admit that the cost of this barrier is not significant compared with the rest of Phase I costs. But even if it was worth a few thousand dollars, that's still taxpayer transportation money. Again, we hope government officials have a good explanation for this.

High Occupancy Vehicle/Transit Infrastructure & Safety

To be fair, not all is bad with this project in terms of planning. Phase II of the French Valley Parkway interchange project will be compatible with future long-range plans to build a set of dual carpool express lanes in each direction according to the project's environmental report. The EIR also includes space set aside for a future long-range direct fly-over access ramp between the carpool lanes and the I-215. Therefore, high occupancy vehicle infrastructure will not be threatened per this report. Also, the upgraded Winchester Road offramp opened late in January which helped clear away some of the dangerous driving conditions through this area. However, public officials must take this as a lesson.

"Incomplete" or multi-phase freeway interchanges to be completed within the near future should be designed and built in ways where the future phases and projects can simply be added later with minimal destruction of the built infrastructure. That would include grading the entire interchange area ahead of time and using portable concrete barriers to close off incomplete segments. Phase I of the French Valley Parkway interchange should have followed this model and should serve as a reminder for both state and City of Temecula officials as they plan for other multi-phase transportation projects like the Western Bypass corridor, upgraded express bus services, the Twin Cities Transit Center, and high occupancy vehicle lane infrastructure.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Open Source Software: Some good news for the environment and transit?

On Wednesday, this blog posted some examples of foolish excuses that force us Americans to discard electronics and appliances that should otherwise be repaired for the good the environment. Proprietary parts and firmware falling out of manufacturer support are the prime claims. The reasons are obvious. Large corporate manufacturers can profit more by introducing and selling new products while phasing out support of existing ones. When such proprietary parts become "no longer supported", end-users are forced to throw out and replace broken machines. The big businesses can then hoard the profits.

Such a reality leads to an increase in de-manufacturing, a process that can be harmful to both the ecosystem and the worker if not done carefully, especially with the destruction of larger appliances. We've mentioned there is a growing number of end-users and environmentalists who have had enough of this culture. Market demands for change is up. And there may be some good news that will benefit the economy, environment, and our transit fleets. That's the open source software movement.

How Open Source Software and Common User-Repairable Parts might be able to combat the Throw-Away Appliance Culture

Open source software is computer software with its source code made available and licensed where end-users and developers can freely use, study, change and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose. In contrast, proprietary software--whether free or paid--comes with restrictive copyright licenses. The debate over open source and proprietary software often gets heated. Both forms have their benefits. Both provide IT and supporting service-sector jobs. Both are necessary in the information/technology industry. But end-users need to have better choices when it comes to appliances and electronics. The open source movement could provide the solution.

We are aware that there are open source solutions out in the marketplace that aren't quite ready for prime-time, but are certainly headed that way. For example, the Hyperloop pod system certainly is way too premature to endorse, but the marketplace should continue to improve pneumatic tube transport technology as it could have a future. Likewise, open source video game consoles and Linux-based operating systems for desktop computers to compete with Windows 8, Mac OS, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 still have some maturing to do. Open source software drivers that will allow old "unsupported" computer hardware like printers to function on newer computers are still being developed and matured.

But there are other open programs that have reached prime-time status and have been competing strongly in the marketplace. A few examples are the Firefox browser, Android operating system, VLC Media Player and the 3D computer graphics software Blender. Also, let's not forget that a significant number of websites are housed on servers that use Linux operating systems.

Several electronics and appliances today use proprietary circuits and firmware. Firmware is a component that provides the control program for the device. Should any of these chips fail and the manufacturer no longer provides support, tough luck. Now, imagine if these electronics used common parts with firmware that is open source. If any of these circuits failed including the firmware chip, one would be able to replace these parts by going to the hardware store and replacing the defective part using a soldering kit.

There are entrepreneurs out there exploring such eco-friendly alternatives with user-repairable parts because of the growing demand. These small business innovators won't care if third-party electricians or service workers modify or alter the device to suit the owners' needs. Plus, they won't play games by not making it extremely difficult to repair the device. People wanting to service the device will be treated as decision-making, self-reliant adults. Yes, that could open the door to some unintended consequences. If left unregulated, chaos would be certain. That's why California currently requires service companies to get licenses. Regulators need to enforce this policy while ensuring the license process is streamlined and business-friendly for start-up providers.

So the other big question is: How does all of this benefit transportation?

What does Open Source Software have to do with Transit Advocacy? It's quite simple. Just how the Silicon Valley became the job hub for IT jobs with several ways to get around, Moreno Valley could become the open source IT hub, Perris and Lake Elsinore could house the added service-sector jobs, and San Bernardino could house shipping fulfilment centers. Such jobs makes our transit system more productive; the reasons are two-fold.

Number one: Transit agencies collect more tax revenue when the economy is robust. Number two: More productive workers are boarding the bus which drives up farebox recovery. Both factors lead to the resources necessary for improved transit.

The Open Source movement is well on its way to becoming prime-time which will benefit the economy, environment, and mobility. We might be seeing some changes to our disposable culture possibly as soon as the end of the decade.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Environment: Are Disposable Appliances coming to an end?

Last September, this blog posted some commentary of how present day home appliances are doing more harm to the environment than good. The Energy Star logo slapped on many home electronics like dishwashers, toasters, vacuum cleaners, ovens, and washing machines becomes meaningless whenever a very minor breakdown or compatibility issue occurs.

Today, such small problems force users to replace the whole unit in lieu of having the issue repaired. So-called e-waste recycling programs goes unregulated in developing countries, causing devastating environmental injustice and worker injuries in de-manufacturing areas.

There is growing evidence that this damaging trend may be ending thanks to innovators, open source software engineers, small business entrepreneurs, environmentalists, and a growing pool of users demanding "Enough!"... It's just a matter of time.

Public officials need to debate incentives to get the private sector to move on these ideas here at home so that these ideas can materialize in the marketplace. However, large corporations continue to deny the environmental problem by pushing the sales of new units at the cost of saving and repairing existing ones. Right now, there is no question that Americans are forced to throw out appliances and electronics for dumb reasons. A few examples:

Having to Replace the Broken Quiet Series Dishwasher

This Maytag Quiet Series 300 dishwasher has a broken down control panel. A minor issue on its circuit board is preventing the push buttons from functioning. However, replacing the faulty circuits or damaged wires involves much more than finding the spare parts at the local Home Depot or Radio Shack. The control panel is connected to the rest of the unit using non-traditional Torx screws, thus requiring the user to have the Torx bits or driver. Also, the circuits and firmware used for the dishwasher are proprietary. Because such parts can fall out of support by the manufacturer, replacement circuits are more difficult to attain. That drives up repair costs beyond the purchase price of a new unit, forcing the user to replace the machine. Will its de-manufacturing process be "Quiet" in the environment? We'll let you make the call.

"Unsupported" Functioning Computer Printers

This next problem really caught our attention. Both of these all-in-one laser printers, made less than a decade ago, function perfectly except for one very minor issue. They don't work on computers that use present-day 64-bit Windows operating systems which includes the majority of Windows 7 and Windows 8 machines. They function flawlessly on Windows XP.

The only thing Canon and HP had to do was release a basic software driver so that everyday users could simply plug it into their computers and get to work. Because the corporate focus was on selling brand new models, the excuse here is that the product is "no longer supported"; therefore no software driver for 64-bit Windows systems. To be fair, users can still use the units as copiers and fax machines, but they cannot print from or scan directly to the computer, rendering the functioning all-in-one printers useless for many users. Open-source software engineers are working on this compatibility problem and have been able to get open-source Linux operating systems to get these older units working once more with newer computers, but most of the solutions are not yet ready for prime time and are in no way set up for everyday users to understand.

By the way, if you're in a position where you have to clean the scanner's lamp mirrors or replace the glass on the HP unit, good luck. Although the unit uses common Phillips screws, nearly the entire outer shell has to be disassembled in order to remove the glass panel and the lamp. The whole assembly process can take over an hour.

Boy, it is hard to fix things nowadays.

Combating the Environmental Injustice and the Disposable Appliance Culture

Despite these discouraging facts, we believe the days of environmentally destructive disposable electronics is coming to an end, possibly by the end of the decade. How so? Thanks to new innovative ideas combined with the ongoing growth in the open-source software movement, electronics with user-repairable parts are well on their way of making their way back to the marketplace. When will it be prime-time? That's speculation. But what's not speculation is that the "unsupported printer" or "unsupported part" will one day be no more. Users will one day have plenty of affordable alternative options to fix broken down electronics instead of throwing them out. More on that on Friday.

Monday, February 10, 2014

When High Occupancy Toll Lanes become too popular

Coalition Concept: Should the 91 Express Lanes approach full capacity even with high tolls, the lanes would become a free dedicated 3+ carpool lane until capacity opens up for toll-paying traffic. Local officials should get its bond debt paid off so that the HOT Lanes can support free non-transponder 3+ carpooling with transit infrastructure.
Note: Concept only. Not endorsed by OCTA or any public entity.
High Occupancy toll lanes in the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego County were designed in part to allow solo drivers to buy their way out of slow general purpose lanes and into a faster moving carpool lane. With the exception of the Bay Area toll bridges, high occupancy toll lanes in both of these regions support free non-transponder carpooling without the requirement for a toll transponder, a sound policy that allows any HOV to have free access to the high occupancy lane while permitting solo drivers access for a toll should capacity permit. Overwhelming evidence shows that by not placing a pre-registration toll transponder mandate on high occupancy vehicles, carpooling becomes more encouraged.

However, some HOT lane segments in the Bay Area are reported to be reaching full capacity during parts of the afternoon rush hour. As a result, automatic dynamic entry point signs have been designating the HOT lanes as 2+ carpool lanes. That is, only high occupancy vehicles with 2 or more occupants would be permitted entry into the facilities. This policy has been catching toll-paying solos off guard, causing some commuter frustration on the road. Stats overwhelmingly show that there are numerous solo drivers in the Bay Area who are willing to tax themselves into the carpool lane. However, whenever the lanes reach full capacity and no excess capacity can be sold even with high tolls, then it's "Carpools Only." The toll lane is sold out. Solo drivers need to be prepared for such situations during peak hours. High occupancy vehicle infrastructure is and should be designated for high occupancy vehicles and there will be times that no space will be available for toll-paying solo drivers. That's a reality.

Should a HOT lane corridor ever experience chronic periods of congestion with speeds under 45-50 mph which some segments in the Bay Area may be experiencing, there are some sound debatable options. Officials can identify where the bottlenecks are and fix them, consider improving express bus transit routes and connecting local lines with an early morning to late night service span, entice the marketplace to invest in more car-sharing outlets at receiving transit hubs for those wanting to rideshare but need affordable access to a car during the day, and/or raising the occupancy requirement for carpool to 3 during during peak congestion following a strong carpool/transit marketing campaign.

For corridors with a single HOT lane in each direction, officials can also consider doubling the capacity to two HOT lanes each way. Bay Area officials have plans to double the capacity of several HOT lanes while maintaining the 2-person occupancy requirement for carpool, which is a fair solution to provide the infrastructure for the growing HOV traffic. The inclusion of transit infrastructure and direct access ramps also needs to be considered in long term plans to reduce weaving. However, imposing mandatory tolls or transponders on high occupancy vehicle traffic have already shown not to be desirable solutions.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Educating LA's Bus Rider's Union and Our View on Fare Increases

Up in the Los Angeles area, Metro continues to discuss increasing its fares over a period of time while adjusting other prices as a means to counter an operations deficit in the coming years. Metro is currently advancing two proposals that have different rates of increase for the base fare. However, both proposals would allow for free transfers within 90 minutes of paying the base fare. Cash-paying riders needing to transfer lines will see an overall fare decrease. For everybody else, fares are proposed to go up. One large LA bus transit advocacy group, the Bus Riders Union, opposes the fare hikes and is going as far as calling them "racist". Really?

A few words about the BRU

The Bus Riders Union in not a free standing, individual group, but is a project of the progressive group the Labor/Community Strategy Center. The BRU describes itself as a transit advocacy group dedicated toward fighting bus overcrowding on Metro Buses. The BRU was founded around 1994 by Eric Mann as a project of the Labor/Community Strategy Center of which Mann is the Executive Director.

Essentially, the BRU believes that Metro bus service should be frequent and extensive as possible, while enabling most patrons to have a seat on the majority of trip with minimal fares. They are against any transit infrastructure project relating to urban rail, regional rail and even bus rapid transit, contending that these modes only serve affluent white people while ignoring the core ridership base of Metro’s transit service--poor people of color. Because the BRU views this as a civil rights issue, the group sued Metro in 1995 in federal court and entered into a consent decree agreement with Metro, gaining concessions on fares, bus passes, expanded bus service and improved bus frequency on the most crowded lines. The consent degree has since expired, freeing Metro from BRU control. The BRU derives its funding from large individual contributions and a small amount from foundation grants. It has received legal support from the ACLU, NAACP, and other civil rights groups.

The BRU has 200 active members, 3,000 dues-paying members, and 50,000 supporters. The organization follows a strict adherence to ideology, even if the facts prove otherwise. With the exception of freezing rail spending and its ill-advised racial claims, some of the organization's goals mentioned above are noble, but the lower fares are unattainable under the current economic and political climate. Both the economy and the value and spending power of the dollar would have to be strengthened considerably for the BRU's goals to come true without bankrupting the government.

A case for a fare increase

There are a number of fact-based issues that can force a local transit agency to resort to hiking fares as an alternative to cutting service. Important transit-related issues such as funding displacement from the state, inflated capital infrastructure costs, gang crimes and vandalism, decreasing spending power of the dollar, inflation, and a soft market economy all contribute toward an agency's decision to increase fares. However, these issues appear not to be important with the BRU, at least in the public square of debate. It's leaders don't appear to see them as relevant because they don't pertain directly to their motto "We're the BRU, and this is our fight. Mass transportation is a human right." Since Metro is in a position to propose increased fares, here come the charges of racial discrimination once again.

So if we back a fare increase as a last resort to prevent cuts of productive transit routes, we're a racist according to the BRU.

That's where we have to step in and set the record straight. And we hope that the fair-minded individual dues-paying members and supporters of the BRU, who really want to improve LA's bus transit system and quality of life are reading this and taking note.

Fare hikes are better than service cuts

Fare increases are certainly a debatable solution to solving budget problems. They are in fact universally loathed. Ask any transit rider whether or not they would pay more to ride the bus and he/she would likely dissent and say, "No Way!". However, if the same rider was told that their preferred bus is going to be cut, the fare hike would not sound so bad, especially if there are no other viable transit options. Riders have shown over the years that they want efficient transit service and are willing to pay for it. The evidence of that is overwhelming.  

Spending our transit money wisely

Fare increases should be a band-aid, last-resort solution to prevent the tearing apart of productive transit lines. However, public officials must stop misspending precious public resources on waste. The BRU labels any spending on rail and BRT infrastructure "waste" and calls Metro to freeze such spending. What the BRU really should be asking the government to "freeze" is actual government waste, not rail transit infrastructure.

Sacramento has a long history of displacing precious public infrastructure funds to programs that really do not benefit the public. There's no question that the state spends money on foolish things. To name one, Caltrans had big plans last year to spend $10 million for a PR campaign when the eastern span of the Oakland Bay Bridge opened. Governor Jerry Brown was forced to halt that spending boondoggle after the local press exposed its numbers.

Another questionable item is the high costs to get high speed rail infrastructure built for the state. We cannot afford to have high speed rail done wrong. The technology has already been proven to be efficient in many parts of the world beyond reasonable doubt. There's enough evidence that HSR technology can be incorporated into our public transportation infrastructure. State officials have got to get the per-mile costs down so that marketplace investors would be better inclined to pay for the rest of the project.

In addition, there are new reports of some government employees double-dipping into the public pension system, namely retiring with a pension paid for in part by us and then applying and working for another government agency under a different pension program, again paid for in part by us. Pensions have traditionally been a retirement benefit and must be maintained. However, they must not serve as free money fountains for public workers who switch jobs. Also, skyrocketing personnel costs must be addressed. According to the Press Enterprise, 75% of San Bernardino's general fund goes toward employees.

Those are the items the BRU really should be asking officials to "freeze", not rail infrastructure.

Cleaning up crime and revitalizing South LA

The BRU needs to stop opposing stronger law enforcement in South LA. The group currently advocates for "1000 More Buses, 1000 Less Police," calling on the city Mayor to fund "social services, not criminalization" and labeling legit criminal cases against gang activity in troubled neighborhoods into charges of racial bias. We and the vast majority of residents would like to see decreased crime in South LA. That's why we have law enforcement. Also, one ethnic group does not force another ethnic group into the criminal culture.

Stats show that when police flooded South LA, crime went down with some gangs migrating--sadly--into the Inland Empire. South LA is much safer than the 1990's, but still has a long way to go. Placing 1,000 more police and concerned service-minded citizens, even if it be volunteer reserve deputies to patrol street gang areas, community-oriented groups who promote stronger family units, and caring mentors who help fatherless youth to keep them out of gangs should be a goal. And residents must be protected with zero-tolerance policies on police corruption and racial discrimination. For those already incarcerated for crimes, programs need to be available for those who desire to turn away from the criminal culture and reintegrate back into the community once their sentences are served. That's how more African Americans, Latinos, and every other race can prosper equally in society rather than spending their lives in jail or on the run.

South LA's transit fleets and the people who use them deserve to be in a robust state, not mired in crime or vandalism. As street crimes go down, quality of life goes up. In addition, with the decreased crime rates and with more LA youth disciplined and determined to be selfless, productive and sober workers, more investors would come in and revitalize South LA's commercial corridors with both entry-level and high paying job opportunities for these youth with better and affordable housing options for hardworking families regardless of what skin color they have.

And finally, any group obstructing decades-overdue transit infrastructure and sound law enforcement broadcasts negativity to the neighborhood it claims to serve. Such obstruction leaves these neighborhoods in positions where its law-abiding citizens have to deal with such troubling issues on their own. That's discrimination.

With a strong member and support base from South LA, the BRU and the other civil rights organizations have a key opportunity to strongly improve the city's quality of life while fulfilling their goal of ridding racial discrimination. Their members need to help The Transit Coalition, put together these facts, confront the leadership, and propose real solutions to improve LA's mass transit system and quality of life for people of all races. Let's get South LA moving and on the road to peace and justice.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Getting the LA Metro Gold Line into the Inland Empire

LA's fast expanding rail transit network promises one day to connect light rail trains from Los Angeles east through the San Gabriel Valley into the Inland Empire with the Ontario Airport potentially serving as the easternmost terminal station. The specific route that will accomplish this is the Metro Gold Line.

Just over 10 years ago, Gold Line Phase 1 opened between Los Angeles Union Station and Pasadena and spanned 13.7-miles. This route through Pasadena took decades to plan, fund, and build, but it proved to be very successful by the mid 2000's. The line was proposed in the early 1980s as a part of a more extensive regional urban rail network which is known today as Metro Rail.

Eastside Extension

LA's master plan included a branch through Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. In November 2009, the Gold Line Eastside Extension opened to the public which extended the Gold Line from Union Station southeast toward Monterey Park. Officials are exploring additional branches further east.

Foothill Extension toward the Inland Empire

The Foothill Extension from Pasadena to Azusa broke ground in 2010 and is scheduled to be completed around the second half of 2015.

From Azusa, another extension is proposed to go toward Montclair. Once completed, a trip from the Montclair area to downtown Pasadena will take just over 40 minutes and further to Los Angeles will take approximately 75 minutes. Keep in mind that for those longer-haul trips, Metrolink remains an option. A trip from Montclair to LAUS currently takes just over an hour. The Gold Line extension project will begin advanced conceptual engineering this year. Cost approximately is $950 million. No funding has been secured for now. Once officials have the money, final design and construction will take about four years to complete.

Ontario Airport Extension

The Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority recently approved studying an extension of the line past Montclair and into the Inland Empire towards the Ontario Airport that will be $450 million. The study will look into two other transportation modes to see what would work best to connect Gold Line passengers to the airport. A previous study commissioned by the agency in 2008 concluded that a light rail line to the airport was feasible. Sadly, light rail transit in this area ranks low in a list of recommended projects formulated by a San Bernardino Associated Governments committee. However, expanding mass transit in general through the region is not on the back burner.

Omnitrans has big plans to extend the sbX bus rapid transit system all the way to Montclair. Both the starting E Street sbX line and the Redlands Passenger Rail project will boost transit ridership on the Metrolink San Bernardino Line once the San Bernardino Transit Center opens. Another transit infrastructure project involves improving the track capacity of this busy Metrolink train route. That could mean additional trains as advocated through Metrolink Max. Transit will thus improve through this region.

However, establishing seamless transit connections to/from the Ontario Airport cannot be ignored and placing the eastern terminal of the Metro Gold Line at a major destination like a commercial airport would make this light rail transit route very productive. If public officials can entice both the major and start-up airline carriers to land more of their planes at ONT, improving its ground transportation infrastructure which includes the Gold Line extension would be more feasible and desirable. There's lots of means, opportunities and ideas to get this light rail line funded and paid for. Let's start debating some real solutions.

Monday, February 3, 2014

RTA: Federal Transit Administration Triennial Review and a look at the federal rules

Riverside Transit Agency
The Federal Transit Administration paid a visit and reviewed the Riverside Transit Agency to assess compliancy related to the Urbanized Area Formula Grant program. The overall review commenced last August with a number of meetings that led to the feds visiting and touring the agency.

The FTA found no deficiencies when it reviewed several areas ranging from finances, to technical, to prohibitions. The feds found RTA to be in full compliance with one exception. The reviewers found that RTA's Safety Security Program Plan was outdated and recorded the finding in the final report. RTA promises to address the update by the end of March. So, RTA's compliancy with the federal government is healthy.

The Urbanized Area Formula Grant program which is a major source of federal funding that we pay into goes towards RTA transit infrastructure such as transit centers, buses, and other capital and operating projects. The federal government reviews and evaluates RTA's performance as a grant recipient every three years.

A few interesting federal rules to point out:

Public Hearings: RTA must have a written locally developed process for soliciting and considering public comment before raising a fare or carrying out a major transportation service reduction. RTA's public comment process goes beyond what's expected from the feds. The public normally has a whole month to review proposals and comment during such hearing periods which often spans between two monthly Board meetings. RTA also offers several outlets to receive comments. In fact, through the Coalition, RTA's Transportation Now, and independent bloggers, RTA and public officials receive constructive comments all the time. "Public Hearings" never close here.

Half Fare Rule: Ever wonder why bus agencies have reduced fares for seniors and the disabled? That's a federal mandate for grant recipients that is very fair. Here's the rule: Fares for these groups  during off peak hours or for an individual presenting a valid Medicare card shall not pay more than one half of the peak hour fares. The policy is very noble because many of these people are normally out of work, lack the ability to get a job, and use the bus for other constructive purposes such as doctor appointments.

No Charter Bus Service: A few folks from within the Inland Empire argue a good way for RTA to raise additional revenue is to offer charter bus service to private groups. And that is a valid idea as such service has found to be profitable when demand is sufficient. So why do the feds generally ban grant recipients from the practice? Many believe it would damage the services offered by the private sector. Some would also see the service as a government agency cash fountain and oppose it. Both are valid arguments. Private charters have proven to be profitable in the marketplace and the private sector should continue to handle this business. Strong competition leads to excelled services, more choices and better charter rates for private groups needing to book a bus. The carriers should also be inclined to stop their buses at or near RTA transit hubs. The feds do allow some exceptions.

No Premium Express Routes to Special Events: Sadly, the no charter bus rule also currently bans public agencies from offering special premium public express service to high density special events like football games and county fairs unless it is part of an existing route. The rule was implemented in 2008 which forced several transit agencies around Southern California to cancel such productive lines. Unlike charter bus service where it is reserved and traditionally open only to a select group, premium express bus service is open to any member of the public to board and ride, without advance reservation, to a high density event that is open to the public. Such special express runs certainly do not mimic traditional charter buses. They are a public transit service. The feds need to restore that definition and allow agencies to operate these buses once again.

School Trippers: Grantees are prohibited from providing exclusive school bus service unless the service qualifies and is a approved by the FTA Administrator under an allowable exemption. That's why school trippers are part of existing routes, operates like a traditional route and--very importantly--are open to the public, not just students.