Why the Inland Empire Transit System is not as strong as it should be

During our analysis of the proposed changes in store for the Riverside Transit Agency, Omnitrans, and Los Angeles Metro, we've noted that there are policy changes that need to take place which go well beyond what the planning departments of these agencies can do. For years, we've called for a robust public transportation network for the Inland Empire. However, the public resources have to come from somewhere. One of those sources is getting infrastructure costs under control so that more money can be allocated to transit operations.

Many transit supporters are correct that if transit agencies like RTA had a mere fraction of the massive amounts of money purposed for highways, improved bus service would be possible.
Photo: Riverside Transit Agency
Inflated Highway Infrastructure Costs

Many transit advocates believe a reason why our transit systems are underfunded is simply because too much transportation money is being allocated toward expensive highway infrastructure and freeway projects.

Generally speaking, that is certainly a correct argument and perhaps one of the top frustrations for those who do transit advocacy. It is a proven reality and obvious fact that if a tiny fraction of massive highway-dedicated funds were re-purposed to RTA and Omnitrans, RTA's operating budget would be more than doubled, both the long-range sbX and RapidLink BRT proposals would be fully built out, LA Metro and Omnitrans would not be forced to raise fares, RTA would not be dependent on JARC funds to upgrade years-overdue service span upgrades, and every proposed transit center in Riverside County would be built and paid for including a multi-modal transit hub at the Riverside Downtown Metrolink station.

However, what transit advocates should also know is the simple fact that public works capital projects all over the state cost way more than the current private sector market rates even during a soft economy here in the Inland Empire. That is without doubt the icing on the cake that must be broadcasted into the public square debate.

Why can't RCTC afford free non-transponder 2+ carpooling for the proposed I-15 HOT Express Lanes?
Graphic: RCTC
Why Tolling?

To make matters worse, infrastructure costs are so high that both the SANBAG and the Riverside County Transportation Commission argue that tolling will be necessary to bring robust HOV infrastructure into traffic-choked corridors beyond building a single carpool lane, robust HOV/transit infrastructure like the El Monte Busway and the I-15 Express Lanes that would last and be freely moving for decades.

Here at home, RCTC is expanding the 91 Express Lanes to the I-15 and proposes future dual high occupancy express lanes for the I-15 freeway each way, but financial constraints would require RCTC to exclude transit-oriented direct access ramps, adopt a policy where 3's a carpool, every vehicle in the HOT lanes will need a FasTrak toll transponder including the 3+ carpools, and that discounted tolls may charged to the HOV's. Here's what RCTC has to say.

The projected growth and development forecasts indicate that traffic volumes will continue to increase along the corridor. Traditional Federal and State funds are not available to provide this needed congestion relief; therefore Tolled Express Lanes are the most beneficial solution. Tolled Express Lanes are proven to offer time savings in all lanes and commuter choice when traveling through an area of continually high traffic volumes. Tolled Express Lanes are designed to save time, offer choice and reliability, boost safety, enhance access, promote ridesharing, and reduce pollution along the region’s roadways.

However, RCTC omitted some important facts in its statement, thus leading the public to imply that transportation tax funds are not collecting enough money. That is not the case. By the way, The Transit Coalition generally supports HOT lanes with transit infrastructure and the following usage policy: Except for the 91 where the carpool occupancy requirement should stay at 3+ simply due to high demands, carpools 2 or more should travel free always without needing to pre-register for a FasTrak. But why are traditional tax funds "not available" according to RCTC? For what reasons? We'll tell you why.

The State's Misspending of Record-Breaking Transportation Tax Funds

Take a look at these charts put out by the Census Bureau and the California Board of Equalization:

Not Seasonally Adjusted T13 Motor Fuels Sales Tax [Millions of Dollars]
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
These reports show that both the federal government and the state are getting records amounts of fuel tax money from us. Both governing bodies are getting more transportation tax revenue than ever before. Yes, revenue did take a short-range dip during the recession, but taxes have fully recovered whereas the local economy has not. The problem is not that we have enough transportation tax money to grow the transit system, but how it's being spent. Here is a look at the facts:

According this Census Bureau spreadsheet, state and local governments throughout the nation are taking in an average of $10-$11 billion in fuel taxes per quarter since 2011. Car taxes were $7-8 billion per quarter. That adds up to $68 billion in transportation-related taxes per year. Both stats are at record levels.

For California, more records are being broken. According to the California Board of Equalization, the state will received just under $7 billion in transportation taxes, a vast majority from the gas pump and just under $1 billion from commercial vehicle weight fees--a record that surpassed FY2007-2008 mark just before the economy tanked. This fiscal year, the estimate is more than $7 billion which might be higher factoring in the $4+ per gallon price spike that occurred last month. We'll likely see more records ahead but the local economy and job market are not much better here at home.

At the federal level, fuel tax receipts for 2013 clocked in at just under $30 billion according to the Federal Highway Administration, another record with inflation. In '94, the feds collected about $13.9 billion.

With that kind of transportation tax money collected and the fact that construction costs and working salaries are down in the marketplace simply due to the stubbornly soft Inland economy with the job market flooded with many experienced construction workers seeking the few full time jobs for less pay, both of The Transit Coalition's long-range future vision for LA and Inland Empire should be built out, in operations, and fully paid for. Our transit infrastructure, buses, and trains should be at their absolute prime. Statewide high speed rail and Metrolink Max should be built out fully with no debt. But our system clearly shows that our record transportation taxes are not fully making it to the rails and roads as they should even with all that transportation money flowing into Sacramento and Washington DC. So, just where is it all going?

It's clear that government waste and inflated costs are certainly out of control at the state level. Political ideology and foolish spending are the prime culprits. It's very clear that RTA, Omnitrans, SANBAG, and RCTC cannot control this issue on their own. It has to be reformed at the state and federal levels. But evidence shows that political ideology and special-interest pandering in the state legislature are going to continue where ill-advised policies keep public works projects expensive even through a soft economy with the special interests feeding from this out-of-control money fountain.

But that's no excuse to do nothing. Elected officials here at the local level need to stand up for what is right by putting out a firm message, pass resolutions and inform the public of why our transit and infrastructure systems are mired in such a mess without spinning or omitting these facts. Our local governments need to present real solutions to fix these problems, and not tolerate any more excuse-making from the state.

One last fact: Last July, we took a field study along the I-15 freeway in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. In 2011, we toured the Phoenix Valley area. Their transit and highway infrastructure is keeping up with the growth. All three generally have smoother roads and growing transit systems--They're not perfect, hence some outter parts of the Phoenix Valley Metro system should be  hub-and-spoke instead of grid, but they are in a much healthier state. All three states that house these urban centers take in fewer tax dollars at the gas pump than California.