Wednesday, April 30, 2014

National Train Day, LA Union Station, and the Downtown Riverside Transit Center

Graphic: Los Angeles Metro
Train fans and Transit Advocates: There's a huge family event taking place at Los Angeles Union Station this Saturday, May 3. That is the combined Diamond Jubilee Celebration of the historic train depot which turns 75 in May and the annual National Train Day event. Los Angeles Metro has published a detailed program on its website. Both the Metrolink San Bernardino Line and the Foothill Transit Silver Streak rapid express bus from Montclair connect the Inland Empire to LAUS quickly.

Here are some interesting facts about the historic train depot of which support some of our views and positions of future transit centers here in the Inland Empire. Well before LAUS was built in May of 1939, Los Angeles had an issue of traffic and safety issues caused by competing rail providers. That was the pre-World War II and pre-Interstate Highway period where the private marketplace handled intercity rail transit. The big names were Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and Atchison Topeka/Santa Fe.

Back then, Los Angeles officials demanded that a centralized terminal be built. The railroad companies objected and proposed a network of aerial connector tracks above the city streets. When the situation was put before the voters, an overwhelming majority wanted a central terminal which would today become Los Angeles Union Station.

Centralized transit stations have long proven to be desirable and feasible both for urban centers and the surrounding suburbs.

San Bernardino officials are currently working on and building a smaller scale "Union Station" of its own in downtown San Bernardino. It will serve as a single multi-modal transit hub which will connect Metrolink trains, the sbX Green Line, express buses, and numerous local Omnitrans buses all at a single terminal. We're hoping that local officials can also entice Greyhound, Southern California casinos and other marketplace bus providers to stop their buses at or near this station. With nearly two dozen bus bays, why not allow the private sector coaches to use some of the vacant spaces?

In Riverside, we're still waiting on the word of what is going to happen there in terms of getting a robust transit center in town. The debate is whether officials should upgrade the existing Downtown Terminal Station or developing the extra bus bays at the downtown Metrolink station and relocate the transit hub there. Officials have been trying to solve this issue for a decade which has long been mired in one funding issue after another. The Riverside Transit Agency will release its Comprehensive Operations Analysis study within the next few months which would include a recommendation.

As demonstrated by LAUS, we have long advocated for the Riverside Transit Center to be a multi-modal transit hub at the existing Metrolink station and we submit a sound and executable solution that is paid for and won't require decades of waiting. Because the City of Riverside supports building the transit center at the train station, it should designate the Metrolink station area as a specific plan--More specifically, a high density marketplace job hub. Smart growth developers from the private sector would be inclined through tax rebates and the pre-prepared specific plan to develop the transit amenities as part of a robust marketplace job hub over the existing parking lot. The following would be included into the master plan:
  • Multiple high density marketplace commercial and mixed-use buildings which would bring in much-needed private sector jobs into downtown Riverside. The building architecture would be visually attractive, grand and be consistent with Riverside's history.
  • Additional marketplace smart growth development over the existing parking lot adjacent to the County Administrative center.
  • The development of retail storefronts on the bottom floors which includes outlets for intercity transit providers like Greyhound, Megabus, and Amtrak.
  • Two or more public parking structures that would be publicly owned. General public would pay a fee. All parking fee revenue to be used solely within the specific plan area. Retail storefront patrons and transit users would park for free using their tickets or receipts for validation at the parking toll booth.
  • Two hour metered parking maximums along Vine Street and connecting roads.
  • Construction of 15-20 total bus bays along the existing driveway separating the train platforms with the existing parking lot.
  • Construction and integration of a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over the 91 Freeway within the development, seamlessly connecting the existing pedestrian bridge over the tracks all the way into the County Administrative Center entry plaza area.
  • Further incentives and tax breaks would be provided for the property management firms within the specific plans to handle maintenance and security of the public transit stations, bridges, and public parking structures.
This would be a win-win public-private partnership concept for Riverside. We'll have some illustrations of this idea of a "Union Station" for Riverside in the near future. If you want to throw in some ideas, post them into the comments. But for now, Los Angeles Union Station turns 75 and it has shown to be a robust inter-modal transit hub. If you're in the area be sure to check out the festivities.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Omnitrans sbX: Rapid Transit comes to San Bernardino

Graphic: Omnitrans
The sbX is here and is now open!

Bus riders aboard Omnitrans Route 2 finally now have a quicker way to get up and down the E Street corridor in San Bernardino. The long awaited sbX bus rapid transit line which connects CSU San Bernardino to the Loma Linda University Medical Center area via downtown San Bernardino is now open to the public. Omnitrans has dubbed this first of several BRT routes as the sbX Green Line. The transit agency has published an extensive fact sheet of sbX here. To keep it short, the Green Line will operate Monday through Friday as the vast majority of activity from the dense hubs occur during the week. Service will start at 6 a.m. with the last bus departing at 8 p.m. The service frequency between rapid buses will be 10 minutes during rush hours and 15 minutes at other times. The line will also operate in dedicated transit lanes through the downtown area. During this first week of operations, riders can try the line out for free!

Riders needing to transverse the E Street Green Line corridor early in the morning, later in the evening or on weekends can use Route 2 as an alternative. After the opening week, sbX fares will be the same as for Omnitrans regular fixed route service.

Photo: Omnitrans
The question many people are wondering: Will sbX be successful?

We won't really know for sure until after a few months of operations. That will be the time when Omnitrans has the actual ridership facts beyond the opening crowds. We do however predict that it will be a success, simply because the existing Route 2 is one of Omnitrans' busiest routes. In addition, two existing express bus routes connect to the Green Line. Omnitrans Route 215 connects at downtown and Pass Transit Route 120 connects at Loma Linda.

Also, plans are underway to extend the Metrolink San Bernardino Line into the downtown core, develop the downtown multi-modal transit station which includes seamless transfers, and introduce mid-range plans for future Omnitrans commuter buses. Those connections will link out-of-area riders with the sbX which will for sure drive up the ridership pool with choice riders, something that officials were longing for.

This is a great day for San Bernardino. If you're in the area, be sure to try out the sbX! If you don't live in region, try it out anyway because it won't be long until connecting Metrolink trains and additional express buses will link out-of-area riders to the sbX.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Now Open: French Valley Parkway Phase I

© Openstreetmap Contributors CC-BY-SA
It's finally open! Phase I of the French Valley Parkway Interchange project which is spearheaded by the City of Temecula and underwent months of state government red tape is now fully open to traffic. Phase I included two milestones: The widening of the existing Winchester Road off-ramp from the Southbound I-15 freeway and the development of a new off-ramp at the planned French Valley Parkway which now connects southbound I-15 to Jefferson Avenue at the Temecula/Murrieta Border. The former was completed and opened to traffic on time earlier in the winter. The latter had minor issues with non-compliant signs and striping following construction, but getting those fixed took months due to government bureaucracy. With the red tape finally out of the way, the off-ramp is now open.

Motorists should be prepared to be a bit confused of the layout simply because the interchange project has a second phase to go through and that the segment connecting the actual ramp with Jefferson Avenue will become the six lane French Valley Parkway. When one gets off of the freeway, the design layout will look very unusual, hence motorists will notice a sharp right curve and a sidewalk adjacent to the off-ramp. Rest assured that the sidewalk is not waste and once Phase II is complete, the design will make better sense.

Reduced: Watch For Stopped Vehicles Ahead

Before this project was completed, this region had some very serious safety hazards for the southbound side of the I-15 freeway caused by a long line of stopped cars spilling into freeway lanes. We anticipate and predict that the dangerous queue line of stopped cars at Winchester Road will be reduced with the traffic flow redistribution and capacity improvements from Phase I. Much of that traffic normally occurs during both the morning and afternoon rush hours. We'll be able to get some better facts as motorists get used to the new off-ramp. The Winchester exit also historically backs up significantly during peak shopping periods due to massive volumes of patrons headed to the Promenade Mall area; sometimes the line backs up as far back as the I-215. We'll be able to get some more facts during the peak shopping seasons starting with Mother's Day next month. Hopefully this grave safety issue has been addressed.

Still, motorists should continue to be careful through this area. Because French Valley Parkway is located very close to the I-15 and I-215 interchange, extensive weaving will be necessary to access the new off-ramp. Phase II will address this situation with collector ramps; southbound motorists needing to exit French Valley Parkway or Winchester Road will do so before they hit the I-15 and I-215 interchange once Phase II is done. Therefore, Phase II should begin as soon as possible.

Addressing the Northbound I-15 Temecula Traffic Problem

In addition, French Valley Parkway Phase II will completely wipe out a huge infamous bottleneck for the northbound side of the freeway that occurs during the afternoon rush hour.

Massive amounts of traffic merge onto the four-lane northbound I-15 freeway at Winchester Road with no auxiliary weave lanes. The northbound on-ramps also lack ramp meters which normally control and manage the incoming traffic flow. This creates the notorious bottleneck during the afternoon peak hour which causes traffic to back up as far as the San Diego County Line and even deeper into San Diego County on some Friday afternoons.

When Phase II is complete, ramp meters will manage the incoming traffic flow and the traffic getting on the northbound I-15 at Winchester Road and French Valley Parkway will ride along in a set of collector lanes until they just pass the I-15 and I-215 split. Once there, direct access ramps will feed the motorists onto these freeways. Thus the bottleneck causing the back up will be completely gone. Productivity aboard RTA CommuterLink buses through the area will see some improvements with better on-time performance.

This means Phase II should start as soon as possible and we've called for officials to streamline the process so that we don't have a repeat of the same mistakes from Phase I. Temecula Senior Engineer Avlin Odviar told the Press Enterprise that Caltrans will take the lead of constructing Phase II which means "one less party in the process". Since Caltrans is leading construction, we should be able to at least get around the red tape mess should incorrect signs or striping materialize from the construction contractor. That means any government waste associated with such delays will be gone as well.

I-15 Freeway HOV/Transit Infrastructure

These highway projects certainly will not be the last for the I-15 freeway. As the Southwest Region continues to grow, officials seriously need to plan for high occupancy vehicle and mass transit infrastructure. We've posted an outline of what should happen.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Southern California's Easter Sunday Traffic Gridlock

Countless numbers of travelers hit the roads last Easter Sunday and freeway gridlock which lasted well into the late night hours is evidence of that. The congestion was so bad in some areas that it began to look like the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the typical Friday afternoon commute combined in some areas. It was very easy to assume that maybe some sig-alerts or collisions caused the traffic nightmares, but there were simply a lot of people out on the freeway heading back home from Easter dinner all at the same time. In contrast to the typical rush hour commute, an interesting fact behind holiday traffic is that a very high percentage of the cars on the road are high occupancy vehicles with at least two persons.

Here are some facts of what the highways looked like after dinner or from 8-10PM on the holiday:

SR-91 & I-15 Freeways
Photo: OCTA

The eastbound 91 and southbound I-15 linking Orange County to the Southwest region via Corona looked like a typical Friday afternoon. The corridor was very slow coming out of Yorba Linda all the way through Anaheim Hills and Corona, finally opening up past Temescal Canyon. The traffic cleared out after 10PM.

We have reasons to believe the FasTrak toll transponder mandate for 3+ HOV's which travel toll-free on the 91 Express Lanes during this time may have contributed to the chaos though the Orange County segment. That notion has not been completely proven, but it's certainly possible given that the 91 through Anaheim Hills has a total of seven lanes (five general purpose, two 3+ HOT express lanes) each way, enough to handle a maximum of about 14,500 cars per hour.

Going the other way was very miserable. It was gridlocked. The I-15 was very heavy coming out of Temecula and was bumper-to-bumper from Central Avenue in Lake Elsinore all the way to the 91. The 91 west was stop-and-go from the I-15 all the way to Green River Road. It finally opened up through Anaheim Hills. The gridlock there cleared out well after 11PM. HOT Express lanes are planned for this segment and these are more reasons why such toll lanes need to support free non-transponder carpooling; the numerous volumes of HOV's that travel on Easter and major holidays, most of which are domestic "fam-pools" should have full and free access to the freeway infrastructure and its HOV/HOT express lanes. That is the fair and just thing to do to handle extraordinary holiday traffic congestion on top of enticing the private sector into offering better intercity transit services. We'll debate more on fam-pools and access to carpool lanes next week.

Other Inland Empire Freeways
  • The northbound I-215 in between Moreno Valley and Riverside had some pockets of slowing but things were relatively moving in those regions.
  • In the high desert, the southbound I-15 was very tough through the Cajon Pass, heavy from Hesperia to Devore. SANBAG has HOT lanes planned for this corridor.
  • The I-10 freeway between the Inland Empire and the Coachella Valley was actually moving good; the traffic reports had all green dots there.
  • The Ortega Highway was also busy, but was a good drive between Lake Elsinore and San Juan Capistrano.

Los Angeles County

Many segments in Los Angeles County also had areas of traffic trouble. The westbound lanes of the I-10, SR-60, SR-91 and I-210 were all slow-and-go going into Los Angeles. Like the 91 Express Lanes, the ill-advised toll transponder mandate imposed on the free 2+ HOV's for the I-10 Metro ExpressLanes may have contributed to the slowing on the I-10 general purpose lanes through El Monte as several HOV's were displaced from the HOT lanes.  The southbound I-5 through the Newhall Pass was also heavy from SR-126 to the I-405, and some other freeway segments were slow. Surprisingly enough, the I-405 through the Sepulveda Pass wasn't too bad with some areas of slow-and-go over the hill.

Orange and San Diego County

All of the freeways throughout most of Orange and San Diego counties were moving fast including I-15 between San Diego and Escondido. That corridor has five general purpose and two HOT 2+ Express Lanes each way and carries more vehicles than the 91. The I-15 Express Lanes also supports free non-transponder carpooling. That meant that travelers with at least 2 people in the car could hop in for free and go. All lanes were moving quickly.

Even though both these counties were glowing green for the most part, there was one huge exception. The northbound I-5 through Camp Pendleton was bumper-to-bumper for the entire stretch, from Carlsbad all the way to the Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano. That's one of the most extensive back-up's we've seen. The traffic finally cleared out after 11PM. Southbound I-5 was slow from San Juan Capistrano into San Clemente. A single 2+ carpool lane each way is coming to the I-5 through San Clemente in multiple phases. Long-range HOT lanes are envisioned between San Clemente and Oceanside by 2050; we hope that comes much sooner.

Our Neighbors

The Bay Area freeways had some tough spots too. The most notable was congestion going both ways on the Oakland Bay Bridge, the northbound 101 from Gilroy to Morgan Hill and the westbound 580 from Tracy to Livermore.

East of us, Las Vegas' freeways were all glowing green. The freeways in the entire Phoenix Valley were fast except for one minor backup on the connector between the southbound Loop 101 and eastbound I-10 west of downtown Phoenix. To the north, the Portland/Vancouver region was good. Up in Washington State, with the minor exception of some slowing through Marysville, Seattle's freeways were all moving quickly.

We've likely topped the list again for having the worst traffic conditions

We were not able to check to see how traffic fared in the Eastern United States, but it's safe to predict that we've once again topped the list of having among the worst traffic congestion in the nation during Easter. The irony behind all of this is that the citizens in Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona pay less in transportation and fuel taxes and fees than we do here. The Phoenix Valley is also seeing a bigger uptick in economic growth and also had its days of urban sprawl and unchecked growth in the surrounding suburbs, but their better-developed transit and highway infrastructure were able to handle the Easter Sunday traffic.

We all know that with the records amount of money that we Californians hand over to the the state taxman to get around, we really should have highway and HOV infrastructure that can handle the Easter rush and our statewide intercity transit services should be abundant which includes high speed intercity and regional rail. But that money keeps on getting displaced or overspent.

Can you take a guess of where that money gets diverted?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Let's Celebrate Earth Day

Today is Earth Day, a day when people who care for the Earth unite to promote worldwide awareness for environmental justice. Peace activist John McConnell is credited for conceiving an idea of this day as well as the Earth Day flag. McConnell's vision in 1970 was to celebrate Earth Day on March 21, the day of the spring equinox. As a Pentecostal Christian, he felt caring for the Earth was a duty of the faith. McConnell announced the idea at a United Nations conference in October, 1969.

At the same time in 1970, U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson noted that environmental problems during that period were not being addressed in Washington and is credited for the April 22nd celebration in which we celebrate today. With the support from the federal government, Nelson can be credited for spreading the public message of Earth Day and the awareness of making the Earth cleaner.

Regardless of who is exactly credited for doing what, both men should be honored for their dedication toward environmental justice.

How can we honor their legacies? 

In short, we should all be generally backing fact-based policies that will make the Earth cleaner. This includes researching and developing clean ways to generate and store electrical power, reducing waste, managing growth, and introducing more fuel efficient cars into the marketplace. Breathing cleaner air in our cities and drinking cleaner water are simply better for our health.

The fact is that we have made strong progress of significantly reducing pollution levels in the United States. Our air is generally cleaner that it was a few decades ago. While Los Angeles is still a bit on the dirty side on many fronts, the city is far more cleaner today than in the 1940's. However, there is still much more work to be done.

Long Beach GRID

One local project that promises to address a significant portion of the present-day pollution in LA is the Green Rail/Intelligent Development SuperDock in Long Beach. This technology promises to cleanly move massive amounts of freight between Long Beach and distribution hubs in the Inland Empire. Because GRID can potentially compete with the Panama Canal expansion, logistics investors and innovators should be inclined to improve the GRID concept and make it work. That will help expand logistics-related jobs without the pollution.

Grave Pollution Levels in Developing Countries

At the worldwide level, global attention for environmental justice needs to turn toward places like China, India and Bangladesh as we've seen reports of some of the worst examples of pollution and hazardous air quality from the urban centers of these countries. The solution will be complex and will require leadership and robust international debate.

Infill Economic Smart Growth

Here at home, many parts of the Inland Empire are stuck in a stagnantly soft economy which leaves many commercial corridors in urban blight. Unchecked urban sprawl last decade also contributed toward massive traffic congestion along many freeways which still remains a reality. That's where smart growth policies and revitalization efforts can play a role toward both environmental justice and a robust market economy. Local officials can entice the private sector to build up the job opportunities by designating portions of commercial corridors as specific plans which would encourage smart growth job development in economically depressed areas.

State officials must also ensure that these Inland marketplace job opportunities and new innovations are not obstructed by too much regulatory red tape. Phase I of the French Valley Parkway Interchange project is a prime example of such obstruction at the state level. Yes, we must have some state regulations and rules for our safety and well being, but they must also be streamlined and more business-friendly.

Such job growth without the sprawl will also ensure our transportation systems are better funded at the local level.

Debating the Maturing Eco-friendly Innovations

Lastly, the innovation and development of more fuel efficient cars and renewable solar energy production for individual properties have both proven to be successful in the marketplace and good for the environment. It's just a matter of time before all-electric cars and mass solar power production will be the norm and become strong competitors in the market economy. Hopefully, the polluting countries will consider adopting these clean forms of energy. We have received great constructive criticism about these technologies and we encourage caring individuals to continue to provide feedback. This will be necessary to build up more fact-based campaigns for environmental justice, a robust market economy, and a fully funded first rate multi-modal transportation system.

Actively participating in the debate is a great way to get involved this Earth Day.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Travel Safely this Easter Sunday!

Families from all over the world will gather together this weekend to celebrate Easter Sunday. If you are traveling this weekend throughout Southern California, here are some tips just for you:
  • The freeways will be busy, especially after dinner on Easter Sunday. Check the traffic reports before you hit the road. Allow an extra 30-45 minutes. Return trips from Southwest Riverside County back into Orange County between 8-10PM on Easter have historically been very tough, bumper-to-bumper from just north of Lake Elsinore all the way into Anaheim Hills. Since the holiday is very late in April this year and the fact that many schools will not be on Spring Break the following week, be sure to prepare for heavy conditions after the meal.
  • If your kids are going back to school the Monday after Easter, get everything ready for Monday before you head out for the Easter festivities so you can spend some extra time for the holiday and not stress on the way home. 
  • Churches and places of worship will be very active and busy. Allow sufficient time for parking. Get to the service at least 30 minutes before start time so you can get the most out of the services offered. If the house of worship is near a transit route and the line operates on Easter, consider using it.
  • Speaking of transit, if the place you’re headed to for Easter is near a train station or intercity bus terminal, see if taking the family aboard transit would work. See if an intercity provider is offering any last minute deals.
 Have a safe and happy Easter Sunday! We'll talk to you again on Earth Day, April 22!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

More evidence that Californians are overpaying for High Speed Rail

Correction to the headline. It really should read "More evidence that Californians are overpaying for transportation infrastructure". But since this fact is related to HSR, we'll keep the debate centered around this proven rail transit technology that has quickly moved people since the 1980's.

As we've pointed time and time again, artificially inflated public works infrastructure price tags in California have long obstructed the progress of building, maintaining, and operating a first-rate multi-modal transportation system within the state even though we are paying record-high taxes at the gas pump. Of course, that leads to slim budgets for both Omnitrans and RTA. We have more evidence of this troubling trend relative to HSR.

Dallas to Houston HSR by the Texas Central Railway

An editorial from the The Dallas Morning News newspaper reports that a proposed bullet train line in Texas that will connect riders between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes and will be funded by the private sector is estimated to cost about $10 billion. What is very interesting here is that no public funds are being thrown at this project. It will be paid for entirely by the private sector. The editorial opined that they favor the Texas system over California's, stating "we'd place our money on the Texas model any day."

According to local sources, a similar HSR proposal between the two Texas urban centers surfaced back in 1989 using France's TVG bullet train technology. Like the present-day proposal, no public money was purposed for the project. Long story short, intense opposition form the airline lobby--namely Southwest Airlines--and lack of private investments killed Texas TVG's SuperTrain project back then. Two decades later, the Texas Central High-Speed Railway has risen to give HSR another shot and for good reasons.

Some facts: Unlike California High Speed Rail, there is no public seed money to get it off the ground. However, airline service has since declined since the late 1980's. Air fares are up. Southwest Airlines has remained neutral. Also, both the local economies and gas prices are up which would drive up the ridership pool. In addition, smart growth development around the stations could infuse additional private funding through development rights. Infill transit-oriented development has more recently proven to be beneficial than the late 80's; just stroll through the historic downtown districts through the San Gabriel Valley or head over to Old Town Temecula to see some clear examples of that. The HSR technology will also be very similar to the Shinkansen system in Japan. The facts seem to support a better outcome.

Like the previous project, the line has won political support. It has the endorsements through a joint agreement of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and Houston Mayor Annise Parker.

HSR Costs: Doing the Math

When California voters approved Proposition 1A which provided the $9.95 billion in borrowed seed money, we anticipated and expected that state officials would do the right thing by enticing private investors to get on board to pay for the rest of the project. Because the project is mired in many unnecessary problems and trivial rules which panders to labor unions and private contractors, it has become too expensive and too risky of a public works infrastructure project to invest in. According to the 2014 Business Plan, the 520-mile Phase I segment between Los Angeles and San Francisco is estimated to be $68 billion. That adds up to $131 million per mile.

In contrast, the first phase of the $10 billion Texas project spans about 240 miles. That's $41.7 million per mile. Even more alarming is that the market economy in the Lone Star State is growing at a faster rate than here at home. It should cost less to build HSR in California than it does in Texas simply because the job market in the Golden State is still saturated in experienced construction workers who need work and are willing to take a smaller salary, especially within the Inland Empire.

To be fair, the land between Dallas and Houston is relatively flat and the per-mile cost to extend the line further west to Fort Worth will be higher given that the region is already developed. But at $41.7 million per mile to build a clone of the Shinkansen system on flat land, California has the money to build the entire Central Valley segment between Sacramento and Bakersfield with the seed money alone since it is flat and can use the awarded $3.3 billion in federal money to develop the segment through the Tejon Pass to Sylmar. If the trivial rules were set aside, the state can get the per-mile costs down. That will entice the private sector investments to finish the statewide master plan and pay off the seed money bond debt.

It's very clear that pandering, overspending and public works price tags well above the market rates obstruct our transportation infrastructure in general. Governor Jerry Brown backs high speed rail.

But why hasn't the governor put together a campaign that addresses the artificially bloated cost issue very specifically? How many more examples will it take to get this message of government waste to state politicians and voters?

Come on guys! Enough's enough! Statewide high speed rail has long proven to work and Texas could be another example. Do it right!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Debate: Electric Cars, Solar Panels, and the Government

As we've mentioned last Friday, independent entrepreneurs are seeking innovative ways to permanently free all of us from the power grip and expensive prices related to motor vehicle fuel and electrical power, something all of us should support. If clean innovative products like all-electrical vehicles and solar panels become more abundant and affordable, they will become the norm. Should that happen, the benefits are tremendous. The Earth will be much cleaner and basically smog-free, the economy will get a much-needed boost, and the big oil oligopoly, OPEC and Southern California Edison would all be put into positions where they have to compete, innovate and lower prices. Same goes for the car companies. That's it. That's the reality.

As mentioned, the national economy and the marketplace jobs that go with it will see a long-overdue recovery as all of us will have more cash in our pockets. Working salaries will be higher simply because companies will actually need to hire workers to handle the increased demands. We will no longer be slaves to big oil or outrageous gas prices during a soft economy. Obviously, a robust market economy combined with sound fiscal government spending will ensure that our transit and infrastructure systems are fully funded and paid for.

With such innovations taking place, there will be some policy changes that the governments will need to debate in the pubic forums. We've received some constructive ideas from our readers and the public over the weekend. Here are some debatable ideas that were brought up:

Electric Cars and Traffic Congestion
  • The fact remains that many commuters elect to carpool or take transit simply to dodge high gas prices. With the gas price issue now out of the question, there will be a reality of a decline in carpooling should clean electric cars become the norm. Incentives to rideshare in these new and clean cars will need to be revisited simply because electric cars do not solve the issue of traffic congestion.
  • Campaigns to rideshare, take transit, or join an HOV should focus on bypassing traffic congestion in carpool lanes and dodging parking fees at large hubs and urban centers.
  • Since clean cars would be the norm, solo drivers of such vehicles should no longer be allowed to drive in the carpool lane. Exceptions would be motorcycles and solo drivers willing to toll themselves in high occupancy tolled express lanes.
  • For corridors with carpool lanes that are just as slow as the general purpose lanes during peak-congestion like the 91 freeway through Corona, officials should revisit carpool lane usage policies. Should it be determined that raising the occupancy requirement to 3+ is necessary, a strong marketing campaign to form 3+ carpools and all-day express transit services need to be implemented to offset 2-person carpool displacement issues. In the case of the 91, the single 2+ carpool lane will be part the 91 Express Lanes, dual 3+ HOT lanes each way with all vehicles needing a FasTrak transponder.
  • As a further incentive to join an HOV, the 91 Express Lanes and all other high occupancy toll lanes need to support free non-transponder carpooling. That is, 2+ carpools (3+ for the 91 Express Lanes 24/7 and El Monte Busway during peak hours) would be able to get on for free and go without having to pre-register for a FasTrak. The evidence is overwhelming where HOT lanes that support this policy carry more high occupancy vehicles than toll-paying solos. Let's get the 91 Express Lanes bond debt paid off and move forward--We're paying record gas taxes; so we have the cash!
  • Car-sharing companies should be provided incentives to set up shop adjacent to receiving transit hubs. That will give people an option to rideshare or take transit for the long-haul but need affordable access to a car for the day.
The New Inventions, Safety and the Environment
  • As solar technology and electric motor vehicles evolve, the federal government will need to review existing and explore new basic safeguards to ensure the new inventions do not create an electrical fire hazard nor expose the end-user to the risk of electric shock, especially during a traffic collision or natural disaster. The rules must be efficient, streamlined, and not obstruct innovation or robust competition, but they must protect the safety of the end-user.
  • The feds should also continue to provide incentives to the private sector to develop these clean alternative energy sources and efficient electrical engines with strong horsepower for larger vehicles.
  • Incentives should be provided to entrepreneurs to research and develop clean ways to store the electrical charge. These clean batteries would have no environmentally harmful chemicals and be made in a way where every component can be cleanly recycled or re-purposed after its lifespan. The units must not expose the user to any electrical or explosive hazards in the event of an accident or disaster. Innovators have managed to do this for computer data storage.
  • The feds should be very cautious regarding direct subsidies for such innovation. We cannot afford a repeat of the Solyndra scandal.
Gas Taxes: Federal & State Transportation Funding
  • Even though we are currently paying record gas taxes, as cleaner, gas-free cars make their way into the marketplace and become the norm, the fuel tax fund at the state and federal level will eventually dry out. That's a reality.
  • No more excuses on this point: The state has got to get public works infrastructure costs down to match the market rates. No more government waste or excessive spending with our transportation money. If the labor unions want to maintain the status-quo, support policies that will get California's economy and private sector job market robust to match the public works costs and wages. That's it.
  • Future federal and state transportation tax revenue would come out of general tax receipts. Economists would be tasked to calculate and predict how much money citizens are saving by not having to pay the outrageous gas prices and high electric bills. They would be tasked to find out how much more money is going into other sectors in the market economy in the form of increased spending sales, jobs, and interest from savings and figure out how much more tax revenue the government is collecting through these means. That figure would be used to calculate a fair and just percentage of general tax receipts that would be purposed toward surface transportation and transit infrastructure.
Got any more ideas that need to be debated? Post them to the comments.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Are you ready to declare Independence from High Gas Prices and Expensive Electricity?

Would you like to be free from the fiscal power grip of the gas pump and the electric bill? We all do, don't we? There's some good news to report. But before we can appreciate the welcoming facts, we've got to get the bad news out of the way first.

Gas prices once again are going up and up...and up.

Here we go again! Many Inland gasoline outlets are surpassing the $4.25-per gallon mark with some breaking $4.35. We can go on all day and belly-ache about this troubling trend but we have to say that there are several Americans who are ready to declare independence and self-reliance from the pain at the gas pump and there are many Inland Empire citizens who long to be free from the expensive power bills and monopoly of Southern California Edison. The high cost of both of these forms of energy has long obstructed the market economy.

Ridesharing and taking transit have long proven to be powerful ways to combat high gas prices and stats show that price spikes often lead to more commuters into taking transit and carpooling. That has been one of the best short-range solutions to declare "enough!"

However, if the high gas price situation stays the way it is, it will be very difficult for the Inland Empire to have a robust vibrant economy and a clean environment simply because the bloated prices weakens the spending power of the dollar. Worse yet, one can only wonder what happens to all those oil profits that flow into the Middle East through OPEC.

What exactly is going on at the gas pump? It's actually not a supply and demand issue as some in the industry claim. That's the political spin. It is very clear that Americans are doing their parts in consuming less gasoline, conserving, ridesharing, and driving more fuel-efficient cars even though fuel taxes are at record levels.

OPEC has a near-monopoly power grab on this situation. Oil supply and production in the Middle East are intentionally kept low to keep demands artificially high. That keeps prices bloated. Here at home, the big oil oligopoly is exporting significant sums of our inventory to other countries to the point where demand exceeds domestic production. That too keeps prices inflated even though we have plenty of oil. That means more domestic oil drilling is not a solution.

Bring in oil speculation. Investing in oil is a legit business practice but there is a line that has to be drawn; that is, the destructive practice of artificially increasing the price of a barrel of oil for the sole purpose of making money off of the higher prices. Like the artificial speculation of the real estate market which contributed toward the great 2008 economic recession where foolish investments had nothing really to do with the housing trade, these investors want nothing to do with the physical oil barrel. It's all about the money.

When such speculation occurs, companies like Arco, Chevron, and Shell hike their prices quickly by pointing to the artificially inflated value of a barrel of oil. When the price of oil drops, oil companies will often wait for a set period of time to lower their prices as they are betting on the possibility of the speculators to drive up prices once again. We are all caught in this casino-like crossfire and voters should hold the state and federal government accountable of outlawing such artificial market manipulation. Again, legit investments are good, but artificial speculation of the market economy is destructive to the United States.

And now, some good news which may free us all from this madness and greed of power.

Independent private sector entrepreneurs are responding by voting with their hands and labor by introducing innovative clean products that can compete against the monopoly. They are electric cars and solar panels.

The Maturing Electric Car

© Steve Jurvetson CC-BY-SA
On March 30, CBS featured a 60 Minutes story of the start-up car company Tesla founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk who also founded PayPal and worked on the Hyperloop, a pneumatic tube transport designed to quickly move people. You can read more about our views of this innovative technology here.

According to the report, the Tesla car plant manufacturers 600 Model S electric cars per week. The car drives very quietly but looks and functions like a modern four-door passenger vehicle. It is powered by 7,000 battery cells and can drive up to 250 miles on a single charge. The vehicle is currently worth about $71,000 for purchase or can be leased for about $408 per month. Demands are high enough where buyers are wait-listed.

The price is still a bit on the high side, but Tesla appears to be heading toward success given strong demands. Other major car companies certainly will have to jump aboard this technology in order to compete and bring the prices down and tax incentives need to continue to be offered to expand all-electric motor technology to larger vehicles requiring strong horsepower.

Some electric car critics claim that the new technology will overwhelm the electrical grid and hike power prices. In response, Musk envisions charging stations powered by solar panel technology. Because the stations would be independent from a centralized grid, drivers would pay nothing to refuel. So the question now is just how is solar power faring these days? 

Smart economic growth concepts in Moreno Valley
Watch out Southern California Edison. Your monopoly days are done.

Solar energy is proving to be headed toward an industrial victory. The technology continues to mature at a rapid rate and the facts are now proving it. Rooftops of homes and commercial buildings are turning into self-reliant solar power generators. Panel prices are dropping as competition, production and supply increase. Better yet, according to a report released yesterday by the Environment California Research and Policy Center, Los Angeles and San Diego lead in production.

If entrepreneurs continue to grow this technology to the point where the cost of per-watt solar power production drops below coal, nuclear, and oil, we will see massive economic growth ahead as we the people will have plenty of extra spending money that would otherwise go to the gas pump and Southern California Edison. It is safe to predict that such panels with do-it-yourself installation kits and affordable prices may wind up on a shelf at the local Home Depot within a few years or less.

To be fair, giant concentrated solar power plants like the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility still have some work to do ensure surrounding ecosystems are not negated given their sprawling sizes. However, individual property solar panels are bringing us into a new and clean form of self reliant, energy production. This is a win-win reality.

Ecosystems and the Pro-environment lobby will get a cleaner Earth. Companies and the Pro-business lobby will get a robust market economy. Workers and the labor union lobby will get a stronger job market which in turn means higher salaries and benefits. Every American should be supporting these innovations.

Addressing the Fuel Tax Fund

With all of these good news going around, there's one small problem both the state and federal government are going to have to deal with: Replacing the fuel tax.

As cleaner, gas-free cars make their way into the marketplace and become the norm, the fuel tax fund at the state and federal level will eventually dry out. That's a reality. Here's a debatable but fair solution:

Future federal and state transportation tax revenue would come out of general tax receipts. How to fairly calculate the amounts would boil down to this: Economists--not politians--would calculate and predict how much money citizens are saving by not having to pay the outrageous gas prices. They would be tasked to find out how much more money that would otherwise be feeding the big oil monopoly is going into other sectors in the market economy in the form of increased spending sales, jobs, and interest from savings. They would figure out how much more tax revenue the government is collecting through these means. Economists would take that figure to calculate a fair percentage of the general fund that would fund future transportation and transit projects. Again, this is debatable and feel free to post any views in the comments.

We also understand that even more solutions are going to have to take place to ensure a smooth transition which includes revising incentives to rideshare or take transit and removing free carpool lane access for solo drivers of the clean cars. Such plans will certainly have to be debated in the public forums. We'll talk more about this next week.

One last question and stat: Will the world run out of sun power? Short answer: Not as long as the sun continues to shine. A 2006 Ecoworld article reports that the total solar energy hitting the Earth each year adds up to a whopping 12.2 trillion watt-hours. Do the math. The Earth takes in more than 20,000 times more solar heat energy than the entire world population consumes each year.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The truth about the Highway Trust Fund Shortfall

The United States Highway Trust Fund is a federal surface transportation fund which we pay into through our federal fuel and excise taxes. Our federal gas tax dollars are supposed to fund both transit and highway transportation infrastructure. It was established 1956 to finance the Interstate Highway System and other roads. The Mass Transit Fund was created in 1982 during the Reagan administration. Southern California citizens certainly pay a significant portion to the federal kitty, 18.4 cents for every gallon of gas purchased to be exact. So we expect that money to come back to us in the form of robust infrastructure and reliable transit operations.

There are reports that this fund is running into a fiscal problem. The kitty is expected to run out of money by the fall. The Desert Sun published an editorial last night addressing this issue with projects in the Coachella Valley. Thankfully, we've seen no reports of ill-advised proposals to eliminate transit from this account as in the past. We and just about every other transit advocacy group would like some of our federal dollars that we pay into returned for mass transit infrastructure and services. The reasons should be obvious.

Former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation Ray LaHood believes fuel taxes should be raised and then indexed to inflation which is a very debatable solution. LaHood also mentioned that such fuel taxes fail to generate enough revenue given the fact that we have more fuel-efficient cars and per-mile driving is down. Some members in Congress appear not to be buying LaHood's argument--and for good reason.

LaHood was correct that American citizens are using less and less fuel from the pump and fewer gas guzzlers being driven. However, retail prices are still stubbornly high and both the state and federal government continue to take in records amounts of fuel taxes even with inflation factored in. It's safe to say that we are still paying record taxes at the gas pump.

Hard facts: Fuel Taxes Revenue and Inflation

State & Local fuel tax receipts nationwide are at record levels.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Federal Reserve was created in 1913 and the purchasing power of the dollar has since decreased over 95%. The spending power of the 1913 dollar was weakened to about 7 cents during the early 1990's. Today, just under five cents equates to the 1913 dollar. Doing the math and rounding the 2014 dollar value down to four cents, that adds up to about a 43% decrease in the spending power of the buck between the 1990's and 2014.

During the 1990's, the economy was robust and transportation infrastructure was therefore funded and built. That was the period that OCTA was able to quickly build out its massive freeway master plan, Los Angeles brought in urban rail, and Southland counties teamed up to introduce Metrolink rail service.

Bring in state and local fuel tax receipts reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. In 1992, the governments nationwide collected $23.6 billion in fuel taxes, worth $39.8 billion in 2014. In 2012, $42.5 billion was collected from the pump, a record.

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.

It's quite clear that total fuel tax receipts have kept up inflation thanks to high gas prices even though we are consuming less and the tax rate of 18.4 cents has stayed flat for two decades. For the record, the first two quarters of 2013 added up to $21.3 billion.

Where's all that money going?

The issue is not whether the federal government is getting enough revenue, but how the money is being spent during a soft market economy. According to the Census Bureau, the federal government is getting more tax money than ever before in our history. Even with all that cash coming in, the surface transportation fund is headed toward insolvency and the national debt is more than $17.5 trillion.

Government waste and overspending at the state and federal level are certainly out of control and evidence shows that special interest pandering are the primary culprits of this serious issue. During a soft market economy where there are far more construction workers than jobs, the costs to build and maintain public works infrastructure should not be artificially bloated. Yes, public and contracted workers need to be treated and paid justly in the workplace and we're not dissenting labor unions as a whole; the Industrial Revolution teaches us that. But with the record amounts of gas tax revenue collected from the state and federal level under a soft Inland economy, we should be able to afford to build out and operate everything outlined in our Long Term Future Vision of Inland Empire Mass Transit.

Ending on a positive note, there may be some good news ahead for we the people. With a growing number of citizens fed up with the high gas prices and increasing electric bills and the taxes that go along with them, the marketplace has been responding swiftly. The solar panel market is becoming more affordable and more all-electric cars are being introduced into the marketplace. That could mean more self-reliance. If the government can incline private entrepreneurs to flood the market with these clean-energy products, get the supplies up to meet the demands which lowers prices, good things will happen to the economy as we won't be dependent on the monopoly powers of OPEC for fuel and Southern California Edison for electricity. What can the government do then to pay for transportation infrastructure? We'll talk more about it on Friday.

Monday, April 7, 2014

What the heck is going on with French Valley Parkway?

Just what is going on with Phase I of the French Valley Parkway? The offramp was constructed a few months ago, but is still closed to traffic. Short answer to this question is government bureaucracy at the state level. The City of Temecula is the lead local agency of this big project and here's what the Press Enterprise had to say about it two months ago in February:

It takes so long to get these sort of simple changes completed because of the nature of road repairs when Caltrans is involved.

The city can’t just go out with a bucket and a brush and paint new lines or quickly swap out signs. Plans must be sent — even on relatively minor changes like this — to Caltrans for inspection and then after they are approved the city can find someone to do the work, which will then need to be inspected by Caltrans after it is complete.

Government Bureaucracy at its Finest:

As the newspaper reported, the specific issue at stake was incorrect traffic signs placed and insufficient striping along the right shoulder. Okay, fair enough. But under a streamlined regulatory system, the same construction firm that was contracted to build the interchange would be instructed by the state agency to change out the non-compliant signs, fix the striping, and get an authorized official over within the same week to verify the change and open the lanes to traffic.

However, the current system calls for all kinds of regulatory preapprovals which causes unnecessary delays and needless government spending. Yes, such rules are necessary for larger scale projects simply due to safety but are they really necessary to change out a few signs and re-stripe the right shoulder? Now if there was a structural issue found during the first inspections besides the signs and striping, the delays would be justified, but officials should let us know about it and not leave us in the dark. You can read more about this issue here.

Between the time of the announced delay in February and now, we found the following facts in the City of Temecula's public meeting agendas:

  • Phase I Project Cost Rundown as part of the February 25 City Council Agenda:
    • Administration: $1,034,021
    • Property Acquisition: $6,385,195
    • Construction: $16,094,183
    • Engineering: $3,154,131
    • Design: $2,157,257
    • Phase I Total: $28,824,787
  • On February 25, the City Council allocated in additional $205,000 for Consultant Services with the construction firm Harris & Associates for management support services for the project.

We also passed through the site over last weekend and noted that the new signs requested by Caltrans were installed. Now it's a matter of conducting the final inspections and opening the offramp. 

Potential Government Waste: Unnecessary Retaining Wall

Also we're not giving the city a pass with all this red-tape mess simply due to how Phase I was designed and constructed. When the Phase I offramp was built, the segment that will later become part of the six-lane French Valley Parkway was literally half-graded and developed. That is, only the northern side of the road was constructed; the southern side was left untouched. That meant a need for a temporary retaining wall to support the half-built roadway. However, that wall was constructed as if was permanent infrastructure. The city included such a wall buried in a City Council agenda fact-sheet. Here is the full context of the Phase I project description:

This project includes the design, right-of-way acquisition, utility relocation, and construction activities to portions of the French Valley Parkway and Interstate 15 over-crossing and interchange. The project will add a new southbound off-ramp from Interstate 15 to French Valley Parkway, construct the northern half of French Valley Parkway from the off-ramp to Jefferson Avenue, widen the existing southbound off-ramp from Interstate 15 to Winchester, and construct a new auxiliary lane between French Valley Parkway and the Winchester Road southbound off-ramp. Other features include permanent and temporary retaining walls, erosion control and irrigation, and a new traffic signal and roadway improvements at the intersection of French Valley Parkway and Jefferson Avenue. The project requires oversight by Caltrans and coordination with the City of Murrieta.

The question is why wasn't the entire road segment graded during Phase I so that these "temporary retaining walls" that certainly costed significant amounts of transportation tax money to design and build could have been eliminated from the project budget?

Phase II: Let's do it right this time.

Phase II of the French Valley Parkway promises to clear out the infamous northbound freeway bottleneck which often causes northbound afternoon peak hour traffic to back up all the way to the San Diego County Line and sometimes as far as Highway 76 in Pala Mesa on some Fridays. In fairness, the interchange environmental reports showed that the project would support the future build of two high occupancy carpool lanes each way combined with a direct HOV/HOT connector with the I-215 freeway. That would provide infrastructure for speedy bus transit for the area.

It's time for officials to unravel the unneccessary red tape, get French Valley Parkway's costs under control, and get Southwest Riverside County moving again.

Friday, April 4, 2014

It's Officially Proposed: Streamlining Pass Transit Buses

The Transit Coalition's campaign to streamline the circuitous bus routes in the Inland Empire's Pass Area which covers the Beaumont, Banning, and Cabazon area is well on its way to fulfillment. The cities of Beaumont and Banning jointly operate the Pass Transit bus system which has long had a routing system that is circuitous. Finally, some good changes are coming for bus riders which will considerably speed up local bus travel trip times.

Here's a run-down of the proposed changes:

Local Trunk Route:

Routes 1, 2, 25 –
Pass Transit Routes 1, 2 and 25 will be combined into a single trunk line which will directly serve the commercial corridors between south Cherry Valley and Casino Morongo via Beaumont Avenue, Sixth Street, and Ramsey Street under the hub-and-spoke routing model with the Wal-Mart transfer point continuing to serve as the hub. Also, peak-hour and midday headways will increase to operate every 30 minutes during these times and 60 minutes during the early morning and later evening hours. The route will also run hourly on weekends. Route 1 will also replace Route 25.

The Transit Coalition has long envisioned and suggested such a proposal.

Connecting Shuttles and Circulators:
  • Route 3 – New weekend service will operate every 60 minutes from 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM.
  • Route 4, 9 – Route 4 has been redesigned to serve new areas such as Brookside Avenue and to provide all-day service on Pennsylvania Avenue. It will operate as a loop and run every 60 minutes. We would like the loop to operate as bi-directional circulator due the vast loop size with a timed transfer to other routes at the Wal-Mart transfer hub. With Route 1 serving the Beaumont Avenue corridor and new weekend Route 3 runs, Route 4 weekend service will be cancelled. Route 4 will also serve Seneca Springs on one trip in the after school hours due to overcrowding on Route 9 buses.
  • Routes 5, 6 – Routes 5 and 6 are combined and have been redesigned into a loop that will serve the northern and southern residential areas of Banning. It will operate every 60 minutes. Like Line 4, we would like to see the loop serve as bi-directional circulator with a timed connection to other routes at the Wal-Mart hub.
  • Route 7 – Cancel the 4:02pm, 4:37, and 5:22 departures. Being a peak-hour high school and middle school school-tripper route, transit mobility will not be seriously negated with the changes. The Coalition will continue to explore a productive means to route a productive regional connector through the Fairway Canyon development which will likely have to be a second regional connector between Beaumont and San Bernardino operating hourly and funded by smart growth marketplace development in the Pass Area, central Calimesa, and downtown Yucaipa.
  • New Cabazon Circulator – The Cabazon Circulator will operate every 60 minutes from 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM with additional early morning and late evening departures. The Circulator will connect Cabazon’s residential communities with the Cabazon Community Center, Casino Morongo, and the Cabazon Outlets. We will be advocating for a timed transfer between this line and Route 1 at the Morongo Casino with possible interlining and that connections to SunLine Route 220 are possible.
Commuter Express:
  • Route 120 - The line will have an additional weekday midday run to provide for an all-day service span with a service frequency of approximately every two hours. If officials can time the transfer connections between Route 120 and Metrolink, productivity should further soar.
Some Recent History of the Route 120 Transit Corridor

We all remember RTA Route 36, do we?
Route 120 may be proving that restructuring under-performing lifeline bus routes is much better than simply cancelling them. We all remember that several years ago, RTA operated Route 36 between Beaumont and Redlands than ran hourly with a stop in Calimesa. The line had stagnant low ridership. RTA proposed to discontinue the route, but after local opposition, the line was re-routed from Redlands to Yucaipa in attempt to boost ridership. The route still underperformed, even with extensive local marketing. RTA then proposed to cancel the route again.

Being the sole lifeline route of the area, several local citizens, The Transit Coalition, and Southern California Transit Advocates all objected to the proposal. We've asked RTA to work with Pass Transit to ensure transit mobility was maintained in the region. Pass Transit agreed to operate an express line between Beaumont and Calimesa as RTA phased out Line 36. Recently, the express line was restructured into a commuter route from the Beaumont Wal-Mart to the San Berndarino Metrolink station with stops in Calimesa and the Loma Linda University Medical Center area. Now, the added midday departure will allow for a bus departure once every two hours from early morning through the afternoon rush hour.

Should we see marketplace smart growth in the existing commercial areas along the corridor, funds and the ridership could allow Route 120's service frequency to be restored to hourly. Should that happen, we may finally have a productive regional express bus route between the San Bernardino and Pass areas. It will be the region's new Route 36, but this time, it will be productive and filled with riders.

This should serve as a lesson for any transit agency having to deal with under-performing lifeline regional connectors.

Back to rest of the proposals...It's long past time for the cities of Beaumont and Banning to adopt these service changes recommended in the COA. For years, we've called for a more direct, hub-and-spoke bus system for the Pass Area. And it finally looks like better bus service for this region is getting closer to reality even though the changes are certainly not picture-perfect. Therefore, we hope that the city governments approve and fund these proposals.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

More evidence that Carpool Lanes are NOT always "Underutilized" during off-peak hours

They may "look" empty with very few cars, but evidence shows that carpool and HOT lanes may be carrying thousands of people per hour during the off-peak hours.
The Transit Coalition has more evidence of why carpool lanes are not "underutilized" even though some may appear empty during off-peak hours. We took another field study down south, exploring and conducting a casual vehicle count of the I-15 Express Lanes through San Diego County, a robust multi-modal system that we would like to see extended north into the Inland Empire. The HOT lanes support free non-transponder carpooling--meaning that any high occupancy vehile with 2 or more passengers can get on for free and go without needing to pre-register ahead of time for a FasTrak transponder. The Express Lanes also have direct access ramps to/from adjacent transit hubs and park & ride lots; thus, they have bus transit infrastructure.

When we passed through during the early-afternoon off-peak hours, the general purpose lanes were at top speeds, but high in volume while the HOT lanes "looked" wide open. Because of that, many automatically imply that the carpool HOT lanes are "under-utilized" outside of rush hour. They are not, and here's what we found:

Counting the off-peak HOV's early in the afternoon

Early in the afternoon yesterday shortly after 2PM, we traveled northbound along the I-15 Express Lanes in San Diego County end-to-end and hand-counted the number of vehicles traveling southbound as we proceeded along. The southbound side of the freeway normally loads up during the morning rush hour, so it was clearly operating off-peak. Both the freeway and the HOT lanes were moving at fast speeds. The southbound side of the freeway lanes was a bit heavy, but moving at top speeds while the HOT lanes were wide-open as we counted approximately 300 total vehicles and 3 motorcycles in the express lanes during the 20-minute journey through the corridor. However, because the I-15 Express Lanes is a high occupancy vehicle facility, the question should not be how many cars are traveling through, but how many people.

We acknowledge that we do not have any special tools to weed out which cars were toll-paying solo drivers, but it's quite clear that very few solos will elect to buy their way into a carpool lane whenever the freeway lanes are congestion-free. Other than to travel in a wider-open set of lanes, why would one want to buy his/her way out of non-existent traffic congestion? With this reality, it was difficult to separate the HOV count from the toll-paying solos, but we'll do a very generous over-estimate that 10% of the traffic (or 30 of the cars counted) were toll-paying solo drivers.

We'll also subtract another big estimate of 30 cars for the few who own clean vehicles.

That leaves us with about 240 genuine HOV's counted in a twenty minute period. Multiply that by 3 to get an hourly average of 720 vehicles with at least two occupants in the carpool lanes during the 2PM off-peak hour on the southbound side.

A set of two freeway-speed HOT lanes have a vehicle capacity maximum of about 4,000-4,200 cars per hour, just like two general purpose lanes, so the lane will have a wide-open appearance outside of rush hours. That's why solo's are given the option to buy their way in at the market rate with dynamic FasTrak tolling, a fair alternative over the "open to all for free" option. To be fair, it is right and just to temporarily relax HOV restrictions and tolls whenever an incident occurs (e.g. sig-alerts, collisions, wildfires, maintenance, construction) to allow traffic to pass through freely for that short period, but during normal traffic conditions, tolling solos would prevent potential off-peak obstruction of the lanes. Also, some lighter Inland freeway corridors like SR-60 through Moreno Valley show that there are valid exceptions to this notion and that's exactly why HOV lane usage and enforcement policies need to be decided based on local traffic patterns, not from Sacramento politicians. That's why we don't support opening up the carpool lanes to all at the statewide level outside of rush hours. Back to San Diego County. With each of the 720 HOV's estimated having a least two persons inside, we have a bare minimum of 1,440 people for that hour traveling in the HOT lanes even though they look wide open and empty. That figure is definitely a lot higher, possibly breaking 2,000 people per hour.

Bring in MTS Route 20, the all-day local-plus-express bus route between south Escondido and downtown San Diego. While we didn't see the bus in the HOT lanes north of Rancho Bernardo during the field study, the bus runs every 30 minutes during the middle of the day. Suppose only 15 people were on board, a very low estimate. That's an extra 30 people per hour in the HOT lanes with only two vehicles. And wait until all-day rapid express BRT services are launched for the corridor. Let's not forget that since the HOT lanes support free-non transponder carpooling, private charter buses filled with people often pass through too. The lanes will carry even more people per hour even though that means few vehicles. We're talking thousands of people passing though per hour.

Does that sound "underutilized" during the off-peak hours? You make the call.