The sbX Bus Rapid Transit: A success in waiting

It may appear to be lightly used but upcoming transit infrastructure improvements are underway which should significantly boost the sbX ridership.

All Aboard! Special needs youth take a field trip aboard the sbX Green Line
Photo: Omnitrans
Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Omnitrans' new bus rapid transit line dubbed the sbX Green Line which has recently opened is a long-desired upgrade for San Bernardino's E Street transportation corridor. However it has been getting some hard press and continued dissent among some members of the public. The reportage is showing slow-start ridership counts which has rallied the opposition. So what's going on? It's time for some straight talk.

sbX Green Line Ridership

Photo: Omnitrans
Ever since the sbX project was approved and planned, we predicted it would mimic the LA Metro Orange Line along E Street's dedicated transit lanes and Metro Rapid along the bookends. In addition, we predicted that a significant portion of Omnitrans' existing Route 2 ridership base of 3,841 daily riders for this fiscal year would shift to the sbX. The transit agency thought likewise which is the reason why Route 2's midday and rush hour service frequency during the week was reduced to 30 minutes between buses, down from 15. The sbX runs every 10 minutes during rush hours and 15 minutes at other times.

Press Enterprise Columnist Cassie MacDuff rode the bus on May 12 and published a report of her observation. The column reported that 15,000 people rode it during the first week either to get their destinations or to simply try it out. During the first week, rides aboard the Green Line were free. Once fares were implemented after week one, the paper reported that ridership fell to 1,280 for the second week.

That ridership stat was not correct. According to Omnitrans Marketing Director Wendy Williams, the 1,280 figure was not the total week two ridership, but rather the average daily ridership of the line. In fact, at the time of this post, sbX was averaging 1,327 riders per day.

More Facts -- Comparing the Ridership between sbX and Route 2:

During the opening week when sbX rides were free, an average of 3,032 daily passengers came aboard the bus. Route 2 had an average of 2,901 weekday daily passengers. The E Street corridor thus saw a net gain average of 2,092 daily riders between the sbX and Route 2. Of course, people simply wanting to try out the sbX boosted those numbers.

During the second week, Route 2 had a daily average of 2,943 riders; sbX had a 1,327 per day average. That meant Route 2 carried over 69% of the E Street transit ridership, sbX carried 31%. That also meant that just under 900 daily Route 2 riders have switched to sbX. Net gain for the whole corridor was 429.

We understand that the numbers are still very preliminary but there is big legit reason of why so many transit riders are electing to ride Route 2 instead of the sbX: The sbX currently bypasses the Fourth Street transfer hub.

The nearest sbX station is located at Court Street. The existing transfer hub is located at 4th and F Streets. That generally entices riders using the hub to transfer to/from Route 2 instead of the sbX.

No Connection...How did that happen?

According to Williams, an sbX station in operations located E Street and Rialto is also part of the proposed San Bernardino Transit Center which has already broken ground. The transit center was originally planned to open either before or during the launch of sbX. However, it was delayed and the BRT line started without it. To be fair, the transit center delays are justifiable. Coordination with SANBAG's plans to extend Metrolink to the transit center area were the reasons. Such integration and pre-planning are generally sound policies and it is very typical for such projects to take a little bit longer. July of 2015 is the predicted opening day for the transit hub. July of 2016 is the predicted start date for the Metrolink First Mile extension to San Bernardino.

sbX Safety Outreach Example
Graphic: Omnitrans
Clearly, the sbX has a lot to gain from the inbound transfers at this multi-modal hub.

In addition Omnitrans will be working to entice Route 2 riders to switch to the sbX. Some riders don't realize that the sbX has the same Omnitrans fare policy as the local buses; some users don't even know that Omnitrans operates the sbX.  The agency had deployed sbX transit ambassadors to the Route 2 bus stops to educate the riders and plans to place additional communications aboard the local line and other area buses. In addition, Omnitrans published a story of a longtime Route 2 passenger who made the switch. All of these should entice some additional riders to use the sbX instead of Route 2 while we wait for the transit center to open.

We also received this fact sheet from Omnitrans explaining how the agency will educate private motorists to stay out of the bus lanes. Law enforcement will be issuing citations to violators.

Addressing the sbX Dissenters on costs

A few days after the PE article was published, there were 8 dissenting comments posted plus a very fine rebuttal which took 4 comment slots to fill. We took some brief notes of the 12 but before we address them, we do apologize for not referencing to them directly. As of last Friday, we found that the newspaper renovated its website design which included a different engine for reader comments. Because the comments engine was changed, all of the comments we noted are no longer live for you to reference, but we'll do what we can to give you a straight report. To be clear, we're not out here to personally attack sbX opponents, but we're here to put in some straight facts for a good and productive debate.

To summarize, most of the dissenters took note of the light ridership figures and light usage of the sbX. We've already addressed how Omnitrans and SANBAG are solving this problem. In addition, some opponents had a big problem with the $192 million project price tag. There were charges from others that the sbX was government waste. That was the view of one follower of the Redlands Tea Party Patriots who invited the PE readers to attend last Saturday's May 17 Unite IE Conference. We were looking to get some constructive criticism in from this group, but the organization could not be reached for comment.

We would like this group to talk with us because we have to give the dissenters credit on one valid point: The sbX per-mile cost.

The Sahara Express BRT in Las Vegas
The line's per-mile cost was $3.7 million per mile.
To compare, the sbX was $12.2 million per mile.
Photo: Federal Transit Administration
The 15.7 mile sbX was $192 million; adding up to $12.2 million per mile. That included all design, engineering, project management, land acquisition, corridor construction, vehicle purchase, improvements to the maintenance and operations facility and other items. About half of the costs were for construction.

We compared this stat with similar BRT systems in Las Vegas. We received the total costs from three separate BRT corridors in the Las Vegas region, courtesy of several published reports and from Kelley Mulroy, Marketing & Media Administrator of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada. We can say up front that Las Vegas' BRT system had far less per-mile costs than the sbX.

The 7.5 mile MAX BRT which goes through North Las Vegas cost $20 million total including the bus fleet, adding up to $2.7 million per mile. The 9 mile SDX rapid system which is similar to the sbX which connects the Strip and Downtown was $52 million or $5.8 million per mile. The 12 mile Sahara Express at $45.2 million clocked in at $3.7 million per mile. The Sahara Express also mimics the sbX except that the bus lanes and stations are on the right side of the road instead of the left. In addition, Las Vegas' market economy as a whole is sharply better than San Bernardino's which meant that the sbX should have cost less per mile than the Vegas system. This is more evidence that costs for public works projects in California are artificially high. This is why our infrastructure and economy are generally lagging behind. By the way, the $324 million LA Metro Orange Line spanning 18 miles cost $18 million per mile.

Inflated public works costs certainly is a valid argument and a contributing factor to the sbX dissent that must be dealt with at the state level by the legislature. We hope this was addressed boldly at the Unite IE Conference. The PE had coverage of the event. However, Omnitrans cannot be faulted nor take the blame for the high costs and rules that contribute to them. Again, that has to be dealt with at the state level. We clearly should not classify mass transit as government waste in general. The Las Vegas system clearly proves this. Mass transit infrastructure to move high volumes of people along economically and populated dense corridors without the cars is imperative. Even the Reason Foundation which promotes libertarian principles sees BRT, managed arterial roads and managed lanes as "low-lost, high quality transportation solutions for the 21st Century."

For the record, one of the PE commenters who dissented the sbX had the user name of "CALICOLAKE HOA" which may have led some readers to assume that the Calico Lakes Homeowner's Association based out of Yermo in the Barstow area was speaking out against the transit line and therefore opposed the sbX. That never happened. The tone of the poster's comments should automatically suggest so and according to Community Management Director Lyndsey Dyer of Professional Community Management, the Calico Lakes Homeowners Association took no position on the matter.

The sbX is a successful BRT in waiting
Photo: Omnitrans

In conclusion, the robust sbX bus rapid system is a success in waiting. It is clearly not a government boondoggle. With better infrastructure, Metrolink, future express buses, and a multi-modal transit hub all on their way, the sbX will attain a strong ridership pool which will allow it to be very productive. At the same point, state lawmakers need to stop ignoring the issue of inflated statewide infrastructure costs during a soft market economy. If such costs and trivial red tape come under control at the state level and San Bernardino's market economy improves and crime decreases, the upgrades that we're waiting for will come at a faster rate. Smart growth developers will come in to develop the E Street corridor which will certainly make the sbX Green Line and its future routes a very productive means get around San Bernardino County.