San Diego MTS I-15 Rapid Express is "One Sweet Ride" - Can the Inland Empire have this too?

How can we get a similar BRT express system into under-served Inland Empire transit corridors?

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

San Diego's transit agency, MTS, last June significantly upgraded the Escondido-Downtown San Diego transportation corridor with "One Sweet Ride," a rapid express service with buses running every 30 minutes from early morning until late night up and down the corridor with expanded peak hour frequencies and additional premium limited stop commuter express runs. Until the BRT express upgrades took place, transit services were primarily rush-hour oriented with a number of limited stop commuter express routes and a local-plus express regional connector dubbed MTS Route 20 between Del Lago and Downtown; getting in between Escondido, downtown and major points in between during off-peak hours had required many stops with transfers. Not anymore.

There is no ideological spin to the "One Sweet Ride" slogan. I traveled down to Escondido last weekend and gave MTS Rapid Express Route 235 a go, end-to-end. It is one sweet ride.

San Diego's BRT express provided for a quick and speedy alternative to get up and down the I-15 corridor. According to MTS and my field study, the rapid express line has many features one can expect from BRT service. That includes traffic signal priority, use of the I-15 Express Lanes, direct access ramps, and limited stops. Unlike some BRT services where tickets are purchased at the station, Route 235 fares are paid on board, similar to local bus fare collection. In addition, the bus features comfortable, cushioned seats.

This bus pretty much mimics the Foothill Transit Silver Streak and Metro Silver Line rapid express lines in Los Angeles. It's pretty much San Diego's version of LA's robust El Monte Busway services. Both corridors currently use high occupancy toll lanes as infrastructure with the El Monte system starting as a dedicated busway in 1973 and going through a number of usage changes over its successful 41 year history.

Photo: San Diego MTS
One interesting fact about the I-15 Express Lanes and the El Monte Busway, their direct access ramps, and adjacent transit centers is that even though the transit stops are along a major freeway corridor, such amenities are actually located away from the freeway itself. Unlike some express systems where the stations are placed in the freeway median, riders waiting for the express bus do not have to put up with the loud noise, high traffic volumes, or poor pedestrian connections between local and express routes that is typically found in transit stations located in the freeway medians; the Los Angeles Metro Green Line and Harbor Transitway are examples of those. I witnessed the better waiting conditions first hand since the bus had a small layover period at one of these stations and I had an opportunity to examine the environment.

This interesting rapid transit station is part of a general purpose freeway interchange overpass with the Rapid Express Route 235 stops situated in between the right and left turn lanes at each offramp.
The second observation was a pair of transit stops just south of the San Diego River in the Mid City area. The stops were each in a dedicated bus island located in the middle of the 15 freeway offramps. Traffic turning left were to the left of the stop; cars going right to the right. The bus goes straight through into the onramp. Another interesting observation was the freeway overpass that connects the two sides; the sidewalk on each side of the bridge are big landscaped waiting areas for passengers connecting to/from local buses. Hedges and sound barriers block the freeway noise. I'll have to take a closer look at this solution before forming a position. I will say the noise pollution levels are good, but the high traffic volumes at the interchange still make getting around by foot a bit of challenge.

Coalition Concept: 91 Express Lanes direct access ramp linking buses and carpools to the Corona Transit Center. This infrastructure could allow for productive all day rapid express services for the 91 freeway.
Note: Concept only. Not endorsed by RCTC, RTA, City of Corona, OCTA or any public entity.
Now, the question is how can we get the "One Sweet Ride" into the Inland Empire? We have under-served transportation corridors here at home including the congested Riverside-Orange County corridor known as the 91. There are a number of high occupancy toll lane proposals in store for our area on top the 91 Express Lane extension into Corona.

Like the El Monte Busway and I-15 Express Lanes, have Riverside and San Bernardino County officials thought of including direct access ramps and transit infrastructure into Inland Empire toll lane projects? Have the elected officials explored these proven solutions for quick and easy BRT access between the planned express lanes and nearby transit stations so that we too can have efficient rapid express bus service on top of the expanded commuter services?

For starters, we need to figure out how to better link both the Corona Transit Center and the Village at Orange transfer hub with the HOT lane infrastructure so that the buses don't have to do extensive backtracking. We invite elected Inland officials to check out San Diego's rapid transit system. 

For the record: The writer has defined the regular runs of the freeway-oriented BRT services as "Rapid Express" and the limited stop commuter runs as "premium limited stop commuter express runs". San Diego MTS defines the regular all-day runs of the I-15 Express Lanes BRT services as "Rapid" Route 235 and the peak-hour limited stop commuter express runs as "Rapid Express".