Friday, December 19, 2014

Inland Empire Transit News Updates: Metrolink, Toll Lanes, and Stopping Gangs

There's much in the news in the transportation department this Christmas and Hanukkah.

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

This holiday season has been a busy month in the news. Here's brief run down:

Changes coming to Metrolink Leadership: Michael DePallo has announced that he will step down as CEO at the start of the new year on January 2, 2015. The railroad has been in a rocky boat recently as it continues to addresses fundamental problems such as broken ticket vending machines, late trains, and finances. The Metrolink Board will commence the hiring process for a new CEO.

I'm hoping that both the new leader and the Board would agree on fiscally conservative and cost-efficient solutions to fix #TVMFail, get the stations secure, and solve the numerous on-time performance issues.

Also, I hope there will finally be consensus for the railroad to adopt corridor-based regional rail service through LA Union Station. That is a proven solution that would make the entire Metrolink train system more fiscally productive which would certainly generate the revenue and ridership necessary to fully fund the San Bernardino Line and restore the recently suspended two midday and two late night weekday roundtrips with potential hourly off-peak service and future expanded 30 minute frequencies.

Ending the 2014 year on Metrolink on the bright front, Mr. DePallo is an asset to Metrolink passenger safety. He led the agency into implementing Positive Train Control quickly, making the regional rail system the safest railroad in the nation. Locomotive operators are now monitored which combats distracted driving on the rails. Also, Metrolink employed cleaner Tier 4 locomotives on his watch which means cleaner air. In fact, the CEO came to The Transit Coalition in the fall of October 2013 to describe the safety improvements to our meeting participants in Los Angeles. DePallo will likely go down in Metrolink history as the safety CEO. 

Don't get caught carpool cheating in San Diego: Law enforcement patrols the I-15 Express Lanes during the afternoon rush hour.
Carpool and Toll Lane Debate: I ran across a number of local articles on reports of increasing statewide traffic congestion, slow and crowded carpool lanes in Orange County, and continued HOV cheating along LA's Metro ExpressLanes.

I'll have a transit talking points on this matter written up soon, but these new facts do support our position that stronger deterrents against HOV/HOT lane cheating is absolutely necessary, deterrents that go well beyond automated transponder photo enforcement. The presence of intelligence-driven law enforcement is necessary to prevent non-HOV's from cheating carpool and high occupancy toll lane systems regardless of whether a tolling agency requires mandatory FasTrak transponders and vehicle registration or not for toll-free HOV's. Reliable automated systems simply cannot determine how many passengers are in a vehicle, and that is the truth for now.

Efficient HOV Connections: A congestion-free direct access ramp connects the Mira Mesa Transit Station with the I-15 Express Lanes in San Diego County during the northbound afternoon rush hour, allowing for 2+ HOV's, MTS Rapid transit buses, and toll-paying solo drivers seamless access.
Plus, the evidence shows that there needs to be seamless connections between all rapid transit HOV-related infrastructure. Such infrastructure includes transit stations, bus transfer hubs, and commuter park & ride lots as well as Southern California's carpool and high occupancy toll lane network.

What can be done to better link these HOV amenities seamlessly? More on that soon...

Combating San Bernardino Gang Crime: Earlier this week, law enforcement busted 33 suspected gang members which promises to put a dent on a violent clash between two rival criminal gang groups. Last month, The Sun published a report showing that local grassroots organizations are working hard to unite the communities to take back their neighborhoods from the ciminal subculture.

My Brother's Keeper: President Obama's initiative promises to help our youth grow up and become productive adults.
As the bankrupt City of San Bernardino continues to figure out ways to balance its books with the unfunded pensions, I believe the city is making a comeback with the unified voice.

Unity of its people can allow a fiscally broken city to prosper socially and economically. We should all urge local politicians and officials to continue to take a leadership role on stopping criminal gang crime with firm public messages, allowing the non-profit sector and religious groups to seamlessly do their parts to improve the lives of broken youth and the incarcerated, and to flood troubled areas with community action patrol watchdogs, volunteers and reserve deputies to assist the paid full time law enforcement.

As you saw in the recent police news stories making national headlines combined with the public reaction, our law enforcement ranks can have flawed individuals, but what individual is without his/her personal flaws? The men and women in law enforcement is what we have to protect our local streets from turning into dangerous full-fledged criminal war zones.

While I know the city has a long way to go before it makes its way to a top-safest-cities list, I believe San Bernardino is at a turning point for the better even with its ongoing bankruptcy case and money problems. Public transportation, road capacity and HOV infrastructure continues to be improved. If both the community and government leaders continue to take a serious stand against gang crime and continue to grow the economy with inclining tax and fee breaks, San Bernardinio will once again be a desirable place to live.

End of the Year Commentary

I do appreciate you taking your time to read this blog. We are all in it together to bring about A Better Inland Empire. Bottom line is I want our system to have robust and paid-for transportation infrastructure so you and I can get from one end of Southern California to the other quickly and efficiently without the traffic congestion. That's why I volunteer to work with The Transit Coalition to make this happen. I want our region to be protected from violent crime, evil, pollution, and greed of power. I believe we all agree on those core principles.

Yes, we often disagree on a number of specific solutions and that's why I invite anybody reading this post who has not contributed comments here on this blog or on the social networking sites to please do so. Volunteer for the Coalition. Become a college interim and join our Tiger Team. Politicians, decision makers, the press and top transit agency staff follow this discussion. Your voice isn't just going to the choir. We receive constructive comments and reactions from smart people on various topics and I enjoy the lively debate because we are all unique and have different solutions to make the Inland Empire better for all, something that is universally desired among us.

I want to wish you all a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a Happy New Year. I will talk to you again in 2015.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Let's Debate: How can we quickly improve our broken Metrolink system?

What solutions can we provide to immediately fix Metrolink's problems quickly?

F59PH 860 High resolution
We need to think outside the box and allow riders to volunteer to be the right arm of repairing our regional rail system to keep such repair costs in check.
Photo: © Wikimedia Commons/Brian Zimmerman CC-BY

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

If you take the train regularly and follow the Metrolink Diary Twitter page, you well know that our regional railroad system has all kinds of complicated problems ranging from broken ticket vending machines to late trains to signs displaying the incorrect time of day. A major fundamental issue is we the people have lost control of our rail transportation system no thanks to bloated infrastructure costs, special interest pandering at the state level, inflated operational expenses and sub-par connections. We need a rail system that will finally "fill a void in Southern California's transportation infrastructure" with corridor-based routes and better oversight and control over inflated costs. Commuters need productive and seamless transportation connectivity options and regional rail service has long provided that.

Recent Metrolink Improvements

To be fair, not is all bad at the railroad as there have been some good improvements recently. Metrolink has improved safety aboard the trains with the Guardian Fleet cars, monitoring locomotive operators, and implementing Positive Train Control technology. In addition, through its Customer Connect program, the railroad has an outlet at Los Angeles Union Station which connect train riders to decision-making management and staff. Plus, the Metrolink 91 Line now has weekend runs plus expanded peak hour service.

Those are all good improvements especially the new train options for the 91 freeway corridor. But now, we must fix what's breaking the rail system down to its roots. We need to provide the railroad with real solutions. The sad truth is that I have not seen any major executable solution of how to solve the railroad's problems as a whole other than more unaffordable massive spending. That's because many leaders have not confronted the powerful labor union and special interest lobby that keeps costs bloated, leaving many transit riders and the general public with substandard infrastructure and operations. That's NIMBY transit obstructionism at its finest.

Potential Solutions for Metrolink: We need an executable action plan that is conservative to the taxpayer and tolerates no trivial excuses. So, here is what I submit into the debate:

Coalition Concept: Metrolink can increase revenue and productivity by changing from a "segment" system to a "corridor" system.
Note: Concept Only. Not endorsed by SCRRA.
Corridor-based rail service: Establish through-service at Los Angeles Union Station with timed transfers by reconfiguring existing routes. That would greatly boost ridership productivity for each line and better fund the Metrolink San Bernardino Line which would certainly provide resources to restore the unfunded midday and late night weekday train runs.

Restore San Bernardino Line funding: The Metrolink and SANBAG Boards need to put this item back on to the table for discussion. Midday Trains 310 and 327 and late night trains 338 and 339 need to be funded and restored. SANBAG needs to be held accountable to pay its bill. Metrolink needs to control the sharp cost increases disputed by SANBAG and improve productivity by operating through trains from San Bernardino into Santa Clarita. It's long past time to solve this problem.

Robust, Productive and Affordable Security Services: Work with the local jurisdictions, the private sector and neighboring businesses and offer incentives that would better staff the locally operated train stations with better security to keep local spending budgets in line with economic growth, train stations safe and secure, and deter fare evasions. The private sector loves tax and fee breaks. If a neighboring local business is willing to hire or task an existing full time security officer to patrol the station and enforce fare payments on the platform, that business should be offered a local tax break and a set of free monthly passes to the employees of that business as an incentive. That is a fiscally conservative means to secure the stations, not an 18.8% line item budget hike from last year addressed by SANBAG.

On-Time Performance: Freight rail companies need to be held accountable of fulfilling their end of the bargain by ensuring tracks are clear for all scheduled Metrolink trains. If freight train congestion becomes a problem to the point where Metrolink trains are delayed 10 minutes or more, the freight rail operators must be held accountable.

Affordable Volunteer Power: US Navy Sailors clean up the Old Town Transit Station in San Diego as part of a regional volunteer event. Volunteers work together to clean up the historical location. Why can't our Metrolink stations be staffed with such community-oriented groups to control station maintenance costs?
Affordable Station Maintenance--Transit Ambassadors & Adopt-A-Station: Get a crew of volunteer ambassadors active through the non-profit sector to keep Metrolink stations clean and offer TVM assistance. California's adopt-a-highway system has helped kept our highways free from dumped debris for decades. Metrolink should encourage its local jurisdictions to allow its people to take care of the stations as transit ambassadors, offer customer service at TVM's, and conduct basic cleaning which includes keeping the public bathrooms sparkling. There are people out there who would do this. Give these people a chance to do so and offer a free one day pass for each day worked as token of thanks.

Metrolink TVM
#TVMFail no more! Let's allow tech volunteers to fix 'em!
Photo: © Wikimedia Commons/Ricky Courtney CC-BY-SA
Tech-Savvy Volunteers can Stop #TVMFail for less cost: Provide a free ride incentive to qualified skilled-based people who volunteer to repair the ticket vending machines and their computers. I'm pretty positive that there are highly qualified software and computer engineers who ride the train to work and want the TVM's to function. There may be some who just want to get their hands into a broken TVM system to reboot the stalled computer or fix the wiring bug just so they can get to their jobs on time. Why is there not a program that offers these qualified people free monthly passes if they stick around at the station for 15-30 minutes longer, volunteer to help diagnose, repair and inspect the TVM's and their computer systems at the fraction of the cost? Efficient oversight by paid staff will ensure the TVM's are repaired and work the right way.

Train Maintenance Job Performance: Better inspect the trains to reduce break downs and hold maintenance crews accountable for their job performance. Tolerate no waste. Again, invite qualified mechanics from the ridership base to step in and assist by offering ticket incentives to them so paid crews can focus better on the bigger problems. Riders want functioning trains and some are willing to step in themselves to fix the smaller problems like changing the light bulbs and polishing the toilets.

Challenging the special interests and labor unions to stop obstructing our government projects with inflated costs: Local elected officials need to take action and demand the state government to stop this government waste once and for all. If Metrolink cannot afford to improve its infrastructure quickly because project costs are priced well above the market economy salaries and rates, transit funds are displaced to other areas, and ill-advised policies prevent the private sector, unemployed non-union workers and volunteers from stepping in, the railroad will never be able to fully solve its problems and prosper.

Getting public works infrastructure and operational costs in line with the market rates has nothing to do with ideology or worker rights. It has everything to do with government efficiency and productivity. You want Metrolink to operate at its best? Give its riding public the chance to repair the system. Improve the connections between the train routes and connecting buses. You want public employees and contractors to continue to have good benefits and salaries without breaking the bank? Challenge the labor unions to support policies that would improve the market economy to balance the scales. Work with the problem-solvers to stop the ideology. Allocating massive amounts of money is only a short-range patch and will do little in the long-run. We cannot afford to keep the infrastructure costs at the bloated rates. But we and elected officials can and must take back control of the railroad with a firm action plan and zero tolerance for excuses from the special interests. 

Now is the time for the local leadership including transit advocates to end the inaction. We must declare independence from this culture of special interests and bad statewide policies, provide workable solutions, and repair our broken Metrolink system.

Got any other ideas? Post them in the comments and let Metrolink know.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Getting productive work done aboard a commuter bus or HOV

Having the option to get productive work done aboard commuter-oriented transit services or private carpool can greatly neutralize the longer door-to-door trip times.

One Sweet Ride: San Diego MTS BRT Rapid Route 235 bypasses stopped traffic in Escondido in the I-15 Express Lanes during the afternoon rush hour. Commuters were resting and socializing on board after a hard day's work.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

One common complaint I hear from commuters is that ridesharing to work such as taking transit or riding in a vanpool adds too much time to an already long commute, even with the presence of high occupancy vehicle lane infrastructure and Metrolink regional rail service. The dissents are understandable. A commute between Wildomar and Irvine can last in excess of 90 minutes to 2 hours each way by driving alone. With a commuter vanpool, add in about a 5-10 minute layover at each Park & Ride stop. With RTA CommuterLink and Metrolink transit add in anywhere from 30-60 minutes for the added layovers, transfers and stops.

But with the added commute times can come something productive and that is why commuter-oriented amenities need to be available on transit fleets, and such mobile telecommuting should be encouraged by employers so that commuters can get work done while on the road or rails.

Rush Hour Transit Field Study: Riverside County to Kearny Mesa

Last week, I had an all day appointment in the Kearny Mesa area in San Diego County. Since this region is a job-rich spot with many of its workers commuting out of Southwest Riverside County, I knew I had some choices to get up and down this major commuter corridor known as the I-15 freeway.

I-15 Express Lanes BRT: Del Lago Transit Station Direct Access Ramp during the AM rush hour.
The most popular option was to simply just drive down there. Of course, the negative consequence of that was the miserable task of battling commuter traffic for over 90 minutes each way. Yes, I do have a fuel-efficient car and I do have a valid FasTrak transponder account with my car registered with a tolling agency which would have allowed me to use the I-15 Express Lanes as a solo driver, but the inbound maximum rush hour toll in the morning was $6.00 and $8.00 in the afternoon. I am one who is willing to buy my way out of traffic congestion into the HOT lane system in times of need, but that was not necessary this day.

Planning a private carpool for a single roundtrip was out of the question. Normally, organizing such a carpool with a stranger takes time to plan.

That leaves taking the bus. Being a transit advocate, I knew there were peak-hour express options to get between the Inland Empire and San Diego County fairly quickly. Here is a run-down of the itinerary:

Arrive Temecula Harveston Park - 7:00AM
RTA Route 217 - 7:06AM ($3 Fare One Way)
Arrive Escondido Transit Center - 7:55AM
MTS Rapid 235/I-15 Express Lanes BRT - 8:17AM ($5 Regional Day Pass from Sprinter TVM)
Arrive Kearny Mesa Transit Center - 9:02AM

Finish Appointment/Arrive Kearny Mesa Transit Center - 4:00PM
MTS Rapid 235/I-15 Express Lanes BRT - 4:15PM (Use Day Pass)
Arrive Escondido Transit Center - 5:17PM
RTA Route 217 - 5:30PM ($3 Fare One Way)
Arrive Temecula Harveston Park - 6:17PM

As you can see, the bus commute time with the layovers plus the time to/from the Park & Ride lot is over 2 hours. This is commonly a valid excuse of why many commuters don't take the bus. Many don't want to be on the road that long doing nothing. But that does not mean that commuters are stuck doing nothing. The added time can easily be neutralized and made productive. Not to mention my transit fare for the entire day spanning almost 100 miles roundtrip was only $11, and that's the full general public fare.

Make your commute time more productive

Yes, taking the bus or train generally takes longer than driving solo door-to-door. But that does not mean that those extra minutes on the road or rails have to be wasted. When one drives alone long distances to/from work every day in rush hour traffic by spending over 1-2 hours each day on the road, that is generally time wasted. 90 minutes each way or 3 hours round trip of doing nothing but driving during the rush hour was too much for me. Yes, there's the radio. Yes, there's hands-free devices for phone calls. But because of the limited productivity options available for solo drivers, too much time gets wasted on the road. For a sane, productive and stress-free commute, the time behind the wheel should be no more than 30-45 minutes each way. Last month's series on smart growth addressed that. Also, to be fair, many district managers and workers who work in the service sector who need to haul their tools and belongings to various worksites throughout the day are often paid for their mileage traveled.

Photo: Riverside Transit Agency
But for high occupancy vehicles such as a carpool, vanpool, or transit, the additional trip time can be neutralized simply because more productive work or activities can commence once the rider boards the vehicle. Once on board a bus, train or HOV, commuters are free from the wheel of a car and can immediately begin their day by turning their attention to their work, chat with other commuters, or get some extra sleep.
Thanks to tech advancements, mobile telecommuting is now possible aboard HOV's and transit, not just at home. We now have mobile high speed internet access, tools that convert 4G cell phone data into WiFi, better cell phone coverage, and free and improved public WiFi services making their way to commuter buses. That means commuters can clock in on the road and begin their employer's work or start the school day before setting foot into the office, classroom or worksite. That includes answering emails, getting the daily accounting reports done, preparing for an exam, reading up on the next company's promotion, completing homework and more. The possibilities are immeasurable. Private employers should be incentivized to permit this hybrid mode of telecommuting for its workers. Many colleges have long offered such features.

Besides work, there's productive leisure that riders can take advantage of too. Many commuters resort to taking a power nap for extra shut eye. Others may catch up on the news. Some socialize and make friends with the other passengers.

What about the driver of such HOV's? Like transit bus drivers, the person driving the vanpool or carpool has already begun work once the vehicle has pulled into the Park & Ride lot or first pick up point. Since commuter HOV's are business-oriented, the driver should be paid the AAA reimbursement rate of $.56/mile from the other passengers to drive the HOV. A 50 mile commute adds up to about $25 each way or $50 roundtrip in compensation. Driving an HOV would thus be considered legit and productive work because the riders can get other things done while the driver can make a few extra bucks on the side to pay for the maintenance of the vehicle, something that generally cannot happen when driving solo to/from work.

The Riverside Transit Agency has a few mottoes for its CommuterLink express bus services. They are "Enjoy Rush Hour: The Riverside Transit Agency is making the miserable commute a thing of the past." and "Take a stand against traffic. Ride an express bus." I was not in a position into driving solo in miserable rush hour traffic for nearly 3 hours. I had other things to do during the time span. That's why I elected to take the bus to my Kearny Mesa appointment last week.