Friday, February 27, 2015

Metrolink, the Temecula Parkway Interchange, and California Gas Prices

Safety: Did these new Metrolink cars prevent worse injuries in Tuesday's Oxnard crash?

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

There was quite a bit of hard news on transportation-related matters this week: A Metrolink train crash in Oxnard, another injury-traffic collision along the I-15 freeway near Temecula Parkway, and soaring gas prices.

So let's take a look at each.

Metrolink Oxnard Crash and Metrolink's Safer Passenger Cars

Very early in the morning on Tuesday along the Metrolink Ventura County Line, Train 102 had departed Oxnard at about 5:40 AM and was headed to Los Angeles Union Station. Just past the Oxnard station, a Ford F-450 pick up truck was stuck on the tracks. At about 5:45 AM, the train collided with the truck and derailed, sending three of the four passenger cars toppling to their sides.

According to news reports there were 48 passengers and 3 train crew members aboard. 30 of those were admitted to hospitals.

Metrolink believes the injuries could have been a lot worse and there is solid evidence to back that up. That's because two of the cars that tipped over which included the cab car were the newer Guardian Fleet Hyundai Rotem Bi-level cars. The third car that fell over was the older Sentinel Fleet Bombardier car.

The last passenger car that was left standing upright was at the rear of the train which was also a Hyundai Rotem model. Behind it was the locomotive that was pushing the train.

The Hyundai Rotem passenger cars were designed to absorb crashes and their improved emergency exits streamlined the evacuation process. The deadly 2008 Chatsworth wreck clearly demonstrated Metrolink's need to use the safer rail cars.

Investigators are confirming whether the new cars made a difference in terms of safety regarding this collision specifically. All three cars that were tipped over including the older Bombardier model appeared to be intact with no major interior collapses. The published photos show that was the case.

Regarding the truck stuck on the tracks, no charges have yet been filed against the driver, but that case is still being investigated. I've been seeing reader comments posted on various online news articles condemning Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez. We should refrain from passing judgement on him simply because he has not been tried in court. The truck driver should be entitled to his innocence unless a jury convicts him or a guilty plea is submitted.

Temecula Parkway Ultimate Interchange Project: Another Collision...

I have to put this question out yet again:

How many more collisions must the I-15/Temecula Parkway interchange see before its safety hazards are finally fixed with the Ultimate Interchange Project?

Just a little bit more than 36 hours after the Oxnard Metrolink crash, yet another injury-accident occurred on the I-15 south just north of Temecula Parkway, where the interchange has chronic issues of a long single-file line of stopped cars getting off of the freeway that  blocks a 70 MPH freeway lane.

This area has a long history of injury accidents and fender benders simply because of the lack of infrastructure to handle the current traffic demands. Because of the congestion, the queue line at the end of the ramp spills over onto the far-right general purpose lane marked at 70 MPH. Add to that a blind curve about 1/2 mile north of the junction.

How many more collisions does this interchange need before regulators clear the way to have the Ultimate Interchange project funded and built? How many?

Gas Prices Nationwide are going up but State Prices are up rapidly. Why? 

While we're on the topic of cars, you may have noticed that Inland Empire gas prices as well as pump prices throughout the state have risen sharply.

Gas prices have gone up over $1 per gallon within the past 90 days. You read that extra buck per gallon between mid-January and now. Based on my personal observations and data from, local pump prices were around $2.10-$2.35 per gallon in the region back then. Today, they have spiked to around $3.20-$3.40 with some gas stations selling regular unleaded as high as $3.65-$3.75 per gallon in Corona, Banning and west Temecula. We are headed back towards the days of $4.00-per-gallon pain-prices at the pump. But there's a catch this time around.

What is odd about this statewide spike is that crude oil has remained relatively steady at about $50/barrel despite the continued instability and conflicts in the Middle East. It was around $42 through January. That's mainly because of the all the recent domestic oil supply production taking place in the Dakotas and other Midwestern areas.

To be fair, prices have been rising nationwide, but not at the rate of California's. Even with the nationwide hikes, some gas stations in the western United States are still selling regular unleaded below $2.00 per gallon which includes the Salt Lake City region according to Idaho Falls had prices as low as $1.64 per gallon. Next door to us, Las Vegas gas prices for regular unleaded clocked in at $2.42-$2.97 per gallon. Between the expensive gas stations here at home and the median price rate around Salt Lake City, there is a whopping 188% price difference between the two regions; some people filling their cars up here at home are paying nearly twice as much.

Don't even get me started with gas stations in areas lacking local competition. Several gas stations in Los Angeles County lacking nearby competitors have already broken the $4.00 mark with a Torrance Arco station selling regular unleaded at a whopping $4.89 per gallon. That's almost a 300% mark-up than the gas stations in Idaho Falls.

CA Gas Price Hike: What's going on?

According to reports, there's a multitude of issues contributing to the California chaos. The Torrance refinery explosion that occurred last week, annual seasonal refinery maintenance, United Steel Workers union-related labor disputes and worker slowdowns at other refineries, and California's switch from winter to summer fuel blends have combined to shorten fuel supplies statewide. Those are the factors that have been driving up prices rapidly even though the country as a whole is flush with crude oil.

Regarding the worker slowdowns and strikes at the refineries, it's very easy to lay the blame once again on the labor unions. Present-day groups have a recent history of obstructing the economy over trivial wage matters, especially those in the public sector.

But the refinery labor dispute this time around is a bit different. Just like worker problems that occurred during the Industrial Revolution and Great Depression, there are legitimate safety issues being reported at the oil refineries nationwide which included the Torrance explosion. Plus, the median market wage for a refinery operator is $26.79 per hour according PayScale.Com which looks excessively high at first, but is very fair. That's because working at an oil refinery is dangerous work as its crew members must acquire many skills to keep the plants both safe and productive. Oil, oxygen, and heat are all elements necessary for a refinery to function. Add the three together and you have fire. That means if the three elements are combined in the wrong place, the results could be fiery deaths and explosions.

Wages need to be fair for a high-responsibility job like operating dangerous refinery machinery, even for starting employees. The labor unions are not wrong this time around in demanding better safety conditions, fair pay and benefits for their workers. That is their job and what they are supposed to do.

However, like the port dispute, this disagreement has been going on far too long. Add to that the need for the state to streamline any trivial regulatory rules on California's unique summer blend. There needs to be a more streamlined approach in state law to keep the air clean, summer blend production costs down, and refineries safe. Those factors have contributed to the soaring gas prices in the state which negates our economy and weakens the spending power of the dollar.

Both the state and federal government need to get involved and act quickly before California's rapidly rising gas prices crash the state's economy and the jobs that go with them.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Uniting Employers and Labor Unions

While a port labor agreement is in place, why is labor ideology still allowed to strangle the Inland logistics economy?

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

One of the historic fundamental goals of labor unions was to ensure workers had the legal right to organize and address fundamental workplace-related problems universally and collectively without fear of retaliation. That includes holding employers accountable for providing a safe workplace and paying workers fairly for the work done. Plus, unions backed the Fair Labor Standards Act which set up many of the current labor laws regarding breaks and overtime for hourly employees. The act also put into law fair minimum wages so that entry-level workers can be fiscally independent and not rely on government subsidies to care for themselves and their families. Plus, the federal legislation put into place strong regulations on child labor.

In addition, if an employer failed to address any legitimate complaints regarding poor working conditions or excessively low salaries which directly contribute toward legitimate hardships, workers would have then have the right to stop working altogether without fear of being fired until the employer dealt with those issues.

Page back to the days of the Industrial Revolution and Great Depression and you'll see exactly why labor unions have an important role in America and why these basic worker rights need to be maintained in federal law.

Port Labor Dispute and Tentative Agreement

Fast forward to the recent goods movement bottleneck and work slowdown at the Western seaports that made sitting in traffic on the 91 look like a paradise.

The obstruction all along the west coast had been caused primarily by a dispute between a coalition of port employers and a dock worker labor union. Reports show that the Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Maritime Association of Companies have been in a political gamesmanship for 9 months, far too long. Late last week, negotiators from both sides reached a tentative coastwide contract agreement for five years and full operations is expected to resume.

As I've pointed earlier this week, I don't work at the ports; so I have to remain impartial on this case and cannot lay judgement against either party regarding the specifics. I have to rely on the hard facts. While full operations resumed this week, I foresee no long-term unity between the union and employers--not until serious reforms are made. More on that in a moment.

The Slowdown at the Ports

This slowdown led to serious economic losses globally as the bottleneck choked off shipments to/from logistics and goods fulfillment companies who rely on these ports. More than 30 cargo ships were reported sitting outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach doing nothing after the President's Day weekend. Logistics is one of the Inland Empire's primary sectors that drives its economy.

To add fuel to the fire, port employers in response locked out all of its dock workers last weekend including those who were actually putting in the extra effort, thus shutting down the ship loading and unloading operations for five days as weekend and holiday pay for the workers are higher at these times. It's true that the companies did not want to reward the workers who were derelict with higher weekend and holiday pay given the overall incompetent performance--that's a valid argument, but that decision exacerbated the slowdown which rippled throughout the entire global economy. The employers should have known better.

Because there's now finally a tentative agreement, the number of idling ships is expected to decline. But as I've already mentioned, Congress needs to collectively introduce serious reform measures to prevent labor unions from obstructing the economy. That's because union workers have much to lose if the economy were to collapse again. 

The Irony: Too much greed in labor will backfire with lost union jobs

The irony behind all of this is that some present-day labor disputes--many of which involve increasing already fair wages and benefits--have been allowed to clog the economic system to the point where buyers either have or threaten to take their business elsewhere. ILWU put several of the 20,000 dockworker jobs at stake because shippers had other options to get goods into the American marketplace. If the West Coast ports lose such business, how can the port companies pay their employees?

As you may have remembered from the supermarket strike and lockout last decade, many grocery customers took their business to Stater Bros, Costco, and Wal-Mart. Vons, Ralphs and Albertsons lost a significant share of its customers during that labor dispute which certainly caused harm to many of their workers and took years to recover.

Do the port employers and labor union really want that? 

Washington Intervenes; ILWU, PMA reach tentative five-year agreement

Moving forward, there was progress happening in Washington which saved off a potential economic crash in logistics. Because numerous Inland companies that were affected have pressured the politicians to act, the U.S. Department of Labor under the direction of President Obama finally stepped in and demanded the sides to come up with an agreement.

Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez was very firm with the fed's message saying, "I told the parties that I am neutral on the issue of how they resolve the arbitration impasse, but the president is not neutral on the question of how quickly they needed to resolve that impasse."

While the actual agreement could be very questionable, Perez is to be praised in getting the two sides to agree on this issue promptly. The Coalition has been tough on the Labor Department because of its actions in the past, but this intervention is certainly praiseworthy.

Debating Long Range Solutions for Future Labor Disputes

Looking further ahead, President Obama and Congress need to become more engaged in this labor situation so that it does not happen again. Washington needs to unite labor unions and employers and get some fair solutions put into law. The divisive bickering, power grabs, and excuses all need to stop.

Labor unions must not be allowed to be in such a power-grab position where they can hold sectors of the economy hostage. The President and Congress should take a look at the Taft-Hartley Act and other laws so that labor disputes cannot disrupt economic productivity. Federal law should allow the president as well as the executive branches of state and local governments to intervene if a labor slowdown, strike or lockout affects security, health, or a significant portion of the economy or an industry. That would include transit operations and goods movement.

Labor laws should ensure that employees have a safe place to work and be paid fair wages. Full time employees should not be in a state of poverty nor be dependent on the government for food or shelter. Economists should be tasked to calculate fair minimum wages and benefits. At the same point, employers should have the authority to discipline or fire any derelict workers and reward and give raises to those who bring value to their companies.

According to the and sites that measure marketplace wages, the starting wage for a skilled dockworker is just under $14/hour, $49k/year for a Dock Operations Supervisor and $96k/year for a Top-Tier Dock Operations Manager.

Being two major western ports, I understand that LA and Long Beach dockworkers have additional responsibilities and handle more freight which warrant a few extra dollars onto their salaries plus health benefit perks. But further raises and benefits must be fair and based on merit. Bottom line is if the worker brings value to a company, he/she should be given the extra pay and perks.

Washington politicians need to consider this as fair solutions toward future labor disputes.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Straight Talk on the CA State Gas Tax Crisis

State politicians have had their day in Sacramento debating all kinds of revenue-generating alternatives to fund transportation infrastructure. But will they address the root sources of the problem?

I-15 Corridor Funding: A previous proposal called for an I-15 carpool lane between Murrieta and Lake Elsinore, but lack of funding has cut it off even though Southwest Riverside County medical jobs and housing continue to grow. Why?

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

The statewide transportation infrastructure account appears to be in a fiscal crisis and many proposals and thesis I'm hearing continue to be that taxes and fees need to be raised.

Sunday's Press Enterprise featured a front page article reporting the situation and Sacramento politicians have raised all kinds of cash-generating solutions including a road usage per-mileage tax or a flat $52/year motor vehicle registration tax that would be payable during vehicle or insurance renewal. Simply throwing more and more money into the problem has been the solution that I've been hearing. However, I have not heard of any unified solution that would get to the root sources of the problems.

I am pretty much infuriated of how the ongoing highway fuel tax funding crisis is being addressed and how our public servants are addressing this issue.

The truth is that there are very important pieces of information that are continuously being omitted in the reportage that We the People need to know. These hard facts that are generally not being reported will just about negate the thesis we're all hearing of needing to hand more and more money over to the state taxman to pay for transportation infrastructure, which is certainly not essential.

First, let's take a look at the current revenue stream of the kitty.

According to the California Legislative Analyst's Office, annual statewide transportation revenues have more than doubled over the past 15 years--from $3.5 billion in 1999-00 to about $7.2 billion in 2013-14. This revenue comes from three main sources: (1) excise taxes on gasoline, (2) vehicle weight fees, and (3) sales and excise taxes on diesel fuel. That money is supposed to be going toward the development and maintenance of capital surface transportation infrastructure which also covers mass transit.

Factor in all 50 states and the state governments combined are collecting on average about $40-43 billion per year according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

At the federal level, 2013 fuel taxes were just under $30 billion according to Federal Highway Administration stats reported by a Strong Towns blog post. That's more than double than the receipts in 1994 even though the 18.4 per-gallon rate for unleaded gasoline remained untouched since then; back then, the feds collected about $13.9 billion.

This tax collected by the state and feds is supposed to be returned to its taxpaying jurisdictions and purposed to develop and maintain the highways and bridges with a portion allocated toward mass transit capital improvements.

That's exactly what happened not too long ago.

Previously, fuel and local sales taxes paid for the infrastructure.

The 90's and early 2000's was a major boom period for transportation infrastructure. The economy was robust with the birth of the Internet.

Los Angeles Metro began its massive Metro Rail master plan and built the I-110 Harbor Transitway, the I-105 freeway and connecting carpool lanes. That was also the period when Metrolink was first born, Orange County built out its own freeway expansion and carpool lane master plan, and the same HOV lanes were beginning to sprout in the Inland Empire.

Then came the recession. Revenues took a hit. Today, fuel tax receipts have fully recovered despite the fact that cars are becoming more fuel efficient, which brings me to my next point.

More Fuel Efficient Cars continue to Grow

I must keep the debate fair and mention the fact that the vehicles we use to get around--whether it be a private automobile, a carpool, riding the bus, or taking the train are becoming more and more fuel efficient year after year. That's a good thing as that means we can grow multi-modal transportation options while simultaneously support making the Earth's air cleaner. As cleaner cars, buses and locomotives are developed, we can grow our infrastructure and keep smog levels down. Plus, that means more of our hard-earned money going into the bank instead of the tank.

Therefore, the future of fuel tax revenue at both the state and federal level is threatened and a funding master plan must be made. However, current tax receipts are still okay and flush with cash.

Traffic: I-15 peak hour traffic north of Escondido.
Do we really have to wait until 2050 for the I-15 Express Lanes and BRT?
Surface Transportation & Bridge Infrastructure Falling Behind

Despite all of this money flowing into Washington and Sacramento, reports show that the state has an infrastructure backlog of $59 billion. However, that number may be bloated and I'll explain why in a moment.

As a transit advocate, I can conclude that our roads, rails and bridges that vehicles, buses and trains rely on have lagged behind as the Inland Empire continues to grow. Commuters now clog the built carpool lanes. The Riverside Transit Agency remained on a bare-bones budget up until recently.

Yes, there are now very desirable projects on the books right now which include the giant 91 Project in Corona which promises to make the Corona Crawl a thing of the past for 3+ FasTrak-registered HOV's, transit, and toll-paying non-carpools. RTA's 10-Year Transit Network Plan also promises better frequency, span, and late night services. And major transit improvements are in play in San Bernardino. But those projects should have been funded and fulfilled long ago during the Inland Empire's rapid housing growth last decade.

Excise Tax Changes Proposed:

Last but not least, the California Board of Equalization has proposed lowering the state fuel excise tax during its February meeting. I'll address that in another post.

The hard facts of this Transit Talking Points is done. Here are three issues that need to be resolved regardless of how the transportation accounts are funded in the future...

Funding: State and federal policies need to allow RTA and RCTC to efficiently build out its bus transit station master plans with seamless connections to planned carpool or HOT tolled express lanes without the bloated regulatory costs.
Issue #1 - Where's the money the government gets from the current gas taxes?

Other than the 2008-09 recession period, state and federal gas tax receipts have been growing through the roof since last decade. That money which Inland Empire residents paid into was supposed to be returned to our local transportation agencies and go toward the development and maintenance on such capital infrastructure.

The questions I submit are this:
  • Where's all of this money the governments get from the fuel taxes?
  • Shouldn't the $7.2 billion per year plus California's lion's share of the federal kitty be enough to maintain the roads, rails, and bridges in the state?

Sadly, $7.2 billion plus the federal share are not even close to cutting into the backlog of overdue projects. California is reportedly backlogged $59 billion. The federal highway trust fund is running out of cash.

The governments have reported that we need even more money just to maintain existing infrastructure.

But why is this backlog even occurring in the first place? Take a look at the next two issues.

Issue #2 - State Transportation Funding Displacement/Fuel Swap

Despite tax increases and repeat opposition from the public via the ballot, the state government continues to tap into the transportation account and divert funds to other interests.

Back in 2010, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed, pushed for, and signed into law a "fuel swap" of statewide gas taxes, creating complication of the fuel tax code. It basically reduced fuel sales taxes and raised the fuel excise tax, but the move also gave the state government a legal excuse to not spend the gas tax money on the infrastructure and allowed it to re-purpose it elsewhere. That was to get around the multiple ballot measures and lawsuits to stop this kind of displacement.

So basically, the billions per year that was supposed to be going to our statewide projects was tapped into and been diverted to...who knows what? That contributed toward the state's backlog of unpaid projects.

Why does this continue?

Fair Wage Policies: Suppose the left worker is an assistant project manager training the right worker who is a skilled crew member. The manager is paid about $55,000 per year salary plus insurance and retirement benefits given his vast responsibilities. The employee is paid a $12/hour starting wage plus basic health insurance. If the employee's team delivers an efficient working project on time, the crew member would be awarded a nice bonus plus a raise on his next project and potential promotion.
Issue #3 - Infrastructure Contract Labor costs well above Private Sector Market Rates

Also, at both the state and federal level, current law and policies have forced government-financed projects to cost way more than they otherwise would if done by the private sector, especially since the recent recession.

I've already previously pointed to examples regarding a local park & ride project and passenger rail service. Contract operators who bid on projects are forced to pay wages which are way beyond market supply and demands. That drives up costs paid for by you and I. Current law and federal labor enforcement panders to public labor unions which has given these interests a power grab on infrastructure costs.

To be fair, labor unions played an important role in U.S. history and I don't oppose enforcing a minimum wage of about $9-$10 per hour given inflation and the current spending power of the dollar. Plus workplaces must be safe, and workers must be paid fairly for the work done and have the right to address labor problems collectively. Entry-level workers should be paid the lower starting wage. Workers who perform well, gain and use job experience to deliver productive work on time and add value to their contractor should be awarded with the higher wages and more paid benefits. That's the fair solution and that is what the U.S. Department of Labor should be enforcing, not keeping infrastructure costs constantly bloated.

That's a potential reason why the state's $59 billion infrastructure backlog may be inflated.

We need to debate some fair, out-of-the box solutions to this problem .

Because these factors have led to an excessive backlog of overdue projects that is certainly going to require extensive work, we must address this problem in an intelligent, out-of-the-box way to solve this crisis without unfairly asking the taxpaying public to fork over more money to the state taxman.

First, all three cash management issues I've mentioned must be addressed and put into law before I will back a wholesale tax hike to the public. As far as replacing the actual funding source as more fuel-efficient and all-electric cars become the norm, I will address this once again in a future Let's Debate post.

Bottom line is we live in a free country and We the People must regain control of this grave situation, and must not allow this problem to control us.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Bus Parade on the I-15 Freeway

Another potential reason why high occupancy toll lanes need free carpooling and bus transit infrastructure.

Buses Galore: Did the El Monte Busway magically appear this day on the I-15 Freeway?

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Last weekend, I was in a vanpool headed from Southwest Riverside County to a day-long convention in Ontario and transit-related matters weren't initially on my mind. That was until I noticed and began to pay attention to a very interesting pattern on the other side of the freeway: A steady stream of private sector buses headed south.

Buses appeared so frequently last Saturday morning around 9AM that I got out my camera and began to count the number of buses headed south. Between Wildomar and the I-10 freeway junction which spans about 35 miles, I counted 17 private sector buses in a 30 minute span plus an Omnitrans paratransit shuttle bus.

Okay, you want to see the photos as proof? Here they are:

Bus Photo Survey: Wildomar to Ontario via the I-15 Freeway
Saturday, February 7, 2015 - 8:50-9:20am

In addition, the vanpool passed three separate buses on the northbound lanes.

I understand that there is a possibility that some of the coaches may be dead-heading and some of the buses surveyed were smaller shuttles, but let's suppose only 10 of the buses counted were loaded with 30-40 passengers each. That added up to about 350 people aboard this bus caravan during the half-hour I was there with one loaded bus passing through on average every 3 minutes. Do the math and the corridor took in 700 people aboard the buses per hour, which is just under 1/2 of the full capacity of a freeway lane if everybody on board elected to drove alone.

Other than the marked casino buses, many of these coaches were private charters, which meant I had very little information on where all of these HOV's were headed, but 17 buses headed south on the I-15 during a 30 minute span. It was like LA's El Monte Busway minus the transit infrastructure.

I understand that there may have been a special event taking place on the other side of town which could have caused this flood of buses to parade on the I-15 during this 30 minute survey. Inland casinos also typically experience their peak periods during weekends as busloads of people stream into them in droves during the morning and at night. And that's the whole point of this discussion:

Inland HOT Tolled Express Lanes need free non-transponder carpooling and transit infrastructure so that these motor coaches can get to their destinations quickly and efficiently.

Being the highest form of a high occupancy vehicle on a highway, every one of these buses should have the ability to travel toll-free on the planned I-15 Express Lanes between Corona and the high desert as well as the connecting 91 Express Lanes. Every bus should be able to get onto the Express Lanes for free and go. In addition, direct access ramps between the HOT lanes and adjacent transit hubs would further speed up mobility of these coaches and allow them to operate more productively. If these bus providers--mainly the casino carriers--are incentivized to stop their buses at public transit stations, the public-private benefit would be tremendous. 

Coalition Concept: I-15 HOT Lane Direct Access Ramp near Temecula Parkway.
Note: Concept Only. Not endorsed by RCTC, City of Temecula or any public entity.
Think about it: If a weekend coach headed to the Pechanga Resort from Rancho Bernardo used the Rancho Bernardo Transit Center or the adjacent street corner as a pick-up point, riders would be able to use the connecting MTS buses or the park & ride lot to access the casino bus and the bus would be able to transition seamlessly to San Diego County's I-15 Express Lanes. Imagine if there was a direct HOT lane connector in South Temecula to receive these buses and HOV's. The buses would be in town at the doors to the casino resort in about an hour without the traffic congestion. Operating costs go down which lead to increased productivity and better competition, improved services and lower rates between bus providers. With Pechanga planning a massive hotel expansion, bus demand to/from the resort is sure to grow.

I'm going to keep a close watch and continue to survey the number of coaches that pass through the I-15 corridor. If this type of pattern continues, Inland transportation planners really need to integrate bus transit infrastructure into the Inland Empire HOT lane system and ensure every bus--public or private--can use it.

We need El Monte Busway or San Diego I-15 Express Lanes-like transit infrastructure for the 91 and I-15. The high volume of private sector coaches can be another reason why.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

What the heck is going on at the ports?

Cargo Containers are delayed. Ports' dockworkers union and employers dispute. Many of our goods are stuck in limbo.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

According to several news reports, freight congestion at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as well as several other major western sea ports has reached a serious level.

While the logistics and goods fulfilment sector and their jobs here in the Inland Empire continue to grow, cargo containers at the ports have recently ran into massive congestion with chronic delays. In addition, a worker dispute between port employers and a large dockworkers union representing 20,000 employees who load and unload cargo ships has been adding fuel to the fire, leading to a major controversy at the docks while our goods that we buy continue to sit on the boats and goods going out sit on the docks.

Because of the bottleneck, countless containers of freight are sitting idle contributing toward serious economic losses. Such cargo should be making its way through the ports seamlessly, either being exported out to sea or imported to their destinations on time. But many containers are currently sitting idle for no good reason. To make matters worse, the docks at the ports will be closed once again from now all the way through Monday due to the labor dispute. Rail, gate and yard operations will remain working, but there will be no loading or unloading of cargo ships.

Regarding the labor dispute itself, I don't work at the ports; so I don't have a clear picture of what's happening there other than what is being reported in the media. There may be important legit arguments from both parties that won't get reported. Those points have to be addressed before jumping to any conclusion toward any of the two parties involved.

But I'm not hesitant to conclude about this:  

The chronic shipping delays at the ports are clearly unacceptable.

The delays at the ports which were certainly preventable have damaged the Inland economy because businesses need those supplies to pass on to us, the end-user. How much exactly? That is not known, but it is certainly significant.

The material goods we use everyday like clothing, dishes, electronics, and furniture that we buy from retailers don't magically appear from the heavens. Many are made and passed through the ports to distribution and fulfillment hubs before they end up on the store shelves. By keeping the ports clogged, these local logistics and goods fulfillment businesses that rely on working ports are seriously threatened. If those companies are forced out of business simply because they cannot deliver what they promise to their paying customers, history will point back to this dispute and record the resulting economic and job losses. We simply cannot afford another crash.

Yes, some businesses predicted this would happen and ordered ahead of time, used the ports on the East Coast, or flew their shipments in. Some have been able to negotiate the delays with their customers and not lose out on the sales. But all of that adds unnecessary layers of cost and wasteful spending that should otherwise be invested back into the economy with additional jobs.

And shutting down ship loading and unloading operations at the LA ports for four days as a solution to solve a labor dispute while the backlog of idle cargo shipments continue to soar through the roof certainly was a foolish decision. The deciding party should have known better.

Moving forward, I expect the docks to be flooded with a productive team of workers first thing Tuesday morning with the yard, gate and rail crews lending helping hands as one team to get the freight moving. Those ports' backlogs need to be addressed immediately. If that doesn't happen soon, expect me to engage the business community that relies on these ports. That would put very heavy pressure on our politicians and the two parties to end the political football games, finally fix this mess and get our goods moving again.

Debate is Good...But let's stop the ideological football games...

To be clear, in our democratic republic, there will be disagreements between parties. Constructive, robust debates and negotiations are all good. And for tough cases like labor disputes, sometimes we need a third and impartial party to render a fair and unbiased judgement and solution that must be agreed upon. That's one of the reasons why criminal cases are tried before a jury in our justice system. Complex cases between employers and labor unions certainly will need witnesses from both sides to share their testimonies without fear of retaliation and an impartial third party should render a fair judgement. But we don't need foolish gamesmanship, or political threats that obstruct the economy and the general public's welfare.

Docking crews must have a safe environment for their work and be paid fairly with equal opportunities to advance through the logistics economic system as they gain workplace experience and learn new skills. The forced-labor conditions, lack of opportunities and awful environments in many third-world countries exposed by Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights and other groups last decade show that there clearly needs to be efficient oversight on labor with workers having the right to organize and address problems collectively. But employers must be able to make a profit, hold workers accountable if they fail to produce, hire the most qualified applicants, and have the authority to award productive workers who actually bring value to their companies the lion's share of the wages and promotional opportunities. If you work productively, perform well, are dependable, take initiative to bring value to the company, and want to learn, your employer should have the power to advance you.  That's the fair way to increase worker wages and benefits.

It's long past time for we the people to stop tolerating these divisive ideological football games that have caused more harm than good. All I'm asking for is for the parties at the ports to solve the traffic congestion issue so that our goods can be moving again and delivered to their destinations on time.

Is that really too much to ask?

Friday, February 6, 2015

How Toll Lanes can benefit Non-Carpoolers

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

With high occupancy toll lanes making their way onto Southland freeways which includes the current construction of the 91 Express Lanes through Corona, free mobility will be a long-lasting reality for high occupancy vehicle traffic travelling along high-volume Southern California freeway corridors. With a set of 2 express lanes each way, public express buses, 2+ or 3+ private HOVs, motorcycles, private sector bus lines, and motorists willing to toll their way out of traffic congestion can get from one end of the Inland Empire to the other quickly.

The Transit Coalition generally supports multi-modal HOT express lanes and congestion pricing with a usage policy that permits 2+ or 3+ carpools to have free access to these lanes depending on the volume of carpools. A full-width freeway lane typically has a full-speed capacity of about 1,500 cars per hour; thus if a corridor with two HOV/HOT lanes is carrying any more than 2,500-3,000 2+ HOV's per hour (ie. at least 5,000-6,000 people per hour), 3 should be the carpool to keep the lanes flowing at full speeds. Both the 91 and the I-10 east of Los Angeles warrant 3 as the carpool, at least during rush hour.

In addition, we believe that HOV's should be be able to travel toll-free without a requirement for Fastrak transponders especially for highway projects that involve the conversion of existing carpool lanes to HOT. Plus, toll lanes need to support expanded transit services with direct access ramps between the HOT lanes and adjacent transit hubs. That would provide better infrastructure for productive rapid express bus service and additional amenities for HOV's such as park & ride lots and car sharing facilities. I'll have more on that at a later time regarding the 91 Project and the Corona Transit Center which is a major hub point for Riverside Transit Agency buses. 

What if you need to use your car for work?

While I understand that more people are going to either need to start carpooling or taking public transportation to/from work to offset the growing traffic congestion and our HOV lane capacity and options need to be improved, I need to make very clear that there are many in the workforce who need to use their car during the day for their work.

That's an undeniable fact.

It would be impracticable for district managers, sales representatives, real estate agents, service workers, and others to get around multiple worksites or to their clients and customers without a vehicle. How can high occupancy toll lanes benefit them?

I have two solutions.

© Flickr/CalCars CC-BY-SA
I. Expansion of car-sharing facilities at receiving transit hubs

This solution is for those who can carpool or ride the bus to work but need affordable access to a car during the day.

As a rider, the commuter could be dropped off at a transit station near the commuter's place of work. The worker would then have across-the-platform access to car-sharing services at the transit station's parking lot and be on his/her way. That would be an affordable alternative to car rental services or needing to buy a second personal vehicle.

Zipcar currently partners with Metrolink for services at LA Union Station. Why not expand those services elsewhere in the Southland?

Also, here's a simplified solution that doesn't require much rocket science: The commuter within an HOV who needs the car would be the designated driver of the carpool.

II. Business Tax Deductions for Tolls

This solution is for businesses and individuals whose primary office is the car and spend more than the standard IRS deduction rates. Unless you're hauling a trailer which restricts you to the right two lanes of the freeway or the HOT lanes are in HOV-only mode, business people outside of an HOV can use the HOT lane system to bypass traffic and then deduct the tolls from their taxes.

According to the feds, tolls for most business-related travel trips can be deducted. Unless a trip is an everyday commute to/from work which would be considered a personal expense or the trip requires the driver to be away from their home longer than a typical workday, tax deductible transportation expenses include the necessary costs of all of the following:
  •   Getting from one workplace to another in the course of your business or profession when you are traveling within the city or general area that is your tax home.
  •   Visiting clients or customers.
  •   Going to a business meeting away from your regular workplace.
  •   Getting from your home to a temporary workplace when you have one or more regular places of work. These temporary workplaces can be either within the area of your tax home or outside that area.
IRS Publication 17, Chapter 26 provides a complete run-down of what business trips can be deducted for 2014 and which ones cannot. Tax advisers can provide straight answers to tough tax-related questions.

In addition to tolls, businesses can also deduct any business-related mileage travel which is 56 cents per mile. If a construction contractor from downtown Riverside used the 91 Express Lanes as a solo driver, went to his client's site in Orange on a Friday at 7AM and had to return to Riverside at 3PM, the deduction for the 60 mile trip would be a $5.05 express lane toll coming in, a $9.85 toll coming out, and about $33.60 for mileage. The tax deduction would be $48.50 for that trip.

Transportation Tip: If you run a business, you know the tax man will come one way or another. It's likely your expenses exceed the standard deduction rates.  I would encourage such people to find out from a tax adviser whether or not HOT lane tolls would allow for a nice break on their federal taxes owed.

If so, such people should log such trips for business and register for a FasTrak toll transponder for business transportation use. Since HOT lane toll revenue is generally obligated to maintain the local infrastructure, funds expanded transit services within the lanes, and pays off infrastructure debt, such money which would otherwise be going to the federal government would stay local.

For the record: This is a tip only and The Transit Coalition does not offer tax advice. If you're not sure whether or not your business trips are tax deductible, consult a tax professional.