Transforming the I-15 Freeway Corridor with better bus transit options

I-15 Express Lanes Galore: Imagine having this robust HOV infrastructure and more BRT Express options like San Diego MTS Rapid 235 One Sweet Ride-like services via the I-15 through the Inland Empire all the way to the High Desert and west to Los Angeles via the I-10...

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

It's time to debate the future of the I-15 transportation corridor through the Inland Empire.

One of the signature campaigns of The Transit Coalition is to improve travel options along the I-15 freeway between the high desert and San Diego. The reasons should be obvious.

Outside of rush hour, if you need to get up or down this transportation corridor quickly other than driving, riding in a private carpool, hopping on a charter bus or casino coach...Well, good luck. Try a bus trip between Lake Elsinore and Corona during the middle of the day. How about getting between Dos Lagos and Ontario? Elsinore to the Pechanga Resort? Get ready for a slow ride which can span several hours.

Unlike many corridors in Southern California, the I-15 freeway remains very car-centric north of San Diego county other than the parade of private sector buses and charters headed to casinos and other tourist destinations. There's no direct passenger rail service. Express transit services are currently rush-hour oriented. The freeway itself has no high occupancy vehicle infrastructure other than some transit hubs, park & ride lots and a few interchanges with metered onramps with carpool lanes. To be fair, floods of private charter and casino buses utilize the corridors. However, those options are generally not public transit vehicles. Greyhound's out of the question. Between Temecula and the Cajon Pass, it utilizes the I-215 corridor so that it connects with Riverside and San Bernardino. Simply put: A worker whose working a peak hour swing shift at an Inland casino simply cannot rely or wait around for hours for the casino coach as transportation, let alone those buses are typically reserved for registered players only.

The fact remains that outside of rush hour, the I-15 is car-centric.

The good news is that there are some desirable changes in the works. Transportation planners from three counties are planning to add high occupancy toll lanes to the corridor. That would provide for robust HOV infrastructure for 2+ or 3+ carpools. I'll mention why this giant I-15 Express Lanes corridor needs to be able to support seamless connections between the lanes and nearby transit stations in a moment.

Also, the Riverside Transit Agency 10-Year Transit Network Plan calls for all-day transit services along express bus routes between Corona and Escondido via Southwest Riverside County by 2023. In addition, Route 204 that links Riverside to Montclair and Route 216 that connects Riverside with the Village at Orange are both slated to have express buses running every 60 minutes by then during the middle of the day. With the existing frequent all day Rapid services south of Escondido to Downtown San Diego and the San Diego Trolley system, one could go all the way to the Mexican border without a car via public transit.

Here's how the all-day segments will play out from Corona all the way to the border by 2023:

Route 206 – Corona to Temecula
In the immediate-term (FY 2015), a stop will be added off I-15 at Tom’s Farms to provide transit access to residents of Temescal Valley, as well as selected trips serving new stops at the Dos Lagos community in southeast Corona. Two trips (one morning, one evening) will be added to Route 206 in both the short-term (FY 2017) and the mid-term (FY 2020) to increase travel options for passengers. In the long-term (FY 2023), service will operate every 60 minutes all-day, on weekdays and weekends.

New Regional Connector – Corona Crossings to Lake Elsinore
This new route will serve as a local complement to the CommuterLink 206 which operates express service between Lake Elsinore and Corona. It will operate every 60 minutes on weekdays.

Route 217 – Hemet to Escondido via Temecula
Two trips will be added in both the short-term and the mid-term to increase travel options for passengers. In the long-term (FY 2023), service will operate every 60 minutes all-day, on weekdays and weekends.

I-15 Express Lanes Rapid Route 235:
Escondido to San Diego Downtown Segment
Graphic: San Diego MTS

San Diego MTS Rapid 235 - Escondido to San Diego Downtown via I-15 Express Lanes
Dubbed the One Sweet Ride, Route 235 is an all-day BRT express service between Escondido and Downtown via the I-15 Express Lanes. Transit stations and Park & Ride lots at Escondido, Del Lago, Rancho Bernardo, Sabre Springs, and Miramar College. It currently operates every 15 minutes during rush hour and 30 minutes at other times.

San Diego MTS Blue Line Trolley - San Diego Downtown to San Ysidro/Mexico Border:
The San Diego Trolley light rail transit system is well known for its reliability, safety, and convenience. Trains between these two major destinations depart very frequently.

Transit Infrastructure & Inland HOT Tolled Express Lanes: Let's Debate what needs to happen

I've already mentioned that three county agencies are planning to add high occupancy toll lanes along several segments of the I-15 Freeway corridor. If they are all built, Southern California will have a gigantic I-15 Express Lanes facility stretching from the high desert in the north to San Diego's Kearny Mesa in the south.

Because express transit upgrades are in the works, there needs to be a common ground between the expanded bus services and the HOT lane infrastructure. Here's what should happen:

I. Integrate the HOT Lanes with Express Transit

Coalition Concept: I-15 Express Lanes direct access ramp map to/from the Rancho Cucamonga Metrolink Station with transit oriented development via the SCRRA rail right-of-way. Ramp paid for in part by TOD developer.
Note: Concept only. Not endorsed by SANBAG or Caltrans.
If designed right with transit infrastructure and access points that seamlessly connect to/from transit stations, the I-15 Express Lane corridor master plan can provide express buses with a "virtually exclusive guideway" along the entire route according to the Reason Foundation. Existing HOT lane systems have already demonstrated this. With the dual HOV express lane infrastructure each way, variable pricing for non-HOV's and the ability to manage the carpool occupancy requirements would allow the buses and other cars to travel at full speed, even during rush hours.

Direct access ramps would allow the transit vehicles and HOV's to seamlessly access stations and park & ride lots without needing to weave across congested general purpose lanes.

Coalition Concept: I-15 Express Lanes direct access ramp map to/from a conceptual I-15 rail transit station in Dos Lagos with transit oriented development. Ramp and station paid for in part by TOD developer.
Note: Concept only. Not endorsed by RCTC or Caltrans.
II. Transit Station Placement

Officials need to put HOT lane transit stations outside of the freeway right-of-way, just like how San Diego built its system and how Los Angeles built the I-10 El Monte Busway.

The Transit Coalition believes putting an I-15 Express Lanes transit station directly within the freeway right-of-way such as the center median, right shoulder, or general purpose interchange is an unacceptable option from a transportation planning perspective.

Stations within the freeway would have to be where it intersects with major streets. On freeways, the stations tend to be under or over the highway, areas that make waiting for transit a cold and uninviting experience. Worse yet, the stations are usually not near any transit destinations such as shopping centers and office buildings; and even when they are fairly close by, access to them are neither pedestrian- nor bike-friendly.

Stations should be accessible to connecting local buses, park & ride lots, pedestrians and cyclists and should also be built in a way where they complement the land-uses adjacent to the corridor - where they are built near transit-generators such as shopping/entertainment and employment destinations.

Both the Los Angeles I-10 El Monte Busway and the I-15 Express Lanes in San Diego County fulfills this because the station stops are away from the main freeway itself, but are seamlessly accessible to the Express Lanes via direct access ramp connectors.

Coalition Concept: I-15 Express Lanes rendering through Ontario.
Note: Concept only. Not endorsed by SANBAG or Caltrans.
III. Filling in the Transit Doughnut Holes: Corona - Ontario - High Desert Segments

Even with these planned upgrades, we still have gaps north of Corona. Transportation officials should close these transit gaps which would allow for public transit connections for the entire corridor.

RTA should work with Omnitrans to establish a local line plus a potential express route operating hourly to service the Corona-to-Ontario Segment. The primary station stops would be the Corona Transit Center in the south and the Rancho Cucamonga Metrolink Station to the north via the Ontario Mills Mall bus transfer hub. The express route could potentially have a direct connection to the Montclair TransCenter.

In addition, officials should plan to close the gap between Ontario and the high desert region with hourly service whether it be via a public transit express route or public-private partnership with an intercity carrier. The express services should connect seamlessly with the local transit centers near the I-15 in the high desert region.

If that can happen, then we'll have transit station pairs for the entire Los Angeles - San Diego Inland corridor:
Southernmost Transit Hub: San Ysidro Transit Center
  • LA - Montclair via Foothill Transit Silver Streak or Metrolink San Bernardino Line
  • Montclair to Riverside via Ontario - RTA Route 204
  • High Desert to Ontario - Public Express or PPP w/ Private Carrier
  • Ontario to Corona - Streamlined local + Express services
  • Corona to Temecula - RTA Route 206
  • Temecula to Escondido - RTA Route 217
  • Escondido to San Diego - MTS Rapid 235
  • San Diego to San Ysidro - MTS Trolley Blue Line

I should point out and make clear that private intercity carriers need to be inclined to invest into the entire corridor too for the longer-haul trips and stop their buses at or near public transit stations. Obviously a trip from Montclair all the way down to the border would be excessively long via public transit given all of the transfers, layovers and stops; but would be completely acceptable and attractive via an intercity carrier and across-the-platform connections. If a private carrier headed to San Ysidro picked up passengers at the Rancho Cucamonga Metrolink Station for example, one could bus or train to this point from the Montclair hub and transfer seamlessly to the carrier.

By increasing the station pairs with the expanded public express services combined with improved intercity bus options, we really can transform the I-15 freeway corridor from a car-centric highway to a multi-modal transportation system with the HOT lane infrastructure.

What do you think?