Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What the heck is going on with California's gas prices?

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Unfortunately, I have no straight answer as to why prices at California's gas pumps are soaring at sharp rates. But I will reiterate some reported facts and that should negate much of the spin that is being broadcasted into the public square of debate.

Let's start with crude oil. Current U.S. inventories are showing record levels of supply. Over the past few weeks however, the price of a barrel of oil has increased to 2015 highs because the rate of supply growth declined which was not predicted by some major analysts. Despite the rate decline, inventories are still going up. Meanwhile, North Dakota continues to be a major domestic producer, with the state government reforming and streamlining its oil tax code to be more business friendly.

I'll keep a close watch on this to see whether or not the Dakota oil boom becomes a direct pollutant of itself. We don't need lax oversight leading to spills. I well know that many environmentalists want to do away with oil consumption completely, but doing away with our dependence on foreign oil is a step in the right direction as domestic supplies go up. The OPEC monopoly needs to end.

Enter in California's gasoline supplies, where yet another refinery issue within the state has cut production and supply of the state's regulated special blend of gasoline. This occurs only after two months when a refinery in Torrance had an explosion combined with a labor dispute that sent California gas prices to $3.50-$4.00 per gallon back then while many other western states continued to enjoy gas prices in the low $2's.

State law currently mandates that California gas stations sell this special blend during the summer months citing environmental reasons. Traditional fuel refined elsewhere in the nation cannot be imported. Because this blend is both sold and mainly produced exclusively within California, the state is isolated from the rest of the market. Therefore, the state's gasoline supply is low while the rest of nation continues to enjoy a record supply in crude oil.

There's a number of things wrong with this picture. First, it encourages the oil oligopoly within the state to keep gas supplies low which drives up prices and panic whenever something goes wrong during production. That encourages price gouging. Oil companies therefore make big money. Because oil consumption is a major polluter, environmentalists should be upset about this pattern and be actively lobbying the state for regulatory reform.

The special blend regulation may be well-intended to keep the air cleaner, but one of its unintended consequences is that it is allowing the oil industry to reap huge profits due to their oligopoly power statewide. To me, the status quo makes no sense. We have an environmental law that is allowing a global pollutant to profit from hardworking Californians.

This has to be dealt with right away.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

More Troubling Labor News at the Ports

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

A group of California's 16,000 truck drivers who deliver goods to/from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach went on strike Monday according to reports citing "persistent wage theft" because they are classified as independent contractors instead of employees. Trucking companies countered claiming driver pay is good and picketing at the ports did not represent the majority of drivers.

It was unclear of how many exactly walked off the job but any labor slowdown at the ports is significant simply because the region is still recovering from its massive backlog of shipments caused by the dockworkers dispute only a few months ago. Because labor unions have a powerful voice statewide, there is a potential threat if this issue grows unchecked. We don't need this small strike turning into another slowdown in the Inland Empire's logistics and distribution industries.

Like the dockworker's strike, I don't know the details of the trucking dispute; so, I won't take a side. However, both sides need to come to an agreement soon before this spirals out of control, more drivers strike and the economy gets hurt. Any valid points brought up from either side must not be ignored or stonewalled.

As I've mentioned in the past, present-day labor unions continue to serve an important role in our economic system. There's no question all workers worldwide need some kind of protection. The right to freely organize is a proven solution. If organized labor groups operated fairly, they can protect their members by giving them a unified voice in addressing fundamental issues in the workplace which includes addressing workplace safety and holding the employer or governing body accountable to follow the rule of law which includes properly classifying workers. Federal and state law should protect employees by allowing them the right to freely organize.

But as I've said, some unions, especially some in the public sector have bargained with elected officials giving these groups enormous decision making power. That has led to the passage of trivial regulatory rules as state law that obstruct the market economy, bloated salaries and skyrocketing transit infrastructure costs that well exceed the market rates. Governments and employers simply cannot afford to pay these bloated rates without further cutting services or hiking fees or taxes.

The special interest pandering looks like this: The union donates big money to the official if he/she votes for what it wants. The fact that some labor unions have such a tremendous power-grip on California's lawmaking is a disgrace to our democratic republic and I believe that such pandering does not help union workers, especially if employers and buyers take their business elsewhere because of the hard rules which can leave the employee out of work.

While the truck driver's union and employers continue to negotiate, we need non-divisive solutions to this labor madness.

I believe that many Americans are divided on the union debate, but we must all work together to get this financial situation and power-grab under control and propose fair ways to improve working conditions without strangling the economy or taxpayer with trivial rules, cuts, or higher fees or taxes. One proven Economics-101 solution is to incentivize investments and more job growth here at home.

If employers find that their employees have the option to move on elsewhere as the number of job positions go up, especially to a competitor, they will do whatever they can to retain their workforce. That would include raises, expansion of benefits, and better working conditions. Both labor unions and employers should support this position.

That is a fair way to solve this problem.

Monday, April 27, 2015

sbX Ridership, Toll Lanes: Your Views on Inland Empire Transit

Original Comments Written by: You, Readers
Compilation and Responses by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Time for a run-down of comments posted by people like you on recent transit related matters. Of course, I appreciate the lively discussion and good debate:

San Bernardino BRT ridership lags as fewer riders than foreseen switch from local bus
 -Twitter/Benjamin Ross ‏@BenRossTransit

sbX BRT with 10/15 min headway has ~same ridership as #2 running local on same route with 30-min wkday headway. Can anyone in SoCal explain?
- Twitter/Benjamin Ross ‏@BenRossTransit

@BenRossTransit @capntransit actually @TTCInlandEmpire says it's because it bypasses transfer center, goes to new one in 2016
- Twitter/Benjamin Ross ‏@BenRossTransit

Last year's detailed analysis of San Bernardino's sbX initial ridership is posted to this blog if you missed it. Lack of present-day connectivity at the current downtown transit hub partially explains the sbX and local Route 2 ridership patterns. When the new downtown transit center opens later this year followed by the Metrolink extension, both of which offer across-the-platform connections to the sbX Green Line, expect some positive changes to the BRT route.

I think we need to reflect a bit on the value of HOT. My personal experience, and data too, only shows that Vehicle Miles Travelled increase when road capacity is increased, in this case solo drivers having access to more lanes. If the goal is to get more riders on transit, we must stop increasing road capacity.

I understand that this is in many ways a mechanism to fund transit, but if we are serious on this subject then shouldn't we simply congestion price all lanes?

-Facebook/Bradley Tollison

Bradley, in order for this to work, transit options, carpool, and park & ride infrastructure would have to be significantly upgraded and massive non-divisive public support would have to be mustered at the federal level. That is, the bus routes serving each corridor would have to run frequently with owl service. Paying a toll would allow some motorists to make the rational choice to use transit or join a commuter carpool, therefore I can see how charging all motorists a toll pegged to highway demand would result in many commuters opting for transit instead of driving solo in their cars.

However, many traditional and conservative Americans would likely object to such a proposal. Until the state gets its spending patterns under better control and stops displacing or overspending precious transportation funds to interests outside of transportation, don't count on mustering unified support for such a proposal anytime soon. The opposition will have a solid case with these valid points that absolutely has to be dealt with first.

Photo: OCTA
I am strongly opposed to roadway widenings, mainly because of their decentralizing effect on development patterns, so new lanes of any sort are problematic. But, improving the reliability and predictability of automobile-dependent infrastructure and reducing traffic congestion is still an important goal.

Tolls have the unfortunate effect of creating a two-tiered system whereby mass transit remains mostly the province of the poor. Variable speed limits, however, can improve reliability and prevent instituting user fees by, instead, adjusting travel times during peak periods. And, in so doing, high-quality transit systems would be made more competitive and more appealing, particularly to passengers with higher incomes.

The three variables are: reliability; travel time; and, price. Reliability and price should be relatively the same for automobile-dependent infrastructure and mass transit. But, travel time is the area where public transport should have the advantage.

I am in favor of converting existing freeway lanes to those dedicated to buses and trucks and to high-occupancy vehicles. Freeways should be optimized for goods movement and for express buses, and lanes that run along electrical-transmission corridors should allow for trolleytrucks and trolleybuses to operate with zero emissions.

-Facebook/Matt Korner

A part of what keeps me from purchasing a FasTrak transponder myself is the added maintenance costs for the account. Right now I know the 91 Express Lanes will provide a transponder for occasional users for a $75 fee with no maintenance fee. However, being that I only go into Orange County for leisure, it will take a long time before I ever get back that $75 in fuel savings when I still have to pay the toll.

If transponder-free carpooling isn't something toll agencies will consider, at the very least they should look at switching to a system where consumers pay a deposit that is refundable to them when they decide they no longer want a transponder. The deposit should be reasonable, like $20-25 versus $75 for the 91 Express Lanes. Or, offer the transponder for free if the consumer has a valid credit card on file, and just charge the credit card if the transponder is lost or damaged.

As long as carpooling remains free on the 10 Freeway, and it's reasonable to get a transponder, there shouldn't be a problem if solo drivers get access to the lane by paying a toll, as (TTC) suggested in  response to the YouTube video. Again, just have users keep a valid credit card on file if they misuse or lose their transponder, rather than making carpools and solo drivers have to make an upfront investment if they are not regular users and don't want to pay monthly fees.

For the 15 freeway, I also hold the position that toll lanes should not be converted from existing general purpose lanes, which I think is what drives the fear for a lot of commuters when you talk about toll lanes. The median of Interstate 15 is wide enough to accommodate at least one toll lane in each direction while keeping the existing 3-4 general purpose lanes along the freeway. As long as carpooling and general lanes are left alone, I personally don't see any problem at all with adding toll lanes or highways in our region. Adding more general lanes as transportation funding dwindles isn't a long-term solution, and taxpayers aren't on the hook if toll revenues can't cover debt obligations on toll facilities.

-Facebook/Marcus Garcia

Marcus, I'll add one extra point. The existing I-15 public right-of-way is basically wide enough to accommodate two additional HOT lanes with direct access connectors plus a rail transit line, auxiliary lanes, and possibly another general purpose lane. Yes, many bridges would have to be reconstructed and the rail stations would have to be at existing transit hubs or trip generating points away from the highway, but property acquisition between the stations would be minimal.

Regarding the conversion of general purpose lanes, I must reiterate that mustering local public, Congressional and voter support to convert existing federally-funded and paid-for freeway general purpose lanes into a high occupancy toll, truck or transit lanes is not going to happen until other changes happen first to cut down on the high demands on long distance commuting in order to live in a desirable home with a high-paying job. Add to that the need for the state to gets its spending under control and stopping the displacement or overspending of transportation funds to the special interests.

However, I'm not going to dismiss this view 100% simply because federal law does generally mandate that existing carpool lanes need to sustain an average speed of at least 45 mph during rush hours and raising the occupancy requirement to 3+ combined with improving transit options could get them moving again and thus provide the virtual guideway for transit fleets. Trucks would continue to use the right two general purpose lanes.

Non-HOV's can buy their way into the carpool lanes for a toll (ie. high occupancy toll lane) if capacity allows. Of course, all existing, paid-for carpool lanes would need to continue to support toll-free, non-transponder HOV usage and the lanes would become dedicated carpool lanes if no space can be sold to non-carpools.

The state and local agencies should use the local or regional rush hour carpool demands as a measuring tool to determine whether to set the carpool occupancy requirement to 2+, 3+ or bus/registered vanpools only in order to keep them moving at least 45 mph during the majority of the rush hour.

More on this at a later time.

The toll lanes are a horrific idea to allow those of means to pay their way to a better experience on our public infrastructure.

Why not "fast lanes" at the DMV so you can buy your way to the front of the line?

-Facebook/Jason Herring

Jason, those "fast lanes" is the appointment line. To get into the appointment line there's a small "cost." The "cost" is having to book the time slot weeks or even months in advance, which can be very troubling if you forget to book it whenever an in-person renewal notice shows up in the mail two months beforehand.

At the time of this post on April 27, here are the earliest DMV appointment dates to renew a driver license, identification card or permit:
  • Banning - May 14, 2015
  • Fontana - May 18, 2015
  • Hemet - June 3, 2015
  • Indio - May 15, 2015
  • Pomona - June 9, 2015
  • Rancho Cucamonga - June 4, 2015
  • Redlands - June 1, 2015
  • Riverside Brockton - June 2, 2015
  • East Riverside - May 14, 2015
  • San Bernardino - May 20, 2015
  • San Marcos - June 26, 2015
  • Temecula - June 16, 2015
  • Victorville - May 28, 2015

Excessively long wait times at the DMV for a short appointment will be a subject of a future post following a field study.

Thanks for all your constructive comments. Talk to you again later this week.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Inland Empire Commuting: Temecula to Corona Morning Peak Commute

Check out a full peak-hour transit field study from Southwest Riverside County to a job hub in Corona.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Is living in the Inland Empire, specifically Southwest Riverside County worth the long commute? The Transit Coalition takes a look by using multiple modes of transportation.

Here's a video of a full early morning, multi-modal, 42 mile commute rush hour trip starting from Temecula Parkway in south Temecula at about 5:45am to a business park in southeast Corona, home to several manufacturing, goods movements and logistics jobs:

Here's a run-down of the commute:
  • 5:45am - Drive to the Murrieta Wal-Mart Park & Ride lot,
  • 6:06am - Ride aboard Riverside Transit Agency CommuterLink Route 206,
  • 7:10am - Connect to the Corona Cruiser Red Line which feeds from the Corona station to the job site,
  • 7:30am - Arrive

Heading to work: Business job hub in south Corona
Goal is to get to the work site before 8am. Shift ends shortly after 4pm.

  • 4:29pm - Catch the Corona Cruiser back to the transit center via a quick transfer to RTA Route 1 at 6th Street,
  • 5:02pm - CommuterLink 206 to Murrieta
  • 6:02pm - Return to Park & Ride
For later shifts, the next 5:25pm Red Line bus would connect with the 5:57pm Route 206 departure. After that, the 6:17pm Red Line departure would connect with the 6:38pm Route 206 trip. In addition, regional transportation agencies offer the guaranteed ride home program.

  • Total door-to-door trip time each way: about 1hr 45 mins including about 20-25 minutes in transfer layovers plus the 20 minutes in backtrack time between the transit center and the business hub.
  • Drive Alone Time each way between Temecula & Park 'n Ride: 12 mins am, 18-20 mins pm
  • On-board Transit Productivity Time gained each way: About 1hr 25 mins
  • Miles each way: 42mi (84mi roundtrip)
  • Total Driving Miles Roundtrip: 19mi
  • Total roundtrip transit fare: $8.50 ($7 RTA CommuterLink day pass + $1.50 Corona Cruiser Return trip to Transit Center)
  • Total roundtrip driving costs to/from Park & Ride: $8.82  (19mi x AAA $46.4 per mile for small sedan)
  • Total roundtrip trip cost (fare+driving): $17.32
  • Total roundtrip driving costs if driven alone all the way: $38.98 (84mi x AAA $46.4 per mile for small sedan)
  • Transit cost savings per roundtrip: $21.66 + RidesharePlus benefits


Concept: Fixing the broken connection in Dos Lagos.
If Route 206 and the Corona Cruiser Red Line connect in this area on weekdays, up to 30 minutes each way can be saved from this bus transit commute, leading to additional station pairs and better ridership.
Map © OpenStreetMap Contributors
Initial drawback is the excessive travel time with the layovers, especially reduced evening time with the family following the afternoon return trip. The lack of an express-to-local connection at Dos Lagos also greatly exacerbated the travel trip time, adding over 30 minutes one way. Plus the first Corona Cruiser buses pass through the business parks well after 7am, preventing those with early shifts from using public transit as an option. Also, the afternoon peak runs of the Corona Cruiser should start connecting directly to the transit center starting after 3pm instead of 5. Those broken connections need to be dealt with.

However, given the presence of the comfortable cloth seats, USB charging ports for electronics, and WiFi wireless internet access, commuters can still be highly productive once they board Route 206 for the bulk of the trip. That includes mobile telecommuting, socializing, listen to music, read the paper, read a book, snack on some wrapped breakfast during layover, or--my favorite--get a power nap in.

Also, a major draw is the big commuter cost savings of about $21.66 per roundtrip which would be greater if the commuter rode regularly and used an RTA monthly pass in lieu of cash plus the incentives offered by For many hourly workers that equates to about an extra 60-90 minutes of shift time that would have been spent on fuel and more frequent car maintenance.

I would conclude that this would be an acceptable commute even with the excessive backtracking. Southwest Riverside County residents should explore RTA's "One Big Happy Carpool" and the connecting Corona Cruiser as a productive means to get to/from the job sites in Corona.

Learn More

Check out a similar field study of a peak hour commute from Southwest Riverside County to the giant Kearney Mesa job hub region in San Diego.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Why High Occupancy Toll Lanes are not about Agenda 21

More proof that hard ideological positions can wreck a transit campaign...

Coalition Concept: I-15 Express Lanes south of the Ontario Airport.
Note: Concept only. Not endorsed by SANBAG or any public entity.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

A far political-right YouTube channel, under the name of grindal61 unfairly smeared the governing board of the San Bernardino Associated Governments earlier this month claiming that its proposal to add high occupancy toll lanes to the I-10 and I-15 freeways is about Agenda 21 and about forcing motorists out of their cars.

In addition, a Facebook page dubbed "TOLL Free IE" spearheaded by former candidate for the Fontana City Council Tressy Capps has taken a hard opposing position against the toll lane additions. The page has parroted some of the grindal61's videos.

Coalition Concept: I-15 Express Lanes through Temescal Canyon.
Note: Concept only. Not endorsed by RCTC.
A StreetBlog California post also analyzes the story. The writer is also not a fan of expanding lane miles in the sprawling Inland Empire, but the fact is the I-15 freeway corridor between the Cajon Pass and north San Diego County is car-centric and has positively no high occupancy vehicle lane or dedicated transit infrastructure, yet parades of private-sector buses and many other HOV's utilize the freeway. The new HOT lanes could address that problem if it supported free non-transponder carpooling. Ironically, the picture used in the blog post came from The Transit Coalition's "We want toll lanes done right" campaign page.

Also, Steve Hunt, Editor of the Hesperia Star, opines against toll lanes, but his position looks to be fact-based even though I disagree. More on that in a moment.

Freedom of Speech

Here in the country, every concerned citizen which includes Capps and the individual operating the social networking video channel must have the right to question any government proposal and must have the freedom to speak out their opinions. We all must have the right to support or oppose controversial proposals which include high occupancy toll lanes. If a concerned citizen provides solid facts, examples, and hard evidence, the deciding governing body should hear the speaker out and not stonewall or pander against the argument.

However, sometimes individual's statements can involve ideological spin or opinions disguised as facts. Such bland statements are often rightly dissented quickly and dismissed during the debate.

When baseless arguments go viral

However, with the rise of social networking and the internet, some false statements get mass exposure. Plus, Capps is a former candidate for an elected office which automatically gave her a loud voice in the court of public opinion. Thus, members of the public could automatically take a position without hearing the rest of the debate in an impartial way.

You may know on the opposite side of the political spectrum, LA's far political-left bus transit advocacy group known as the Bus Rider's Union became a giant voice simply because the leaders of the Labor Community Strategy Center make a lot money and have the resources to sell divisive ideological proposals to the good people of South Los Angeles.

But this type of unfair spin has got to stop from both sides because such bland arguments weaken campaigns.

Why controversial Inland Empire Toll Lanes are not about Agenda 21

Basically, grindal61 spread a false statement, saying the I-15 and I-10 Express Lane is not about free mobility but  really about getting private motorists out of their cars and that the SANBAG board is a pro-Agenda 21 pushing group supporting a climate change hoax. Capps later parroted that, even though the statements were untrue.

The considered I-15 Express Lanes and much of the I-10 Express Lanes alternative are proposed to be capacity improvement projects and not involve the conversion of any existing general purpose lanes whatsoever. The recent I-15 Express Lanes additions in San Diego County also involved additional lanes. Lane capacity and infrastructure supplies thus go up; that will mean more space for more cars. I don't recall seeing that in Agenda 21.

Yes, the existing carpool lane between Ontario and Montclair is slated to be converted in the process, but that is why the new HOT lanes need to support free non-transponder carpooling. If the dual carpool lanes get the "empty lane" syndrome, toll-paying solo drivers can buy their way into the HOV lanes which redistributes traffic from the general purpose lanes. Hence, more capacity for more cars, not less.

Does that sound like Agenda 21 to you?

Grindal61 is also not a fan of carpool lanes as evidenced in another video, at least carpool lanes that don't support continuous access.

Finally, the climate change issue is not a hoax. There is hard evidence that the Earth's temperature is changing. China continues to be a major global pollutant. However, scientists still have yet to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the temperature changes are all due to man-made pollution. Regardless of what your position is on global climate change, we should all work together to make the Earth cleaner.

Graphic: SANBAG
To be fair, Capps and Grindal61 do bring up some valid points such as the HOT lane bond debt, the privacy of FasTrak toll accounts, and the awful potential per-mile tax hike currently being explored by the state. Those points should not be thrown out with the lie.

The HOT lane infrastructure should be funded and not mired in long-term debt. All toll transactions must remain confidential between the paying motorist and the tolling agencies. The state must confront the public labor union lobby, get its spending and infrastructure costs under control and stop diverting transportation funds to other interests before I will back a wholesale transportation tax or fee hike.

Even though we have different views on toll lanes, Editor Hunt and I pretty much agree that the I-15 freeway corridor improvements need to be funded and paid for given the fact that a lot of money goes to the transportation taxman and that the freeway is a major interstate highway.

Also, The Transit Coalition was not pleased of how SANBAG handled last year's dispute with Metrolink which resulted in service cuts along the San Bernardino Line. Both parties share responsibility. Thus, I agree that SANBAG's resume on transportation matters is not perfect.

But the Agenda 21 remarks are absolutely ridiculous and the claim that HOT lanes are about forcing people from driving their cars is ideological spin. The fact that these kinds of statements get so much publicity is almost shameful and weaken the group's anti toll lane campaign credibility. By the way, Capps has also gotten herself in trouble in the past for lodging similar personal attacks.

We need fact-based solutions to maximize productivity of transportation corrridors

The fact is high occupancy vehicle lanes do carry more people in fewer vehicles per hour, and Grindal61 has a problem of removing cars from the road and wants more general purpose lane miles instead.

But the problem is without high occupancy vehicle infrastructure, regional rail services and mass transit mobility, Southern California's freeways will need many more lane miles than the two express lanes proposed each way. Unless Grindal61 can provide a means to pay for all those extra lanes, that will not even come close to happening. Also, the last transit strike in San Francisco and the New York strike last decade clearly prove that we must have multi-modal and high occupancy mass transit options. HOT lanes can provide the infrastructure for freeway-speed Rapid Express bus service to link the major hubs in our area.

The main point here is that many members of the SANBAG Board likely know that this Agenda 21 and fewer cars accusation against its HOT lane projects is nonsense. They know this group was attempting to take the controversial UN sustainable development action plan and use it against the HOT lane proposal for ideological purposes.

On the other front, transportation tax money needs to be going to the infrastructure which includes improved mass transit along high-demand corridors like the I-10 and the I-15. Whether you back toll lanes as a multi-modal solution or flat out want them stopped, we need to all work together and demand the state and federal governments to finally stop displacing or overspending our transportation-related tax money to other interests.

That's an "Agenda" we should all agree on.

Monday, April 13, 2015

How to Properly Deter Carpool Cheating in High Occupancy Toll Lanes

Using intelligence-driven enforcement and volunteer manpower to penalize cheaters, not over-regulating law-abiding carpools.

Don't cheat the I-15 Express Lanes: Law enforcement patrols San Diego's HOT lane infrastructure.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

The month of April is Points of Light's Volunteer Appreciation Month. National Volunteer Week, started Sunday: April 12-18, 2015.

I have a pitch to make to our governments during this National Volunteer Week: Encourage individuals to volunteer to get Southern California moving. One example is weeding out cheaters from our carpool and high occupancy tolled express lanes all throughout the state so that law-abiding carpools and toll-paying non-HOV's can continue to enjoy their streamlined mobility without the government getting too much in their way.

Coalition Concept: I-15 Express Lanes through Temescal Canyon
Note: Concept Only. Not endorsed by RCTC or any public entity.
Our Views on Toll Lanes

If you follow The Transit Coalition's campaigns, you well know that "We want toll lanes done right." We generally support congestion pricing. HOT lanes, especially those that involve the conversion of existing carpool lanes, should support free unrestricted carpooling without a requirement for a FasTrak toll transponder combined with robust law enforcement to counter cheating. The factual evidence for such a position is overwhelming.

AB 2090 and Free Non-Transponder Carpooling

While I was writing up last week's briefs on transit related matters, I stumbled across state legislation passed and signed into law late last summer that could very well affect the future of the Bay Area and San Diego County's high occupancy toll lane systems. The express lanes in both these regions minus the dedicated toll roads and toll bridges currently support free non-transponder carpooling because state law had required non-restricted free access for carpools.

But changes were made last summer.

The passage of AB 2090 was basically not covered by the press which meant I was not even aware of its existence until last Friday. But this new law opens the door for the regional agencies to impose mandatory FasTrak transponders for toll-free carpools in the name of better enforcement. I will follow up with their local press relation departments to confirm if there are any future plans to place toll transponder mandates on toll-free HOV's along the existing HOT lanes and I'll let you know what's going on. One Bay Area HOT Lane project along I-580 will require FasTrak transponders for HOV's. What is very interesting about these HOT lanes is that much of this section is slated to be continuous access.

Getting back to the legislation, here's a summary of the law according to the 8/12/14 Assembly Floor Analysis regarding the potential ETC mandate:

Regarding electronic tolling equipment for HOVs, SANDAG, and VTA intend to migrate to self-declaration switchable toll tags. These tags allow a driver to self-declare their vehicle occupancy status (such as HOV or solo driver) using a switching mechanism (e.g., slide, dial, push button, etc.) on the toll tag.  Switchable toll tags reportedly have many operational benefits including enhanced automated enforcement, consistency for users on corridors where carpool requirements vary, and reduced revenue leakage due to toll evasion and misread toll tags.

One potential drawback of using a switchable toll tag system is that it requires all HOV users to use a toll tag.  Currently, carpool vehicles are not required to have a toll tag when using San Diego or Bay Area express lanes.  If a carpool vehicle is equipped with a FasTrak toll tag in the windshield, the driver must remove the toll tag and place it in a Mylar bag for that trip to avoid being charged as a single-occupant vehicle.  

SANDAG and VTA are concerned that the existing statutory requirement that HOV drivers must have unrestricted access to HOT lanes could impede their ability to require HOV drivers to use a switchable toll tag.  The bill remedies this concern by specifically declaring that the agencies may require HOV drivers to use toll tags for enforcement purposes. 

91 Express Lanes Switchable FasTrak ETC
Photo: OCTA
Switchable FasTrak's and maintaining Free non-transponder carpooling

As I stated last week, the invention of the switchable FasTrak transponder is a good thing; I'll go into more detail in a future post. However, hopefully you noticed that one of the statements in the law about the switchable ETC's is pure spin.

The analysis claims "one potential drawback of using a switchable toll tag system is that it requires all HOV users to use a toll tag," but that statement is flat out false. Switchable toll transponder toll collection systems and free non-transponder carpooling in HOT lanes have already been in existence for some time and can co-exist.

Here's proof:

For HOT lane systems that support free non-transponder and unrestricted carpooling, the local policy can be set up in a way where motorists can either switch their FasTrak's to HOV mode or elect not to mount a transponder in order to self-declare themselves as a toll-free HOV. The I-15 Express Lanes through the Salt Lake City region already does this plus one of our blog readers who has a switchable FasTrak tipped me off last week and stated that the I-15 Express Lanes in San Diego charges no toll if the switchable FasTrak is mounted but set to a 2+ or 3+ HOV.

I will need to independently confirm that, but if that is true, the state already has a proven workable means for HOV's to self-declare their vehicle occupancies so they qualify for toll-free travel regardless if they have a FasTrak account or not. Currently, vehicles self-declare themselves as free carpools if they use the I-15 Express Lanes without a transponder or by placing it in a mylar bag.

I'm sure California's toll antenna enforcement beacon lights can be programmed to show the same color light for no transponder and a transponder switched for 2+ or 3+ HOV depending on the posted occupancy requirement for toll-free travel. UDOT and possibly SANDAG have already demonstrated that there are two ways for motorists to self-declare themselves as toll-free HOV's--either by switching the tag to HOV-mode or not mounting one at all. Therefore, this "potential drawback" statement of switchable FasTrak ETC's is a mere excuse and needs to be stricken from AB 2090.

To be fair, the rest of the law is not all bad. I generally back local control of managed lanes with efficient state oversight as evidenced with the grave congestion issues along LA's El Monte Busway last decade caused by strict state control on the 2+ occupancy requirements for carpool. Because local 2-person carpool demands are way too high during rush hour for the infrastructure, 3 needs to be the carpool for the El Monte Busway; the state had to pass emergency legislation to enforce that.

Also each transportation corridor is different; so VTA and SANBAG officials should have some decision making power with their express lanes and their usage policies.

The law also comments on properly tolling solo drivers who have a valid account but use a non-functioning or "misread" transponder. This blog has already addressed a workable solution if a law-abiding solo driver unknowingly brings along a defective FasTrak transponder along a HOT lane system that supports free non-transponder carpooling.

But the focus here is automated photo enforcement versus the carpool lane cheating.

Stopping carpool and toll-payment cheating in the HOT Lanes, the fair way...

Perhaps the biggest advantage of photo toll-payment enforcement is that it can catch toll-evaders when law enforcement resources are lacking or not present at times of violations.

They can quickly acquire evidence of the offense and the offending vehicle and issue an automated toll payment violation notice, thus deterring some HOT lane cheating. The law also cites that when transponders are mandated, the number of private HOV's drop in the lanes which would include deliberate violators. That's what happened on the Oakland Bay Bridge when HOV's using the carpool lanes at the toll plaza were required to pay discounted tolls with a FasTrak. But the fact is such policy also unfairly displaces non-registered law-abiding HOV's from the high occupancy lanes, an after-effect opposed by The Transit Coalition.

It's also worth mentioning that automated systems do have their flaws too. Perhaps the worst flaw is that no system can distinguish an actual toll or carpool violator with the vehicle owner. No matter who cheated the HOV/toll lane system, the vehicle's owner will get the responsibility and liability of handling the photo citation. Believe me, asking a family member or friend who borrowed the car to pony up $25 plus the posted toll to pay for a violation ticket is a humiliating situation. The violator needs to be held accountable, not the owner of the car. Plus, automated systems simply cannot enforce other traffic matters other than the presence of a toll transponder.

Governments from all levels really need to question the notion of imposing mandatory FasTrak transponders on carpools as the solution to counter carpool lane cheating because too many other enforcement issues still remain unresolved.

Southland freeway corridors experience all kinds of traffic violations everyday. Why are the governments looking into to slapping more regulations on law-abiding private HOV's as a solution? That's just unfair.

So I have put together an outline that the state and our tolling agencies may want to address by using the men and women in law enforcement.

The following violations must be handled by law enforcement and/or intelligence-driven tactics in the HOT lanes:

  • Carpool vehicle occupancy violations,
  • Holding the vehicle driver fully accountable to handle the violation ticket in lieu of penalizing or obstructing uninvolved vehicle owners,
  • Crossing over the double lines or through the delineators,
  • Dodging the toll collection/antenna areas,
  • Removing, masking or altering license plates to dodge tolls and photo tickets,
  • Unsafe lane changes,
  • Impeding the flow of traffic by using HOT lane access points and transitional weave lanes as a passing lane, 
  • Speeding,
  • Texting while driving,
  • Calling while driving without a hands-free device,
  • and several other traffic laws.

Cheaters well know how to game the system to get around the cameras if they know they're not being watched by the cops. A 2011 toll cheating story in San Francisco is proof.

Law enforcement needs to be there to enforce the rules. Placing a regulatory FasTrak registration burden on law-abiding toll-free carpools who may have no intention of using HOT lanes as a toll-paying solo driver is simply not fair.

Transportation agencies should be doing whatever they can to encourage motorists to share the ride, not sap it with trivial rules. With cleaner and more fuel efficient cars making their way into the marketplace, traffic congestion is almost guaranteed to soar in the coming years. The governments need to once again incentivize ridesharing with HOV infrastructure, ride-matching programs, park & ride lots, improved transit, and user-friendly laws while punishing carpool and toll lane cheaters with heavy fines and points.

Getting the floods of law enforcement employment applicants something to volunteer for...

If you or anybody you know wants to seek a job in law enforcement, you know the competition is tough, the applicant pool is flooded with qualified people, and those hired on as full-time career officers are few.

That means there should be no shortage of law enforcement personnel to enforce the law along California's highways, carpool and toll lanes. Because floods of good citizens desire to join the ranks, even as unpaid volunteers, they need to be given something to do to improve our broken communities. We are in desperate need of each of them. But many productive and caring citizens are not hired and are turned away.

That needs to change.

Either directly through the government agency or with a partnership with non-profit service organizations, there needs to be an expansion of unpaid support programs with limited responsibilities to get these people something to do. Opportunities include expanding volunteer explorer programs for the youth, and community action patrol and reserve deputy positions for the adults.

Every qualified applicant who passes the background checks and exams should have something to do if they don't make it to a paid position. The applicant not yet selected for a paid job can build up experience as a part-time or on-call unpaid volunteer either through the department directly or through the non-profit service sector. The agency can then hire career officers from the volunteer ranks who demonstrate that they are serious about improving the community. Because such people are not paid with the help from the private sector, the additional public resources would be minimal.

The unpaid volunteers can be tasked to assist the paid officers in lighter-weight traffic enforcement areas such as patrolling the high occupancy toll lane system and carpool lanes, 24/7. Simply parking a black & white volunteer community action patrol vehicle next to a HOT lane access point would deter cheating. Deliberate violators would see the "cop" car and won't try to game the system. That will allow the paid officers to continue to handle the heavier issues that require greater decision-making responsibilities.

Strong law enforcement combined with heavy fines and points should deter future violations in a fair way while keeping the highway and HOT lane system safe and moving. We need to get all these qualified law enforcement applicants something to do so we can fairly get rid of the carpool and toll-payment cheating problem once and for all without over-regulating law-abiding HOV's or penalizing uninvolved vehicle owners.

One last fact: Go to any major house of worship, church or non-profit group. You will see that unpaid volunteers make up the eyes, ears, hands and feet of those organizations with efficient oversight, decision making, and management by the paid staff.

Why can't we do the same to get Southern California moving?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Inland Empire Transit Happenings this Spring

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

I hope you all had a blessed and Happy Easter, Passover and restful Spring Break. This has been a busy spring as there's several major stories that I'm keeping a watch on. Here's a briefing on them.

Omnitrans Service Changes

The official public hearing regarding the Omnitrans service change has recently "ended". I'm keeping a watch on the planned peak-hour reinstatement of a freeway express service between Montclair and San Bernardinio. There needs to be efficient local-to-express connectivity for this route to function productively. If SANBAG moves forward with the I-10 Express Lanes, the access points need to allow this bus route seamless access and tolls paid for by solo drivers should help pay for further improved public transit along the corridor.

Also, a public transit service area that certainly deserves better attention is the I-15 corridor connecting Ontario, Eastvale and Corona. Public transit between these regions is long overdue for more direct and streamlined service. 

I'm putting together a route plan that our transit agencies should consider adopting. Wait until you see it.

Yes, the Omnitrans service change public hearing period officially "ended" earlier this month. Why I put "ended" in quotes is the simple fact that "public hearings" never end here at The Transit Coalition. Transit improvements will always be ongoing because no system is perfect. Productive and fact-based suggestions and service requests should always be heard.
BNSF Train Derailment & the Metrolink Service Disruptions

According to a Metrolink press statement, there were no injuries in Tuesday's freight train derailment that occured in between east Anaheim and Yorba Linda. The press has been all over this story as both the IEOC and 91 Lines are still experiencing 30-60 minute delays but the trains are flowing much better than they were on Wednesday, the day after the incident.

Also because of the incident, the Metrolink Angels Express runs of the IEOC Line won't make it to the opening night ball game tonight. Trains 898 and 899 are cancelled. The service will resume in two weeks on the 24th.

According to the release, trains are departing from their origin stations on time and passing through the incident site at reduced speeds which are leading to the delays. Investigators are still examining the cause of the wreck. 

When Toll Lanes become congested too...

The other major story unfolding is the continued reported morning peak hour congestion along LA's I-110 Metro ExpressLanes. According to the press, the toll lanes are getting heavy too. What I believe LA Metro needs to do is restrict access to the HOT lanes to carpools only before they hit the point of overcrowding. The express lane infrastructure along the Harbor Transitway was previously a dual set of 2+ carpool lanes which were reported to be underutilized and moving at full speeds during the rush hour. That's why Metro decided to convert them into HOT lanes.

Now, they're experiencing congestion too.

Currently, the HOV-only with switchable FasTrak restrictions are to be enforced if speeds in the HOT lanes drop below 45 mph, but restricting toll-paying solo driver access before speeds become reduced may be a better solution. Metro should experiment with that option.

The Coalition has maintained that the carpools-only rule be enforced when the HOT lanes near full capacity, before the breaking point of reduced speeds and that any HOV meeting the posted occupancy requirement for carpool be granted toll-free access regardless if it has a FasTrak account or not. Being a managed lane system, the I-110 Metro ExpressLanes should be reverted back into 2+ carpool lanes whenever the toll lane capacity is sold out by posting "CARPOOLS ONLY - 2 OR MORE PERSONS PER VEHICLE" on the overhead toll rate signs. Once capacity opens up, toll-paying solo drivers can enter once again.

That's how managed HOT lanes can remain efficient. 

91 Express Lanes Switchable Transponder
Photo: OCTA
Switchable FasTrak trasponders now available for 91 Express Lanes account-holders

While we're on the topic of HOT lanes, according to the 91 Expres Lanes Spring e-Newsletter, FasTrak account holders who use the 91 Express Lanes as their issuing tolling agency now have the option of getting a switchable transponder which declares whether or not they are traveling in an HOV.

That will allow 91 Express Lanes account-holders who travel in an HOV and meet the posted occupancy requirement for carpool to use LA's I-110 and I-10 high occupancy toll lane systems for free. Currently, Transportation Corridor Agencies (The Toll Roads), OCTA (91 Express Lanes), and LA Metro (Metro ExpressLanes) now offer switchable transponders for carpools headed into Los Angeles.

This is a big step in the right direction for those who use the 91 Express Lanes as an HOV and want the option to use the Metro ExpressLanes too for free. Because three tolling agencies now offer switchable FasTrak transponders, the remaining entities statewide should get on board too. Believe me, there are going to need to be more changes made at both the local and state level to alleviate the confusion on what to do in order travel as a toll-free or discounted HOV along the Southland's high vast high occupancy toll lane system.

3's a Carpool: 91 Express Lanes motorists in a 3+ HOV will continue to use the 3+ carpool lane at the toll collection area. All HOV's must either have a standard or switchable FasTrak.
Just to summarize:

I-110 & I-10 Metro ExpressLanes: If you use LA's I-110 or I-10 Metro ExpressLanes as a toll-free HOV, use the switchable transponder and declare your vehicle occupancy. All HOV's must have the switchable FasTrak to travel toll free.

91 Express Lanes: If you're using the 91 Express Lanes as a toll-free or discounted 3+ HOV, use the 3+ lane upon reaching the toll antenna area; like LA, all 3+ HOV's must have either a valid standard or switchable FasTrak transponder.

San Diego I-15 Express Lanes & Bay Area Express Lanes: If you're using any of the Express Lanes (excluding toll bridges and toll roads) in the Bay Area or the I-15 Express Lanes in San Diego as a toll-free HOV and also have a FasTrak transponder, dismount it and place it in a mylar bag so that it won't get read. For those HOT Lanes, having no transponder means the vehicle is declared a toll-free carpool.

I well understand that these various HOV usage policies are very confusing if you use more than one HOT lane system in the Southland. For example it's still very easy for un-informed motorists to take a standard transponder into LA, see "HOV2+$0 w/FASTRAK" on the toll rate sign and assume they're getting a free ride. Likewise, a motorist from LA can easily hop into the I-15 Express Lanes down south, see the FasTrak logos and signs that read "CARPOOLS 2 OR MORE FREE" and mistakenly switch their transponder to carpool instead of dismounting the toll tag, and end up getting billed a toll.

I'll talk more about it next week and propose some workable and fair solutions, but the switchable transponder is a step in the right direction.