Friday, June 26, 2015

Big Reader response to the sbX Ridership Analysis

Plus a positive dream idea for San Bernardino's Children & Youth...

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Earlier this week, I posted a Transit Talking Points blog analysis of the Omnitrans sbX Green Line ridership situation in response to a Press Enterprise article that had a negative headline towards the BRT line. If you missed it, be sure to check it out via the blog archive links.

The post attracted many readers and triggered some robust and productive discussion. Here's a run-down of some of your views:

People keep forgetting that sbX was supposed to be opened in conjunction with or AFTER the Transit Center. The latter project got delayed by the Metrolink Extension, which in turn got delayed by Redlands Rail. All good ideas that will ultimately create a stronger, more logical transit system in the end, but those delays caused Omnitrans to move forward with sbX prematurely to avoid losing grant funds for it.

Also, I agree on the point about the overbuilt roads that are "under utilized". However, calling anything being built with the only bike provisions being painted bike lanes on the paved shoulder next to wide, fast lanes a "complete street" is unacceptable. With protected bikeways expanding everywhere and standards also quickly propagating, there is no excuse for not using them, especially in situations like this where traditional constraints such as driveways and side streets are minimized.

-marven/IE Transit Talking Points Blog

That's why the state now has a 3-foot and "share the road" laws to protect cyclists along such 55 MPH transportation corridors and two-lane country roads that are less than complete. There is no universal definition to "complete streets"--I define them as corridors that can move pedestrians, cyclists, cars, and transit--and thus there will be ongoing disagreement and debate on this topic; however, I do agree that dedicated non-vehicle multi-use pathways need to be expanded between high speed arterial streets. Privately funded economic development investments with open space corridors can achieve that.

(Downtown San Bernardino's) carousel mall needs to be turned in a promenade like Victoria garden, Santa Monica, or the grove sorta thing. Hector Perez/Facebook.

^^ patience my friend. It's coming -Jesus Navidad/Facebook. 

My idea for the Carousel Mall property: 

Work with the owner and zone the property as a specific plan so the private sector can transform this near-dead mall into a robust youth district.

Commercial, non-profit and religious organizations would all team up and provide a positive, safe and non-destructive hub point for San Bernardino's youth to hang out and make friends in order to keep them out of the criminal gang culture and to teach them to honor righteous authority.

The commercial investing businesses can provide the entertainment, food, and the other latest retail trends and would also be the primary funding source of the hub. In return for big tax and local fee breaks, these businesses would provide for free or fund the meeting space and resources for the non-profit and church groups to operate within the rest of the mall property. In addition, an outlet to President Obama's My Brother's Keeper program would be established here too together with a first-rate youth public library.

  • Students would have the option to go here to get homework done, receive free peer tutoring, and use first-rate computers donated by the tech industry. 
  • Troubled youth would be strongly encouraged to go here and network with caring mentors. 
  • Young job-seekers would network with hiring businesses which would include explorer and reserve deputy programs offered by a fully-funded police department. 
  • High school youth wanting to go to college but can't afford the tuition would also go here and apply for scholarships, funded again by the private sector. The scholarship requirements could range anywhere from academic achievements to community service.
  • Restorative justice programs would be offered here too for any recently released youth inmates who really want to turn away from gang crime on top of those programs already offered at jails and prisons. 
  • Youth of faith can break open the Word of God with others and join in praise and worship programs. Youth Masses would be offered for the region's Catholic population. Also, like most at most hospitals, a silent inter-faith prayer space would be on site too.
  • Special youth events would be hosted here. Concerts with bands promoting a positive lifestyle would be staged here. In addition, youth conventions and speakers would come in and dynamically teach the youth to honor righteous authority. The convention center property next door to the mall could also be utilized for larger youth events.
  • ...Or the kids can simply come here to have fun and attain their best states in life.
  • Plus, businesses would invest here and grow the retail job market because the zoning rules would allow for big local tax and fee breaks in return for providing infrastructure or resources to the non-profit groups.

Meanwhile, a robust and funded law enforcement network comprised of the city's paid police department officers and unpaid volunteers, reserve deputies, youth explorer, community action patrol, and neighborhood watchdog groups would be the short-range solution to rid San Bernardino of its awful crime. A public-private partnership between the youth district hub and the police department can ensure healthy funding as the city continues its bankruptcy situation.

The opportunities would be endless for San Bernardino's next generation. Plus, getting there would be no problem thanks to the sbX.

I know this idea is a mere dream, not as simple as it looks and will require a lot of discussion to launch correctly. The youth who all use the facility would have to be protected and educated, especially protection from existing gang leaders who may be looking to "jump" troubled youth. Plus the mall's property owner may have absolutely no plans to implement this. But we are long overdue to take better care of San Bernardino's children and youth. That is the truth. So, we have to get some ideas flowing around.

More on this at a later time.

this kind of (sbX) positivity is poisonous to many people in this group. -Matthew Amori/Facebook

This "kind of positivity" is fact-based. How is establishing a centralized transit hub point plus a direct connection to/from the busiest line on the Metrolink train system poisonous? What I see is improved inter-modal hub-and-spoke transit connectivity and thus more riders for not only the sbX, but for the connecting Omnitrans local routes and Metrolink.

sbX has already attracted billions of dollars in new development and other investment that have been committed to the E Street Corridor. The (Press Enterprise) reporter should have spoken with the property owners (Macerich, Lewis, Rancon, C.S.U.S.B., L.L.U., etc.) along the line that have seen their values increase on a relative basis after the project was announced and after it was completed. He should have spoken with Hines that acquired the Tri-City Corporate Centre after sbX was installed in the largest real-estate deal in Inland Empire history. He should have also spoken with the owners and operators of all the businesses that have opened in the station areas over the last several months and more and that have filled vacancies that had existed for years and, sometimes, decades before. All the development and investment, frankly, taking place in San Bernardino and Loma Linda since the former City declared bankruptcy has occurred, and is occurring, within the sbX station areas, so this article suffers from a skewed perspective offered by (San Bernardino Area Chamber of Commerce CEO) Judi Penman and her friends. -Matt Korner/Facebook.

For the record, Penman criticized the sbX citing the short-term construction and parking impacts on businesses along the route. To be fair, the city perhaps could have networked better with the impacted businesses during this transition period, but I really cannot judge this from the outside. However, Penman's argument is no excuse for Omnitrans to just scrap the project.

That is pure NIMBY opposition and the transit agency was correct in not caving into Penman's argument. For any major infrastructure project, there's going to be short-term disruptions and potential displacements in the area during construction, no question.

Regarding parking, yeah...there may have been some inconveniences here and there, but generally speaking, surface customer parking lots are abundant south of the downtown area. Plus, downtown itself offers giant free parking garages in the Civic Center and Carousel Mall blocks, a separate surface lot in the Civic Center block along the Court Street retail promenade area, plus plenty of street parking just east of the the sbX Green line.

Anyway I appreciate the very good debate. I will talk to you all again after the Independence Day weekend.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Why the sbX Bus Rapid Transit is not a failure

How current and future urban development will boost so-called "slow start" ridership aboard San Bernardino's bus rapid transit line...

A "slow start?" Really? The sbX Green Line route passes by the soon-to-be San Bernardino Transit Center with an across-the-platform connection to the Metrolink San Bernardino Line. Such connectivity plus private urban development will certainly transform this "slow start" BRT route into a victory.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Over the weekend, the Press Enterprise ran a ridership report on Omnitrans' sbX bus rapid transit line. The very headline and thesis of the article is "Rapid bus line off to slow start. Passengers on the sbX line rave about faster service, but ridership hasn't met expectations in its first year."

On the surface, that sounds like trouble for Omnitrans. But not so fast. The fact is the transit infrastructure was built and opened well before other major developments took place which promised to feed into the line. Last year, I argued that the sbX is a success in waiting and I continue to stand by that position. I had to spend several volunteer man hours getting all of the facts to write up "The sbX Bus Rapid Transit: A success in waiting" blog post in the May of 2014. With major proposed development plans in and around the BRT route, expect this "slow start" bus route to improve rapidly...pardon the pun.

Building the Infrastructure before the Developments

One common question I hear from many residents is: Why isn't transportation infrastructure built before homes and businesses are developed? That seems like a logical question. After all, the infamous 91 freeway through Corona is finally getting upgraded--both infrastructure and transit--even though this project should have been fully funded roughly two decades ago during the Inland Empire housing boom. As I've said before, we really can't blame our regional transportation agencies on this. Both the state and federal government need to fully fund this so that both Riverside and Orange County do not have to resort to massive toll bond debt.

In contrast, the sbX bus rapid transit line through San Bernardino precedes two other major transportation development projects that will certainly give sbX its much needed boost: The San Bernardino Transit Center and the Metrolink San Bernardino Line First Mile extension into downtown San Bernardino, located mere blocks southwest of the central city's core. When both of these connections are formed and connectivity gaps closed, ridership will sharply increase. That's a proven reality. Plus, the line has been stimulating economic development near its stations. As the private sector invests in more jobs along the sbX Green Line route, expect more riders aboard the bus. And just wait until more major capital is invested into the Carousel Mall, the vacant downtown hotel and the downtown convention center property. Both the sbX and the recent I-215 freeway and carpool lane upgrades should incentivize such marketplace investments and development.

Also, even though the sbX may appear to be under-performing now, the ridership growth rate is not at all bad even with the lack of current efficient regional connectivity. The Press Enterprise reported that the sbX was getting about 2,300 average weekday boardings, which according to the paper was less than half the number anticipated in its first year. However, last year, I spoke with Omnitrans Marketing Director and spokeswoman Wendy Williams and got the average daily ridership of the line as of May, 2014. Back then, it was averaging only 1,327 riders per day. Also, PE Columnist Cassie MacDuff road the bus and networked with Williams just before I did last year. The weekday daily average given to her was 1,280 boardings per day. The near-doubling of ridership between last year and this year from 1,280 boardings to 2,300 was not even mentioned in the last PE article. Not to mention that the Metrolink First Mile and other private development projects were omitted as well.

So, I stand by my position that the sbX is a successful transit line in waiting. The media really needs to wait until both the transit hub and Metrolink extension into downtown are developed before making any other accusations that the bus rapid transit line is "off to a slow start" and leading readers who may only skim over the headline into believing the sbX project is a taxpayer flop, which it really isn't. The truth is the transit infrastructure preceded the urban infill development investments that promises to drive up the ridership.

One last fact--This one too deals with an example where local transportation infrastructure was built prior to development:

Butterfield Stage Road through Roripaugh Ranch in Temecula

Under-utilized $12.1 million road too? Where's the media outrage? Oh yeah, usage along this complete street will improve once the homes get developed.
In northeast Temecula near the Wine Country area in an undeveloped area, a local connector road was built in two phases and fully opened last year linking the area to southeast Murrieta. It is a complete street with two general purpose and a bicycle lane each way with a pedestrian sidewalk. According to the Press Enterprise, the $5.6 million Phase 1 segment of Butterfield Stage Road linked Murrieta Hot Springs Road south to Calle Chapos through the proposed Roripaugh Ranch master planned community in Temecula. The $6.5-million Phase 2 brought Butterfield Stage south to La Serena Road, thus providing a major north/south road in between Murrieta Hot Springs Road, Temecula Parkway, and points south.

However, Temecula's Average Daily Traffic Volumes report shows an average of less than 8,000 cars per day using the $12.1 million infrastructure segment for 2014 after July. Much of Roripaugh Ranch is undeveloped, but it will be soon. To compare, Winchester Road (SR-79 North) averaged more than 46,600 cars per day between the twin cities.

Is this new section of Butterfield Stage Road really off to a "slow start" too, worthy of a dissenting news headline? You make the call.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Carmageddon in Temecula

Hard lessons learned from "Carmageddon" events: If you're going to shut down a major transportation connection during a peak tourist period, do whatever it takes to get the warning out.

Finished Product: Repaved local street in Temecula. The journey to this repaving involved weekend closures that caused major delays on the southbound I-15 freeway.
Photo: City of Temecula

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Strong Marketing: LA Metro and the media did whatever it took to get the Carmageddon I-405 shutdown announcement to the public.
Graphic of Carmageddon II: LA Metro
You may remember that back in 2011, Los Angeles officials launched a massive media campaign under the title "Carmageddon" to warn motorists about the closure of the I-405 freeway during the weekend of July 15–17 through the Sepulveda Pass. A year and couple months later in September 2012, the 405 underwent Carmageddon II with the same marketing campaign.

The 405 carries about 500,000 cars per day between West LA and the San Fernando Valley, so both shutdowns had to be broadcasted to the public the way it was. This story was all over both the local and national media. Digital freeway signs all over LA warned drivers of these shut downs--with "thank you" messages afterwards.

Because of the widespread coverage, the shutdowns were a major success story as many citizens avoided the roads altogether.

Weekend traffic in LA was lighter than normal across a wide area for both closures. Metrolink also recorded record weekend ridership during the 2011 closure. Whatever LA officials did to get the word out...worked.

Temecula Ramp Closure = Big Southbound I-15 Delays

I-15 southbound delays looking south from Santiago Road
Over this last weekend as well as the weekend of June 5-7, there was an interchange shutdown in Southwest Riverside County which although was certainly not to the scale of the I-405, it should have been significant enough to call for better media coverage all throughout Southern California because traffic congestion on the southbound I-15 was a disgrace. That's because of all the weekend tourist destinations in town.

Temecula's Rancho California Road underwent repaving and was therefore closed off to traffic during both weekends. Delays along the I-15 south spanned about a whopping 45 minutes according to some locals who got stuck. As motorists were detoured to the next exit at Temecula Parkway, the queue line was so backed up that stopped cars not only blocked one but used two 70 MPH southbound traffic lanes on I-15 as virtual exit lanes, thus backing up the freeway with stop-and-go traffic for several miles. Because of the stopped bumper-to-bumper congestion, I-15 mobility looked like West LA on a Friday afternoon.

I was in the area very late on Saturday night doing a field study of this matter and southbound I-15 traffic delays were still at virtual gridlock at 11pm with the queue line of stopped cars backed up almost to Winchester Road. Conditions must have been much worse earlier in the day.

The Shutdown for a Repaving Project:

Rancho California Road was shut down during both weekends for repaving work and the southbound I-15 exit was also completely closed too with traffic detoured to Temecula Parkway. Also closed was the southbound I-15 onramp. Northbound motorists exiting at Rancho California Road as well as local traffic could not cross over the freeway at this interchange.

Both Rancho California Road and Temecula Parkway are extraordinary interchanges with high traffic volume as both roads cater to both local city traffic and motorists traveling beyond the borders of the city.

According to the City's Average Daily Traffic Volumes chart, Rancho California Road carried a whopping average of 54,900 cars per day in 2014 between the freeway and the next major surface street to the east. An average 35,180 cars was tallied on the other side. Most of the traffic comes to/from the north via the I-15. Temecula Parkway where southbound I-15 Rancho California traffic was detoured carries an astounding average of about 68,900 cars per day just east of the I-15. About 9,280 daily trips go the other way back to Old Town. Like Rancho California, most traffic comes via the I-15 to/from the north.

The current Temecula Parkway interchange infrastructure already cannot sustain its current demands let alone the majority of traffic that normally uses the Rancho California exit. Southbound queue lines from the I-15 already often spill over onto main traffic lanes creating a safety risk.

Also, being a tourist destination, consider weekend traffic as part of the rush hour in Temecula all day long.

Temecula Old Town is the Inland Empire's miniature Gas Lamp Quarter with tourist traffic flooding the district all day and all night long starting with the Farmer's Market swap meet early in the morning on Saturday and peaking shortly after dinner time as sports bars and nightclubs draw the late night crowds. South of Old Town off of Temecula Parkway is Pechaga Resort; it's rush hour during the week is the weekends too with floods of people headed to Southwest's Little Las Vegas. Let's not forget the wineries and Lake Skinner that both draw weekend tourists to the neighboring coutryside all day long.

Add up the facts, and there's Camageddon that certainly warranted better publicity and news coverage.

To be fair I saw a few stories ran in the Press Enterprise and there were digital signs all throughout the interchange area alerting motorists of the closure. Plus the California Highway Patrol was called out to direct traffic at Temecula Parkway. But if you're from out of town visiting and didn't read the PE, chances are you didn't get the warning of Temecula's Carmageddon event and experienced big time delays if you were coming in from the north plus any detour time.

Although nowhere near the magnitude of the I-405, I think this road closure during a peak period serves as reminder for any transportation agency.

If you're going to shut down a major connection at times when businesses are at their peak business hours and you've exhausted all other feasible options, follow LA's lead and do whatever it takes to get a "Carmageddon" marketing campaign announced and flooded in the news media so that motorists are better forewarned, stay clear and won't create freeway gridlock, especially if the detour route involves infrastructure that cannot handle the extra flood of traffic.

Meanwhile, Carmageddon in Temecula is over. The next time you're in Southwest Riverside County, enjoy the newly paved section of Rancho California Road on the way to the wineries, Old Town, or whereever your destination is.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Weighing in on the World Logistics Center Debate

Computer-generated view of the WLC hub from Gilman Springs Road
Source: WLC EIR

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

The first major public hearing for a proposal to develop the eastern side of Moreno Valley into a massive logistics and goods movement complex was held on Tuesday. Hundreds attended the Planning Commission meeting to voice support or opposition of developer Iddo Benzeevi's proposed World Logistics Center master plan according to the Press Enterprise. Benzeevi is CEO of Highland Fairview, a privately held full-service real estate development company specializing in large scale Industrial, Commercial and Residential developments.

First of all, the locals who attended this public hearing--both supporters and the opposition--are to be thanked because it clearly showed the governing body that they are concerned for the future of Moreno Valley.

Benefits of WLC: More Blue Collar Jobs
Graphite Business Park: Logistics, manufacturing, distribution job hub in Corona.

The main selling point I see of the WLC plan is jobs.

There's absolutely no question that the region can use them. That is an indisputable fact. What remains debatable is amount of jobs associated directly within the WLC itself as well as the number of increased net truck driver and warehouse positions.

I'm hearing the number is around 20,000 jobs or something like that. The Sketchers facility employes about 600 workers according to the Press Enterprise but that development took jobs away from Ontario with a reported net job loss of up to 400 per the newspaper. To be fair, another company may have invested in the old Sketcher facilities which may have neutralized the lost jobs.

Regardless of the final net gains from WLC, robust job hubs traditionally stimulate the retail and restaurant sectors which in turn leads to more hiring all throughout the local marketplace. Thus, if WLC gets built as proposed and there really is a net job gain, I expect a good economic stimulus in the area.

WLC and Urban Sprawl: Valid Concerns by the Opposition

The Transit Coalition believes the World Logistics Center is urban sprawl and needs to be opposed until its major issues are dealt with straightly and impartially. That is, the position is don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. The baby being the blue collar job expansion the Inland region can certainly use; the bathwater being the undesirable side effects. There are three chief concerns raised by the opposition. They are air pollution, traffic congestion, and local land use and infrastructure.

Let's start with land use.

The WLC property is currently zoned as the Moreno Highlands Specific Plan which is mostly residential development with a mixed-use area along Alessandro Boulevard with open space sections for golf courses and wildlife corridors. The northern segment of the Gilman Springs Road corridor is zoned for business parks. Much of this land is currently not developed other than some rural dwellings here and there.

State law mandates that each city and county has a general land use plan in place. Citizen requests and applications to change the plan should only be made if there is a compelling reason to do so and the plan can be changed no more than 4 times each year. In fairness, balancing the Inland Empire job-to-housing ratio would be a valid reason to rezone Moreno Valley's eastern side. However, affected neighborhoods need to be actively involved in the discussion and findings need to be transparent because land-use changes directly affect them.

Moreno Valley has an obligation to its citizens to ensure existing local public works infrastructure and services can support such amendments. If not, the developer needs to pay for the upgrades. That means the concerned citizens should tolerate no developer pandering or stonewalling from the governing body. Officials must reflect the values of their citizens, not just the values of Mr. Benzeevi. Every valid concern brought up--whether in favor or opposition of WLC--must be heard out and dealt with straightly and impartially.

Photo: © Wikimedia/Raunet CC-BY-SA
Both the California Air Resources Board and the Riverside County Transportation Commission have also raised valid questions regarding air quality and transportation infrastructure improvements. I believe their points are valid. I was in Moreno Valley late last summer for a day-long event and when it got hot in the afternoon; the air became very dirty through the evening with LA's smog flowing into the valley. I had to go inside when I tried to enjoy the evening sunset. I don't recall any reports of anything extraordinary like wildfires. Therefore, the vast number of added truck traffic using WLC must not be pollutants. Moreno Valley's citizens need to breathe clean air.

To be fair, the trucks using the WLC would be required to use cleaner 2010 engines but these engine types simply can't eliminate all of the health risks associated with the pollution according to Dan Greenbaum, president of the Health Effects Institute. However, heavy-duty big rigs are on their way to becoming much cleaner, with hybrid and zero-emission trucks making their way into the marketplace. If zero-emission cars and trucks do become the norm, WLC trucks added up won't be pollutants. Plus Southern California's overall air quality will be cleaner and we should all support that. But the public needs a firm promise that these types of cars and trucks will be the norm upon completion of the 15 year WLC master plan. Putting such a promise in the project EIR by 2030 would offset the air quality concerns.

Regarding regional transportation infrastructure, peak traffic along both Gilman Springs Road between SR-79 and SR-60 and the SR-60 itself through the Badlands are quickly approaching capacity based on previous field studies. Both would likely need to be expanded beyond Caltran's proposal to add truck lanes along SR-60 and those upgrades should happen as the developer builds out the 15 year WLC master-plan, not afterwards. The developer should work with RCTC and pay into these projects. An ideal public-private partnership project may be adding both a truck lane and extending the SR-60 carpool lane through the Badlands to I-10 in Beaumont. That would provide transit infrastructure for RTA Route 35, 210 and SunLine Route 220 with potential expanded services. Plus a new bus transit line between Hemet and Moreno Valley via Gilman Springs Road may also be warranted. Again, the developer would phase in these upgrades as WLC gets developed.

Finding Common Ground on WLC

As divisive as this debate can get, we should all find some common ground on this project by holding the power structure to account while allowing Mr. Benzeevi and the rest of the marketplace to invest private capital into the Inland Empire job market with fair and efficient government oversight. I do believe that businesses are overdue for statewide regulatory reform and streamlined application processing, but policies need to be fair and apply to all businesses to ensure fair competition.

Yes, I believe WLC is currently urban sprawl and should be opposed as proposed and Benzeevi should not get a special pass from the rules to address the negative impacts. But if the facility's pollution, traffic, and general land use and infrastructure issues are dealt with impartially and fairly without breaking the opportunity of expanding the local job market, Moreno Valley can have a first-rate job hub, cleaner air, and mobility for its people. That's something we should all support.

Combined with the growing medical sector and by strengthening law enforcement, rebuilding the family unit, and expanding restorative justice programs for trouble youth in order to stop gang crime and revitalize neighborhood streets, Moreno Valley could one day become the place "Where Dreams Soar."

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Connecting the Corona Transit Center with the 91 Express Lanes

The state and federal government need to better fund this connection.

Concept: Seamlessly linking the 91 Express Lanes through Corona with the North Main Corona Transit Center.
Note: Concept only. Not endorsed by OCTA, RCTC, or any public entity.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

If you follow our blogs regularly, you well know that The Transit Coalition generally supports congestion pricing and high occupancy toll lanes. We believe that HOT lane access points should be able to facilitate seamless connections between the express lanes and major transit centers. That is so public transit bus routes and private carpools that utilize the corridor can transition efficiently and safely between the two high occupancy vehicle infrastructure pairs.

91 Express Lanes through Corona and Public Transit

In a presentation to the Transportation Now Southwest Chapter on June 13, 2013, RCTC mentioned this about public transit and the extension of the 91 Express Lanes through Corona:

• Express lanes will decrease travel time for current express buses and allow expansion
• Express lanes will allow RTA and OCTA to increase express bus service from 20 trips per day to 41 trips per day on the 91
• Express bus riders can enjoy the speed and reliability of tolled express lanes without paying a separate toll or needing to buy a transponder
• Express lanes will improve connectivity with Metrolink service, creating a more robust transit network for the region

In addition, a FY 2011 TIGER Discretionary Grant report by the U.S. Department of Transportation said this:

Creating a strong integration of alternative commuting choices is a cornerstone element of a comprehensive multi-modal strategy that RCTC, Metrolink and the Riverside Transit Agency (RTA) have been implementing to address growing travel demand in the SR-91 corridor. The Project will enable RCTC and RTA to implement an enhanced Express Bus plan on the SR-91 Corridor that includes: 
• Nearly doubling current express bus trips on SR-91;
• Providing 15-20 minute headways on the 91 Express Lanes
during peak hours;
• Add five new express bus routes in Western Riverside County;
• Direct rides to employment centers in Orange County with no
need to transfer;
• Implement “interceptor” routes that take SR-91 commuters to
Metrolink stations before they get to the freeway; and
• Wi-Fi enabled buses to maximize commuter productivity
while in transit.

Without the Project, express bus service is not competitive with single-occupant vehicles. The Project provides the necessary reliability, flexibility and cost- and time-savings to entice commuters of all income levels to shift modes.

Okay, that sounded like a reasonable public transit master plan for the corridor. With the HOT lane infrastructure, public transit buses from Riverside County would have a virtual transitway between Corona and East Anaheim with a future direct connection to Irvine via the SR-241 and SR-261 toll roads.

Anyway, RCTC Deputy Executive Director and spokesperson John Standiford mentioned something to me in an email that is very disturbing at the state and federal level. He was asked about transit connectivity between the high volume North Main Corona Metrolink Station transit hub and the Riverside County segment of the 91 Express Lanes. Here's the full context of what was said:

Thank you for your inquiry regarding the 91 Express Lanes project.  I’m still going to need some time to answer (your question about the HOV 2+ and HOV 3+ usage stats).  

First off, a number of details on this topic continue to evolve.  The Express Lanes won’t be opening until early 2017 and we are working closely with RTA on developing and finalizing services to meet needs.

Undoubtedly, there will be changes.  For example, we will be expanding the parking lot at the La Sierra Metrolink station and developing an expanded bus facility at that station so that the Express Bus Service that will be utilizing the 91 Express Lanes will originate from the La Sierra station and not North Main Corona.  RTA could still choose to operate an Express Bus service on the 91 from North Main Corona but it wouldn’t be able to use the Express Lanes in Riverside County although it could access the Orange County portion of the facility just as it does today.  In addition to the Express Lanes, the project also builds a general purpose lane in each direction and auxiliary lanes at a variety of locations.  As a result, the overall speed and performance on the 91 – even outside of the Express Lanes -- will be much improved than the current conditions than commuters currently encounter.  Although we are still working with RTA to finalize details, the new service on the Express Lanes should be seen as an addition to what is currently offered.  We hope it results in two vibrant and successful transit hubs – one at North Main and one at La Sierra.

As for (your questions about the Corona mid-city access and backtracking), the main reason for not including a mid-city access point, and especially a direct ramp was due to the overall cost.  That’s also why there is no direct connector to or from the Northbound 1-15.  The current project has a $1.4 billion pricetag, which is why a number of changes were made to ensure the improvement could be financed.  True, there are concerns about weaving and the overall performance of the lanes, but from a cost/benefit perspective, intermediate access on the current project was not advisable.  I would also point out that the 91 Express Lanes in Orange County do not have intermediate access points.  On the issue of the Northbound connector, we do intend to construct that in the future and it is an important priority.

On the question of backtracking, there are a few options.  The first option would be to take the 91 East to McKinley.  Other options including taking Hamner Road to Hidden Valley, which turns into McKinley.  Sixth Street (south of the freeway) is another option.

On the I-15 project, we are still in the midst of the environmental process and additional refinements to the project.  I can assure you that we are assessing a number of options and that public transit access will play an important role, but it’s probably too early to finalize anything on that yet.  In fact, we would even welcome your thoughts and input on the project. We tentatively have a public information meeting set for July 22.  Within a week or so, I should be able to provide you with details on exactly when and where the meeting will take place.

Funding the HOV and Transit connection: 

So after years of planning, we the people still have no means to pay for a direct link between two important high occupancy vehicle infrastructure facilities: North Main Corona Transit Center and the 91 Express Lanes.

Yes, the infrastructure upgrades mentioned at the La Sierra Metrolink station are good and additional local RTA buses should be routed to connect, but originating the express transit routes at La Sierra in Riverside in lieu of Corona would break connectivity for commuters heading in via the I-15 if the lines bypassed the Corona Transit Center. That's already evident with Route 206 from the south not connecting with Route 794. Also, Routes 206 and 216 which already stop in Corona are proposed to be the primary express trunk lines for the corridor with all day hourly headways by 2023, seven days per week according to RTA. Route 216 should be able to use the 91 Express Lanes infrastructure and not have to use the general purpose lanes through Corona.

To be fair, the preliminary proposed access points for the connecting I-15 Express Lanes combined with the longer-range direct connector between the 91 and the I-15 north will allow somewhat of a better connection between the transit center and the HOT lanes by cutting down on the unproductive backtracking.

Potential Infrastructure Workaround: The preliminary I-15 Express access points proposed combined with the direct connector between the 91 and the I-15 could reduce the amount of backtracking required for transit buses to use the 91 Express Lanes from the Corona Transit Center via 2nd Street in Norco. Plus, RTA CommuterLink Route 206 would be able to use the HOT lanes between the hub and the Dos Lagos stop under this routing.

Under the proposed I-15 HOT lane plan, transit buses and HOV's from the Corona Transit Center can access the 91 Express Lanes via the I-15 Express Lanes from 2nd Street in north Corona at the I-15, use the Hidden Valley Parkway access point to get into the express lanes and connect to the 91 via the direct connector. Plus, CommuterLink Route 206 and the proposed Route 205 to/from the I-15 south would be able to use the I-15 Express Lanes between Dos Lagos and the transit center under this design model. During the afternoon rush hour, that would shave off a potential 15-20 minutes of travel time for Route 206 between Corona and Dos Lagos where the southbound I-15 lanes are normally jammed. That official proposal could work and close this transit mobility gap, but there's still some excessive backtracking required via Hamner Road. Plus, the direct connector between the 91 and I-15 north is longer range. Thus, I believe that a direct HOT connector in Corona along the 91 needs to be explored once more.

Concept: Smith Avenue Direct Access Ramp.
Note: Concept Only. Not endorsed by OCTA and RCTC.
Here's what a November 2012 RCTC Resolution 12-028 that considered the final 91 Project EIR said about the Smith Avenue direct access ramp alternative:

Smith Avenue/Mid-City Access (Design Variations f-no Smith Avenue access and h-Smith Avenue access): Comparison of these design variations indicated design variation f would cost $77 million less, would result in 10 fewer full parcel acquisitions, 10 fewer partial parcel acquisitions, and reduced right-of-way costs compared to design variation h. There is no appreciable difference in overall traffic operations of SR-91 for these two design variations although design variation h would provide additional direct local access to the tolled express lanes not provided in design variation f. However, design variation h would have the potential to deteriorate operating conditions in the tolled express lanes.

For the record, The City of Corona requested RCTC six years ago in 2009 to study a mid-city access point. The final EIR resolution and decision to remove Smith Avenue was adopted in November, 2012.

Not Selected: Design Variation 2h was not selected mainly due to overall costs.
Potential Reasons why the Direct Access Ramp was not funded

There's a couple of possibilities of why there is a lack of connectivity between the two HOV facilities.

Perhaps, the mid-city access feasibility and engineering study conducted by RCTC was flawed or spun. But that is absolutely unlikely. Down south, SANBAG built the I-15 Express Lanes Mira Mesa Direct Access Ramp & Miramar College Transit Station that cost $60 million which is right around the same price range for the Smith Avenue ramp.

Therefore, RCTC cannot be faulted for this problem.

The other possibility is that the state and federal governments lack the will to fully fund and pay off the debt of a major state transportation corridor that links a two-county area of more than four million people through a narrow canyon. I have reason to believe that this scenario is what contributed toward the direct access ramp not being funded which will lead to Corona station motorists and transit buses needing to backtrack or use the general purpose lanes between Corona and the Orange County Line.

Many good people of the public are being deceived and most of the media continue to report that the state and feds are not collecting enough transportation revenue to pay for a backlog of infrastructure projects. This blog has already shown that cash management and funding displacement is the prime problem, not lack of revenue. Total state transportation revenues have roughly doubled over the past 15 years—from $3.5 billion in 1999–00 to an estimated $7.2 billion in 2013–14. 15-25 years ago, Southern California's transportation infrastructure was well funded with the birth of Metrolink, Los Angeles' return to rail transit, and Orange County's massive freeway and carpool lane master plan. Factor in inflation and we should be at the same healthy funding levels as we were back in the 90's, not lower.

If every user of our transportation infrastructure that pays into the system demanded the state and feds to finally stop displacing transportation tax revenue to other interests and reform trivial policies at the state level that inflate infrastructure costs, then perhaps we can end up with a first-rate and paid-for HOT lane system like San Diego's I-15 Express Lanes complete with direct access ramps to/from transit centers. In fact, proper policing of transportation funds must happen as cars become more fuel efficient and fuel tax revenues actually become threatened and decrease.

On the bright side, I believe change will happen one day because our crumbling infrastructure that remain in many areas of the Inland Empire, scaled-back surface transportation projects combined with high taxation statewide is finally waking us up. When we begin to notice high costs and fees from the state taxman but simultaneously notice sub-par infrastructure, more people will begin to question the transportation funding diversions, and the truth about transportation funding will be better known.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Renaissance of the Inland Empire Middle Class

How can we fairly combat income inequality and fill our transit fleets with a productive workforce?

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

We the people are just about inundated in a constant stream of bad news describing the growing divide between the rich and the poor. The group in between, known as the middle class by many, is reportedly continuing to vanish with the salary gaps widening. The evidence of this divide, known to many as income inequality is all around us.

But this trend could reverse course, and quickly. And I've been noticing a potential opportunity for the hard workers of the middle class to regain potential in the marketplace.

Historically, the productive hands and feets of our population commonly known as the middle class drove the market economy which allowed disciplined and hardworking individuals the opportunity to earn decent wages with only a high school diploma, the opportunity to gain skills within the employer and advance up, live in a desirable home within a reasonable distance to/from work, have efficient choices to get around, and even be able to afford to take the family on vacations and entertainment on their days off.

Are the blue collar jobs really coming back?

Here in the Inland Empire, a much desirable job market is growing. Goods fulfilment, distribution, logistics, and manufacturing jobs are slowly but steadily all on the increase. People have basically had enough of the general sub-par quality of cheaper products made or assembled overseas. Many Americans continue to be frustrated of having to go through a maze in order to get customer service on the phone only to be directed to a telephone operator overseas as corporations return call center jobs back home.

Products assembled here can have better quality simply because we actually use the products and know which areas deserve quality control. Plus employees can be trained in-house. Same goes for customer call centers.

I therefore believe the demand for American-made and assembled goods is growing stronger.

This is a potential sign of a possible return of intermediate job opportunities for high school and Associate Degree graduates, such blue-collar labor jobs that were basically lost when corporations took manufacturing and other job duties overseas decades ago.

Up until recently, many Americans generally needed to have graduated from a four year university or go through an intense certification program in order to embrace economic prosperity and self reliance because such jobs required specific skills and critical on-the-spot decision making. Otherwise, for those only graduating from high school, the only job opportunities were generally the lower paying entry level jobs, mostly in the retail and restaurant sectors. That is potentially why many workers who may be stuck in these sectors are demanding better opportunities and higher wages. But we need to maintain the entry level jobs for high school youth and anybody else who would benefit from low-responsibility positions.

To be fair, many logistics opponents correctly point that the Inland Empire is starved for the high salary, skill-based jobs too for those with Bachelors and Doctorate Degrees. Businesses must be incentivized to invest in these jobs here too on top of the blue collar ones. Plus, as critics correctly claim, major logistics development projects such as the World Logistics Center in Moreno Valley need to be held to account for truck pollution, traffic impacts on surface streets, and other valid concerns raised by residents.

However for the first time in decades, more high school graduates and 2-year college Associate Degree holders may be finding good and honest intermediate work that pays better and has higher responsibilities than what is offered in entry-level jobs. These opportunities need to expand because not everybody is called to hold a degree from a university. Many simply are called to be the working hands and feet of the system.

The Middle Class Dream for the Inland Empire

One of the reasons why I bring up economic topics like this on a transit blog is simply because when our surface transportation infrastructure, trains, and bus routes are used by a productive workforce, the tax revenue and fares generated by such work can better fund the system.

But funding the system is only a secondary goal of improving the market economy. The primary goal should be bringing about A Better Inland Empire where the good people of Riverside and San Bernardio Counties can embrace the freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and not be slaves to physical poverty, long commutes, expensive housing, or poor transportation infrastructure.

The growth of middle class jobs is just one way we can fairly combat the income inequality issue. With these new job opportunities, those working in the retail sector can finally move up and receive better salaries. That's already evident because I'm seeing the "Now Hiring" signs returning to the windows of many fast food restaurants and other entry-level places with the option to actually fill out a paper job application in the store.

With better job competition, employers in such sectors actually need to market and potentially offer better pay for workers because the good and productive employees are needed. Increasing marketplace job opportunities is a major key to solving the income inequality problem. Employers must be inclined to expand, compete and invest in these positions. Ironically, trivial regulatory rules and high taxation and fees on businesses discourages job expansion and these employment opportunities. That has to change.

We must incentivize the high-paying job makers to invest in the Inland Empire. They must be encouraged to expand opportunities. Here are some innovative ideas that could further bring about economic opportunity for the middle class, especially those who work hard, bring value to their employer and are promoted through the marketplace:

  • Innovation of Clean and Efficient Alternative Fuels - Research and development of improving renewable energy like solar, wind, and water and making it more efficient could bring about a major boost to the economy and free us from high prices at the gas pump and high electric bills. Expect the companies that deliver working products to be the next major employers.
  • Desalination of ocean water - The technology has been around for some time. How can we better improve its efficiency of purifying sea water and making the technology more affordable for businesses and families just like individual solar panels are today? The innovation of that would put an end to droughts worldwide immediately.
  • Improving Manufactured Buildings & Infrastructure - This could better increase competition with housing developers because portions of buildings would be designed and produced in mass as manufactured construction blocks. That lowers prices, greatly speeds up development times and can improve structural quality. China has already experimented with such an innovation with full-size skyscrapers including a 57 story tower that was errected in 19 working days.

    Combined with efficient government land-use policies, such an innovation could efficiently increase quality housing supplies within mere weeks which would help keep living in the Inland Empire affordable. Imagine living in a spacious 3,000 square foot condo unit for only $200,000 in any Southern California suburban corridor.

    Futher engineering the linked construction blocks to withstand powerful earthquakes can make developing family-friendly condos and towers in urban areas more affordable. That affordable $1,500 per-month 3-5 bedroom 3,000 square foot condo unit in the heart of the Irvine Business Complex--not subsidized by the government--may be coming...
  • Rebuiding the Family Unit - Through the non-profit sector, continued research and development on this serious social issue at the local level can one day transform dangerous Inland Empire neighborhoods into thriving and desirable regions to raise children.
  • Expansion of Constructive Youth Programs - These include more youth activities, restorative justice programs for the incarcerated of whom want to turn away from crime, mentors and youth adoption programs. Those who do grow up in troubled neighborhoods need a second chance to thrive. Through the non-profit sector, troubled teenagers can find places where they belong which do not involve the criminal gang culture. Combined with robust and strong law enforcement, such restorative programs can help clean up gang and youth-related crime. Wealthy businesses and individuals would be able to fund these programs through the non-profit sector or through President Obama's My Brother's Keeper initative.

Combined, this is a potential solution to combat the income inequality problem fairly. This is potentially how we can bring about A Better Inland Empire.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Riverside Transit Agency FY 2016-18 Short Range Transit Plan

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

RTA has recently updated its budget and its Short Range Transit Plan for fiscal years 2016 to 2018 at its previous Board of Director's Meeting. The plan provides the public a description of the bus agency's services, regional transit needs and a look ahead at RTA’s proposed service plans and capital projects.

I'll run through this big report and will show you some of the highlights in a series of future posts. You may remember that The Transit Coalition covered and provided feedback for RTA's Comprehensive Operational Analysis last fall. Be sure to check out the approved Ten Year Transit Network Plan which is filled with all kinds of desirable service upgrades.

Much of what is covered in this SRTP is in the Ten Year master plan, but I'll cover what's in store for FY 2016-18 which includes rail feeder service for the Perris Valley Line including connections from Southwest Riverside County via select trips from Route 61, more CommuterLink bus routes once the 91 Express Lanes is developed through Corona, a potential transit center for UC Riverside and expanding the Dial-A-Ride paratransit service boundary for vital transit trips for seniors and the disabled.

RTA held a short public hearing on the SRTP prior to adopting it, but please always remember that "public hearings" never close here. Improving transit options is a perpetual project as no system in the world is perfect. If there's something in the approved SRTP that sparks an interest, please post your thoughts in the comments.

Anyway, I appreciate the continued lively debate and discussion and we thank you for following us.