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.