Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Transit News all over the Inland Empire

San Bernardino Transit Center opens, the efficiency of Redlands Passenger Rail and Riverside Reconnects projects, and reforming CEQA law:

Upgraded downtown bus transfer hub: Family waits for their bus at the new San Bernardino Transit Center.
Photo: Omnitrans

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
riversidetransit@gmail.com



I predicted September was going to be a very busy month for transit advocacy. Our Inland Empire system continues to grow. The Transit Coalition wants to ensure we do it right and that precious transportation funding that we pay into is spent wisely. So here's a look at the major stories:

First buses of the morning arrive at the San Bernardino Transit Center 
Photo: Omnitrans
Opening of the San Bernardino Transit Center

The city's downtown inter-modal transit center has arrived. It links 12 local Omnitrans bus routes, the sbX Green Line BRT, MARTA bus connections to Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead, and VVTA buses to the high desert. Pass Transit should reroute Line 120 to this station once Metrolink rolls in. More on that in a moment.

The hub-point infrastructure upgrade that replaced an existing transfer hub a few blocks north features an indoor waiting area, a customer service counter, pass sales office, restrooms, a private bus driver break area, ticket vending machines, next-bus arrival signs, and a strong security presence. Bus riders who regularly used the previous transfer hub as a layover point were in for a spectacular upgrade.

This is the first of two transit upgrades that will infuse more riders aboard the sbX Green Line and local routes. The second will be the Metrolink First Mile extension planned for 2016-17. With these public transit gaps closed thanks to a centralized hub point, people from Los Angeles or other areas of the Inland Empire can travel in by train into the new station and transfer to the feeding local buses to their final destination and back. In addition, a reinstated peak hour express bus route from Montclair and the proposed Redlands Passenger Rail Project will connect here too.

Speaking of which...

Making the best of Redlands Passenger Rail

The San Bernardino Associated Governments is spearheading the Redlands Passenger Rail Project. The proposed rail corridor between the San Bernardino Transit Center and Redlands runs along an existing 9 mile railroad right-of-way from E Street in San Bernardino east to the City of Redlands.

San Bernardino County Supervisor James Ramos who also chairs the Rail to Redlands Working Group published this video on September 10th:


The Transit Coalition supports using Metrolink train equipment for this extension combined with corridor-based routes operating every 30 minutes plus the commuter express runs simply because the increased station pairs will generate better ridership. Ramos' video implies that Metrolink trains will be the chosen technology. According to a May article in the Redlands Daily Facts, SanBAG officials environmentally cleared the use of two Metrolink express trains for the rail project during the environmental review process for possible future use.

However, the agency intends to run Diesel Multiple Units with 25 average daily trips. Sprinter-type DMU's have proven to be an efficient form of rail transit. But there's several legitimate questions to be asked: This phase of the Redlands extension covers only 5 stations with San Bernardino and Redlands as the main hubs whereas the Sprinter system in San Diego County serves 15 stops including 4 major transit hubs. The limited service coverage with a mandatory transfer at San Bernardnio could very well negate ridership and harm the cost-to-benefit ratio. Also, is the population density even sufficient enough to support DMU urban rail between the two hub end-points or is combining Metrolink with expanded sbX BRT services more feasible? You make the call.

The total cost of the rail line is $242 million or $26.8 million per mile along an existing rail right-of-way which is actually a pretty good per-mile stat for a passenger rail line. However, that has still rallied the opposition, namely the Inland Empire Transit Alliance and the Redlands Tea Party Patriots. To be fair, the limited station stops through a suburban corridor with high infrastructure and labor costs in California are a legitimate concern.

However, the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. An efficient transit extension into Redlands needs to proceed and these groups should find ways to get the public costs down, suggest ways to improve ridership productivity and not resort to NIMBY opposition spin tactics like increased crime, short-range traffic congestion, and noise. The legit issues have to be dealt with. By the way, quiet zones through the residential areas can offset the noise pollution issue associated with the train horns.

Using Metrolink equipment with trains departing every 30 minutes that continue beyond San Bernardino would maximize ridership for the line's 5 stations. Cost reforms have to be dealt with at the state level. Rancho Cucamonga Mayor L. Dennis Michael did mention in the video public private partnerships as a possible funding tool which the Coalition generally supports.

We'll keep a close watch on this project and we'll show you how Metrolink MAX can be integrated into this branch.

For the record, the Sprinter price tag was $477 million or $21.7 million per mile.

Photo: © Riding in Riverside CC-BY-SA
Riverside Streetcar

As you may know, the City of Riverside is looking to bring its version of urban rail transit along its major local corridors in the form of a streetcar. The transit route is currently served by Riverside Transit Agency Route 1 and the soon-to-be limited stop RapidLink runs during rush hour. The Press Enterprise recently reported potential issues regarding ridership projections versus costs and published yet another editorial questioning the project.

Now, if I was an ideological transit advocate, I would cheer for this rail line. But The Transit Coalition is a fact-based group. The truth is that under the current demographics, economic climate and the general lack of a robust business marketplace in the area, it may be premature to spend precious public transportation funds on this infrastructure right now. Don't get me wrong, the current study hopefully will bring about some up-to-date facts for the area, but RTA has previously studied the Route 1 corridor and found that limited stop RapidLink service to be the feasible option. But as the region grows, rail can be integrated into the route and this study can be used to determine feasibility.

I would suggest this for the Riverside Reconnects transit plan: RTA Route 1 boardings have grown to the point where limited stop rapid service is feasible. Good. RTA should launch RapidLink, ensure the buses connect and feed seamlessly with Metrolink trains and other express services, and phase in increased span and frequency as ridership demands grow. The city could designate the Downtown and University Avenue corridor as a specific plan for urban in-fill and private sector job growth where developers would fund or develop a dedicated bus lane for RapidLink which could later be transformed into a streetcar route should ridership growth demands it.

Once projected RapidLink demands begin to show that bus infrastructure along the Route 1 and RapidLink corridor needs to be upgraded to rail, the city could recommence planning for the streetcar line and get the private sector and developers on board too for additional local funding. That would address the major funding concern raised by the Press Enterprise editorial board.

RTA Bus Record-Breaking Ridership is not "ridiculously pathetic"

A footnote off all this comes from Riverside Neighborhood Partnership member Richard Olquin. In the PE report, he called use of Riverside Transit Agency buses today “ridiculously pathetic” and said that the streetcar projections hardly improve on that.

Tell that to RTA Marketing Manager Bradley Weaver who reported that ridership aboard Riverside County buses have hit record levels and have outpaced national trends. The ridership growth was too reported in the newspaper.


In-fill Urban Growth: Downtown LA housing is slowly but surely growing. Are loopholes in CEQA law obstructing development?
CEQA Reform and Greenhouse Gases

At the state level, I was hoping that this year, the legislature would finally fix the loopholes in the California Environmental Quality Act. An industry bent on taking money from developers and government agencies are exploiting CEQA and filing frivolous or trivial environmental lawsuits in court even though such projects pose no threat to the environment. You may remember that the Metrolink Perris Valley Line fell prey to such exploitation which sent millions of dollars to Friends of Riverside Hills and their lawyer to the tune of $15,000 per household.

During the legislative session, a new statewide environmental bill would have made the CEQA situation worse according to the press. Thankfully, it was pulled. SB-32 would have expanded AB-32, the 2006 law that requires a cutback in greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020. The new bill would have required levels 40% percent below 1990 by 2030, 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. According a column in the San Diego Union Tribune by Steven Greenhut, the business community campaigned against the legislation because it would have invited even more lawsuits under the banner of CEQA.

To be clear, Los Angeles and several areas of the Inland Empire need cleaner air and LA was very dirty through the 90's as cleaner and fuel efficient cars were yet to be invented, but CEQA abuse in the courtroom has been a statewide epidemic for far too long.

Pretty much all of the major newspapers in Southern California either through their editorial boards or staff columnists have called for some form CEQA reform this year:

  • LA Times George Skelton called on labor groups to stop abusing CEQA law to advance their agendas.
  • San Francisco Chronicle Open Forum writer Jim Wunderman opined that CEQA reform was necessary for in order for SB-32 to work. His points are valid.
  • The Press Enterprise editorial board also pitched that bad loopholes in CEQA law have contributed to high housing costs throughout the state. The PE has a point simply because the cost of building such infrastructure in California is high already and environmental lawsuit abuse exacerbates expenses.
  • A separate column in the LA Daily News echoes a similar point citing that the state Legislative Analyst's Office warned that California's low supply and high cost of housing are increasing poverty and commute times while lowering homeownership rates. That drives developers to into undeveloped, more affordable land.

Amazing how environmental law loopholes can worsen urban sprawl.

To be fair, California's broken policy of the landmark ADA law which has too been the subject of lawsuit abuse against small businesses underwent some long-overdue reform this year, passed and sent for Gov. Jerry Brown's signature. If signed into law, small businesses will have additional protections and a 15 day grace period to fix non-ADA compliant areas according to the OC Register and Press Enterprise.

Also, I believe that the vast majority of the good people who practice law and represent us in the court of law as attorneys rightly do not exploit broken laws for their own personal gain. But those who do must be held to account with reformed state law.

The effort to hold the state government accountable of stopping trivial and frivolous CEQA suits which obstructs environmentally friendly transit and in-fill development projects has to continue. Every environmental organization should be knocking on the Capitol's door to hold the legislature to account of closing this loophole and stop pandering to the law-exploitation industry, broken policies which have already harmed the environment.


2 comments:

  1. There's nothing wrong with DMU service, especially if it's just going to be on the Redlands subdivision. As already noted, a lot of Redlands residents are rather cool toward the whole idea in general and running it as full Metrolink trains is a great way to kill it. Besides, most of the stations will not be big enough for longer Metrolink consists anyway.

    Ideally, the DMU service could be extended out to the Ontario Airport (or even beyond), which SANBAG already looked at a year ago. Unfortunately at that time, the conclusion was that it's "not feasible" because the report assumed that that project would require double tracking the entirety of the San Bernardino Line, which it would, but is a project that needs to be done regardless of what happens to Redlands Rail. Doing this would also allow more express Metrolink trains on the San Bernardino Line. It could also be extended down to the Perris Valley Line and fill a very critical void in regional transit connectivity.

    Also, the area isn't exactly suburban, especially in the downtowns. Redlands is redoing their general plan and really wants to capitalize on the station areas to focus TOD and when San Bernardino finally gets itself some clear leadership, they will likely do the same. The Waterman station is ripe for it since it's surrounded by fields anyway, though some of them are unfortunately becoming warehouses as we speak. Additionally, Omnitrans is seeking out developers to build on the empty part of the Transit Center and San Bernardino is mulling over project offers for the Carousel Mall site.

    As far as CEQA goes, SB32 would've forced planners and engineers to finally think for a change. Instead of mitigation measures that just consist of wider roads and more street lights, they would've been forced to finally recommend alternative transportation measures including stuff like pitching in for funding infrastructure like the Redlands Rail that can really move quite a lot of people and relieve congestion on the freeways and arterial network.

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  2. If you look closely at the map you can see where the rail line used to run from Redlands up to Highland, and over to Patton station, where the Indian casino is located. This is the most popular Indian casino in America and it generates massive amounts of automobile traffic. If Metrolink would run all the way over the Patton it could take huge amounts of cars off of the highways and city streets.

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