Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Being Thankful for Responsive Citizens and Local Leaders

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

You may remember from last week through the media that the contractor in charge of building the $1.4 billion worth of infrastructure upgrades for the 91 Freeway through Corona was grilled by the People of Circle City.

To put a long story short, citizens expressed anger at a Corona City Council meeting over serious traffic and collision issues which sparked action from the public works department. Public works then wrote to the 91 Project Manager demanding the fixes. The contractor then got a few words from RCTC. If one simplifies the equation, the result is citizens grilling the construction contractor.

Two days ago, I was in Corona and noted several improvements right away. Workers were present later in the afternoon and into the night hours. Infrastructure was progressing more efficiently. The most notable was Main Street, which was re-striped with additional turn lanes at the 91 and traffic signals better timed, ending the infamous Corona Squeeze for this local arterial.

In addition, the pedestrian sidewalk at the freeway along Main Street which connects the transit center to the central core of Corona was re-opened and made ADA accessible with temporary wheelchair ramps and striping which helped bridge a major transportation gap. Before the sidewalk was rebuilt, those on foot needing to cross the 91 Freeway in this area had to detour all the way to West Grand Circle or shuttle in on a bus.

The good people of the City of Corona are to be commended for bringing this matter to their governing body and Corona's response demonstrates once again that public hearings never close.

Stay with the Family this Thanksgiving Holiday

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, there's another story that I'm thankful for. Time Magazine reported that the encroachment of materialism into the family holiday that has been going on for years has finally gone flat. That was mainly due to disappointing sales on Thanksgiving combined with family-oriented people like me electing to stay with the folks during the turkey feast for the entire night. A recent poll by RichRelevance showed that nearly two thirds of shoppers said they disliked stores being open on Thanksgiving Day.

Also this year, "Black Friday" and "Cyber Monday" Internet deals have been circulating and saturating the retail marketplace for several weeks already. Believe it or not, that may very well improve transportation mobility by unclogging the streets around retailers in between Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Just a few years ago when a major retailer hosted door-buster deals at the stroke of midnight on Black Friday, the streets and parking lots were congested.

Now, one just needs to spend about 10-15 minutes searching for a good "Door Buster" deal with free shipping, place an order, and get back with the family. Time reports that this factor would make further encroachment into Thanksgiving less likely. In fact, outdoor specialty retailer REI announced that it will be closed both Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

I think times are changing for the better in this field. I'll keep a watch on this trend in the coming years. Hopefully soon, we just might see some good deals, lower fares and competitive transportation services for Thanksgiving travel before and after the holiday. Add to that robust infrastructure for such services. That would be a Black Friday deal I would like to see!

I encourage all who are reading this post to stay with the family on Thanksgiving for the entire day and evening and consider doing that for the entire four-day weekend. With cold weather coming into the Inland Empire, you may want to avoid the 30 degree night by not camping in front of a store this year. The power of the Internet and market competition on good deals may finally put a stop to the materialistic drive that encroaches into the four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Travel safely. Enjoy the social time, play with the children, and enjoy the dinner feast. If you are forced to work on Thanksgiving day, schedule in a full uninterrupted 24 hour period with the rest of the family during this season.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The High Speed Rail Confusion Continues

If high speed rail opponents fear government waste, why not support the growth of the technology through the private sector?

Shinkansen N700 & 500 (8086228483)

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Opponents of California High Speed Rail have had their day after two state lawmakers submitted language for a ballot measure that would ask California voters to divert about $8 billion in bond money from the state’s high-speed rail project to develop water infrastructure.

Shortly after the move made the headlines, The Press Enterprise published another anti-HSR editorial stating:

From its inception, we have criticized the bullet train boondoggle, which passed with just 53 percent of votes. For one thing, there’s no way Congress, now controlled by Republicans, will appropriate any more money, as required by the initiative.

But I believe there's a lot of confusion stemming from this divisive debate, and we need to find some common ground before California loses out in an opportunity to reshape intercity travel for the better.

First off, I believe this Congress does support improving the market economy which is one of the top concerns of U.S. citizens according to the major polls, the other being terrorism. When it comes to the marketplace running the show in other sectors, the PE generally agrees and I strongly think the majority of Congress will vote for policies that would permit free market growth. The same day, the newspaper editorialized this and printed the memo directly above the anti-HSR piece:

Competition is a good thing, Andrew Belknap of Management Partners reminded the San Bernardino City Council on Monday, as the city approved outsourcing refuse services. With a 6-1 vote, the city moved forward with contracting out solid waste management, street sweeping and right-of-way clean-up to a private company, Burrtec.

As the city reported in May in its proposed bankruptcy recovery plan, most municipalities deal with such functions through the private sector. “Given the expertise developed in multiple jurisdictions and by these waste companies … it is likely that contracting these services to a private company will result in lower costs to provide the service and increased franchise fees to the General Fund,” reported the city.

From the taxpayers’ perspective, there was never a good reason not to hand over the reins to the private sector. If a service can be provided at a lower cost, without compromising quality, it makes plenty of sense to go with that option. Indeed, for refuse services, the city enjoyed several competing options: Burrtec, Athens, CR&R Industries and Republic Industries responded to a request for proposals.

What about the private sector's roll in the so-called "bullet train boondoggle"? Enter in the proposed XpressWest HSR system.

Last week, the Nevada High-Speed Rail Authority unanimously selected XpressWest as the Silver State's franchisee for constructing a high-speed rail system that connects Las Vegas with Southern California. Four other firms that submitted applications were not selected but offered interesting alternative high speed transit concepts.

XpressWest officials told the Las Vegas Sun that construction of the privately funded route could start as early as fall 2016 which has already attracted outside investments. The finished project aims to connect Las Vegas to Los Angeles. The first phase links Victorville to Vegas, projected to cost about $8 billion. At about 190 miles, that adds up to only $42 million per mile of bullet train infrastructure. To compare, the CHSRA Business Plan for Phase I calls for a $68.4 billion budget at 520 miles, equalling $132 million per mile. Both the City of San Bernardino's and the PE editorial board's argument of having the private sector operate services has a general valid point. The question I have is why did the PE not mention private investments in the anti-HSR piece as an alternative? The technology has long been proven beyond a reasonable doubt to improve high speed intercity travel options in Europe and Asia, and we have entrepreneurs interested in investing private capital into high speed rail within the state. So, why throw out the baby with the bathwater?

Phase II of XpressWest will link Victorville to Palmdale. Phase III calls for a direct connection to LA using CAHSR infrastructure which is why the state should use cash from the approved seed money to complete the geo-technical studies for the Burbank-to-Palmdale HSR tunnel and get it shovel-ready if feasible. Investors like XpressWest would pay for engineering and construction at the market rate. Longer-range proposals call for expansions east to Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Denver. With CHSRA infrastructure, future phases could be extended north to San Francisco and south to San Diego via the Inland Empire. That could include a branch for the Irvine-Corona Expressway tunnel corridor. Hence, the remainder of the CHSRA master plan could be funded in a conservative way through the market economy while the state gets the system shovel-ready.

Can you see the benefits of developing the bullet train and understand why we want high speed rail done right? While getting additional public tax or government bond money into the statewide master plan seems unlikely as the PE correctly points, California should have more than enough resources to spend the approved seed money wisely so that investors like XpressWest can pay into and develop the rest of the system and beyond and offer competitive top-tier services at lower fares.

The state government really needs to stop overspending and displacing our transportation funds. You can see why the people are fed up with this type of behavior and are erroneously calling for the $8 billion in HSR seed money to be re-purposed.

Yes, I do agree that California is in a serious drought and policy reforms need to be made at the state level to resolve that.

But if the state draws more private investments into the bullet train and grows the market economy through regulatory reform that would increase marketplace non-government jobs, maybe all this HSR confusion will be rectified. Opponents may then have a different tune and not want to throw out the resources needed to expand the proven rail technology and marketplace jobs with the government waste. The state and private sector could then afford to expand the infrastructure that is necessary to better move people while improving the harvesting technology of rain water and snow runoff simultaneously.

So let's stop trying to derail the bullet train with the Brown Boondoggle. High speed rail can offer tremendous benefits and opportunities. Both We the People of the State of California and the American marketplace should seize that opportunity.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

November Inland Empire Transit Briefing

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Transit in the Inland Empire continues to blossom. I'll touch base on a few examples in a moment.

Some projects up in LA are moving forward too. You are probably aware that the Purple Line Extension, the Downtown Regional Connector and the Crenshaw Line are pushing forward. The transit network will expand with the opening of the Foothill Gold Line on Saturday, March 5, 2016, and the Expo Line, perhaps in May as new rail cars arrive. If you commute into LA from the Inland Empire, public transportation could very well work for you with the expanded and seamless feeder connections from Union Station.

However, there are a series of other important infrastructure projects in Los Angeles that are in big trouble. The projects under threat include the Palmdale to Burbank CA High-Speed Rail Segment, the Santa Clarita to Los Angeles Bookends Projects, the Chatsworth to Van Nuys Double Track Project, the Downtown Streetcar Project and Angels Flight. One project, the San Pedro Streetcar has already been shut down due to political inaction and others can follow, due to lack of broad public and political support.

The Transit Coalition has been actively meeting with elected officials and their staff members to educate that choices and alternatives are necessary. We attend public meetings and provide a counter-balance to the opponents of transit that attempt to shut projects down. We communicate with industry and the building trades to show support.

But here in the Inland Empire, things are not too bad and I credit the growing market economy. The long-awaited Perris Valley Line which entered into the testing phase will finally open by the end of this year. Transit infrastructure continues to grow all over San Bernardnio with the city now having its own mini Grand Central Terminal and Riverside Transit Agency's long-proposed RapidLink services are set to debut late in 2016 during the rush hours.

On top of that...

Coachella Valley Amtrak Line
The Riverside County Transportation Commission approved the general routing of a long-proposed Amtrak route that will connect Los Angeles to Indio. The initial service plan calls for two daily round trips along the corridor.

From LA, the line will follow the existing Metrolink 91 Line through Fullerton to Colton via the BNSF right-of-way. It would then turn east at the Colton Crossing and follow the UP tracks that parallel the I-10 freeway into the south desert.

Currently the LA-to-Indio route is served by the long-distance Amtrak Sunset Limited that operates three trains in each direction per week.

Upgrading the train service into the Coachella Valley is long overdue considering that it is a major metropolitan area in Southern California worthy of better public transportation connections. Government officials have been talking about this service for over two decades. Yet, reports are showing that there are still massive amounts of environmental work and other regulatory issues that have to be done. We're still looking at 5-10 more years before these two extra trains are added.

This is one aspect of the project that bothers me despite the fact that this passenger rail service project proposes to add the two daily round train trips along existing rail right-of-way corridors, both of them active. That's because of the red tape politics at the state and federal level that continue to obstruct transit progress and inflate costs. Add to that the possibility of a NIMBY group that may decide to exploit state law by slapping RCTC with a trivial CEQA suit and cashing in on a settlement paid for by you and I.

I well understand that transit must have efficient regulatory oversight from the feds. For instance, I don't oppose the mandatory late night train testing of Positive Train Control along the San Bernardino Line prior to launch. But do you really think that adding two round trip passenger trains along with modest track improvements along existing right-of-way infrastructure is going to be a major Inland Empire pollutant? You make the call.

Public Hearings Don't Close Here

Now, some good news. One factor I that I do like about our Inland transit agencies is that they are willing to listen to the general public anytime and take action, not just at official public hearings.

The latest example happens to be with RTA and fixing some unproductive routing along a busy commuter express line. At its fall service change, the transit agency  reconfigured the bus routing at a commuter stop in Lake Elsinore which led to circuitous routing. Last month, here's what I had to say about that:

 The southbound (CommuterLink Express Route 206) routing has the line bypassing the park & ride stop, exiting the freeway at the busy SR-74 Central Avenue interchange and backtracking north via Collier Avenue, serving the transit hub first followed by the park & ride. That's because the transit hub point has a bus stop only on one side of the road. Because Route 206 operates through the hub, the backtracking adds about 5-7 minutes of unnecessary travel trip time. That has to be dealt with. 

I went on and suggested that the solution lies with getting bus stops on both sides of Collier and streamlining the Route 206 bus routing through this area. For the record, a regional connector to Riverside (Route 22) and a local bi-directional circulator (Route 8) connect to the 206 at the transit hub. RTA managed to address the root of the problem, but in a different way.

Beginning next Monday, southbound Route 206 runs will exit Interstate 15 at Nichols Road rather than Central Avenue, stopping only at the center's park & ride stop. Southbound trips will not stop directly at the transfer point. Northbound trips will remain unchanged, serving both the transit hub and park & ride.

At the surface, it may appear that the southbound express-to-local connections will be broken. But not so. That's because Route 22 has an outbound stop on Collier at the park & ride's entry driveway. In addition, both the clockwise and counter-clockwise outbound runs of Route 8 also stop at the park & ride's bus stop.

I believe the local complaints from Route 206 riders out of Lake Elsinore led to the change and RTA was completely correct in addressing the routing problem quickly. Regular transit riders know that 5-7 minutes of unproductive backtracking will seam like an eternity aboard the bus. I think that my idea of placing stops on both sides of the Collier and restoring the transit hub stop for southbound runs should be adopted in the near future as RTA plans to phase in all-day service for Route 206 by 2023. However, I find that RTA's short-range solution will work considering that the vast majority of express bus commuters from Lake Elsinore drive and park their cars at the park & ride while ensuring across-the-platform transfers to/from other bus routes are maintained with through-connections.

More evidence that "public hearings" never close here.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Benefits versus the Costs of California High Speed Rail

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

It is without question that California's high speed rail project is one of the most divisive infrastructure projects around. The Transit Coalition and proponents note the technology has already been proven beyond a reasonable doubt to move high volumes of people between dense regions. That is a fact. On the other front, opponents correctly argue that precious public tax money must not be wasted or overspent. That seams to be the two main thesis points throughout this debate.

Let's look at the technology.

I'll keep this short and sweet. Successful examples of high-speed rail can be found all over Asia and Europe. The real value of HSR is how such projects anchor deep connections between transportation hubs, cultural attractions, cities and jobs.

Concept: Imagine a 1 hour commuter train ride from Murrieta to Irvine...
Note: Concept only. Not officially proposed.
If the California HSR system can reproduce the German style that binds the state together, there will be huge economic and cultural benefits. That is why a rail tunnel between the high desert and Los Angeles would be a desirable transportation corridor. Yes, the geo-technical studies need to be fact-based and impartial but if found feasible, the benefit of directly connecting LA to Palmdale via a 30 minute train ride would be a clear asset. The same can be said for the Irvine-Corona Expressway rail tunnel linking Dos Lagos to Irvine with a 15 minute high speed train ride. How about an LA-to-San Diego train route via the Inland Empire with branches to Las Vegas and Phoenix? Both commuter and inter-city demands for each route would be enormous and should call for private investments.

However, for California HSR, the debate has been centered around public costs, funding and construction deadlines, rather than benefits.

The California High Speed Rail Authority has responded to legislators and members of Congress by releasing a 2013 report showing an estimated cost increase for building the initial segment of HSR. This seems to be a case of the media not understanding the subject and the political opposition sensationalizing. While these numbers are preliminary and still in development, the initial HSR contracts have come in below budget. Some members of the media are taking advantage of all the negative press including editorial positions from the LA News Group of papers and the Press Enterprise.

To be fair, excessive public spending and government waste in general is a serious concern and must not be ignored. Mustering additional public funds from taxes for HSR will be difficult and slow; however the initial voter-approved seed money in the form of bonds in order to initiate the master-plan was a necessary step.

That is why the state needs to allow the private sector to get more actively involved and invest money into the rails and ensure any unnecessary red-tape politics that prevents such investments are reformed. In addition, tax breaks would further incentivize investments. CA HSR has received some interest from the marketplace but much more has to be done. Both the Burbank-to-Palmdale and Dos Lagos-to-Irvine tunnels should have more than enough market demand to call for private sector investments with the latter already found to be feasible but requiring private funds.

Capitalism and competition between service providers drives the market economy and innovation in the United States. Any trivial regulatory rules that obstructs entrepreneurs from improving our inter-city mass transit infrastructure must be reformed. If the state uses the HSR seed money toward a starting segment and gets the remainder of the master plan shovel-ready and cleared, more investors would be inclined to pay for construction.

Yes, there has to be efficient government oversight on the marketplace to ensure safety and to prevent abuse and crony behavior. But I'm pretty sure that several HSR opponents desire a better market economy and would support reforms to statewide regulatory code.

So why can't we find some common ground and allow investors to do the same with moving people from here-to-there quickly via an already proven high speed rail technology?

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Wildomar Housing Lawsuit: Will the state finally reform CEQA Law?

More evidence that current state environmental law is obstructing environmentally-friendly infrastructure projects.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

The good people of the fiscally-broke City of Wildomar are stuck with paying for yet another frivolous environmental lawsuit. This one was over the city's state-mandated Housing Element document where the suing plaintiffs known as Alliance for Intelligent Planning and represented by environmental attorney Raymond Johnson cashed in on a $120,000 settlement even though the most of the environmental legal challenges were found frivolous and rejected in court.

The 2013-2021 Housing Element plan is the city’s policy document guiding the provision of housing to meet future needs for all economic segments of Wildomar, including housing affordable to lower income households.

As I mentioned earlier this week, housing prices all over Southern California have reached a critical high point with rentals and purchase prices in Southwest Riverside County creeping into unaffordable territories for many workers. One of the reasons why this is happening is because both the medical and small business sectors there are growing combined with more and more San Diego workers looking for better and more affordable housing options. The San Diego region also has an expensive housing issue although nowhere near as bad as LA, Orange County, and San Francisco.

Being a part of Southwest Riverside County, Wildomar needs to ensure developers are able to supply the housing infrastructure for the increased demands. Aside from the southeastern shores of Lake Elsinore and its feeding creeks, much of the development would be in-fill or built on flat lands and not directly pollute sensitive ecosystems. And the court agreed. One caveat: Just like the rest of the Inland Empire, Southwest Riverside County needs a growth in better paying jobs to combat long-distance commuting. That would force Orange County and San Diego into a position where they have to allow for infill development or face stagnation. Medical jobs are growing and the City of Murrieta has been proactive in attracting all kinds of small business investments along the Jefferson Avenue/Historic 395 redevelopment corridor. But the region could use more and each worker should be able to afford to live there.

Back to Wildomar's lawsuit settlement.

This is yet another example of a frivolous lawsuit filed in the name of protecting the environment, and trivial cases like this exacerbates our strained justice system paid for by you and I because we pay the salaries of the judge and court staff through our taxes. And then, there's a small group of lawyers like Johnson who take trivial and frivolous environmental cases like this hoping to cash in on a settlement from we the people. The Press Enterprise exposed Johnson's history of this two years ago. By the way, his firm was handed over $250,000 from the Perris Valley Line CEQA lawsuit settlement from the Riverside County Transportation Commission in 2013. Of course, reinstating passenger rail service along an existing rail line clearly poses no ecological threat.

Interestingly enough, Johnson can't be directly blamed for this behaviour because he's found a legal means to make money even though it is morally unacceptable. The fact is broken CEQA law allows for this type of crony capitalism to continue unchecked.

To be fair, most lawyers do not practice this type of frivolous behavior and there needs to be an impartial means to resolve major civil disputes in court through the judicial system. Plus, projects that are indeed suspected pollutants must be held to account in court. The World Logistics Center suit for example should be heard out. If the Mid County Parkway freeway project combined with existing land-use policies are going to blow more smog from LA into the San Jacinto Valley area where there are no air outlets, both the affected cities and the county would need to update their general plans. We all need to be able to breathe clean air and drink clean water. Plus, for the record, Johnson has taken legitimate environmental disputes to court; they're not all bad. But the trivial and frivolous suits must be stopped.

The question is: Why are the special interests still allowed to file environmental lawsuits against projects that pose no threat to the environment and cash in on a settlement? Plus, there should be another layer of protection against frivolous lawsuits altogether: If a judge finds a lawsuit frivolous, he/she should be able to order the suing party to pay for all of the court costs plus the defendant's attorney bill.

The fact that a special interest group two years ago was able to cash in on a $3 million CEQA settlement from the Metrolink Perris Valley Line should be grounds to reform CEQA law. The fact that an Inland Empire city body that is struggling to pay its bills has had to pay $120,000 to an attorney who filed a frivolous environmental suit against a state-mandated housing master plan should automatically prompt the legislature to take action.

Where is the law that protects environmentally-friendly transit infrastructure and housing development projects from trivial and frivolous environmental lawsuits? Where is that law? How many more frivolous CEQA suits do we need before the state takes action?