Wednesday, December 23, 2015

December & Christmas 2015 Transit Briefing

by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

I hope this Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year holiday season is going well for you. It's been a busy year out there on our transportation networks. I want to thank you for checking in on this blog, our websites, and social networking channels and staying informed of transportation policy.

Metrolink Perris Valley Line

The big story that's going to unfold in January is the opening of the Metrolink Perris Valley Line. The new infrastructure will be served by an extension of the weekday runs of the existing 91 Line from Riverside Downtown to South Perris. Once open, one will be able to train from the Perris Valley into Los Angeles through northern Orange County and vice versa. RTA has big plans to launch feeder bus service to/from the new stations which will allow riders to better connect to their final destinations.

This will certainly be an asset for the citizens living or working along the I-215 corridor in between Menifee and Moreno Valley. I predict the 91 Line will be more productive with the increased station pairs.

Getting Productive Discussion Going for CA High Speed Rail 

The high speed rail debate continues to be divisive. A lot of people who I network with want CA HSR stopped. However, for the most part, the dissenters generally don't object to having the private sector invest in the technology. That's where transit advocates can play a powerful card in the debate.

When I mention marketplace investments in the discussion which this U.S. Congress generally supports, the tune often changes. As you may know, the XpressWest bullet train proposal between Los Angeles and Vegas with Victorville as the starting orgin point is a privately funded route.

Regarding CA HSR project, I also understand that some individual officials within the state are trying to be honest and to do their part to develop HSR the correct way, but the politicians need to clear the way of any political roadblocks so that the voter-approved money will be spent wisely, right-of-ways and stations in high demand areas secured, and routes made shovel-ready so that the high speed rail industry like XpressWest can develop and fund the remainder of California's master plan.

Streetcars, Riverside Reconnects and RTA RapidLink

In Riverside, the Press Enterprise published another dissenting editorial piece against the Riverside Reconnects Streetcar project. The City proposes to upgrade the Magnolia and University Avenue corridors with the modern light rail fleets within the right-of-way corridors.

The Transit Coalition generally supports urban light rail in the form of streetcars and peoplemovers. That's because transit demands in the Los Angeles region have reached points where such infrastructure is necessary to shuttle mass amounts of people throughout a dense area in the city at a productive operating cost. The current LA Metro Local, Rapid and City-operated buses cannot sustain that while the Metro Rail system (not to be confused with Metrolink) is designed for longer-haul trips throughout the city.

However, unlike the urban rail projects unfolding in the LA area, the newspaper is not wrong to criticize the City of Arts & Innovation's train proposal. That's because current demands and travel patterns show that first-rate RTA rapid buses with expanded Metrolink service would better address the region's needs. I think RTA's long-planned proposal to phase in limited stop RapidLink bus service for the corridor as an alternative starting with peak-hour service should move forward as the solution. This alternative has underwent numerous studies already and should be played out given current demographics. Factor in Metrolink trains passing through every 30-60 minutes during the middle of the day, and Riverside can have a robust Riverside Reconnects project.

But if growth and changes to these patterns do demand that the local transit infrastructure be upgraded from Rapid buses to urban rail and if the city can draw such infill development along the routes, then let's go for the streetcar by working through RTA and allow private developers to chime in on funding the tracks and stations in return for a tax break. Also, if the City wants to show off, I don't object to pro-history and entertainment entrepreneurs coming in and investing private dollars in tourist-oriented streetcar services too. Temecula has a number of private shuttle buses that mimic the historic trolley which serve the Wine Country area and those eye-catching vehicles do bring value to the region.

However, I think the PE's editorial board may want to have a chat with RTA Marketing Manager Brad Weaver on transit ridership stats before publishing any further claims that "people generally don’t use them". Bus boardings are at all-time highs and Riverside's numbers are sufficient enough to support RapidLink service, period.

Corona Cruiser Upgraded Buses
On the local front, the Corona Cruiser bus system is getting closer of having mid-size buses replace the smaller fleets for the fixed route services. The new coaches have arrived to Circle City and are undergoing testing and driver training. Major route restructuring is on the way and I'll keep a close watch on that as portions of the existing Red and Blue lines are circuitous and overdue to be streamlined for faster trip times.

In November, Corona's Public Services Committee had a meeting covering the temporary re-routing of the Cruiser and showed this slide, offering a "sneak-peek" of the new buses:

If you ride the Corona Cruiser regularly, you're in for a better ride throughout Circle City.

Gas prices are going down and up...What?

Finally, the state once again in is caught up with more local oil refinery issues, a decline in imports leading to a so-called fuel supply shortage which means gas prices have ticked up for the last couple days. That's despite the fact that gas prices are going down elsewhere in the nation. Oil supplies domesticity are at record high levels. Crude oil prices are at their low point. Many gas stations in the USA have prices that have dropped below $1.70 gallon and falling. But California's prices are headed back up toward $3.00. Makes perfect sense, right? These spikes, all isolated within the state have already happened multiple times this year, and what does the state do about it to prevent it from repeating? Nothing. Last summer, I posted a memo on the repercussions of high gas prices in relation to the transit system.

This crony capitalism affects us all through increased living costs whether or not one drives a car and it's long past time for the state to fix this.

Anyway, this is my final post for this year. I'll be spending time with the family but I want to wish all of you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I do appreciate you all following this blog. 2016 is going to be an active year in transit. Talk to you then.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Why Corona is "a city plagued by gridlock"

...and how pro-active policing prevented a horrific long-planned 91 terror attack.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Two weeks ago, the Press Enterprise published an extensive article headlined on the front page of its Local section that reported the continued traffic mess in the City of Corona. Also in yesterday's paper, another front page article described how the 91 was a potential target of mass terrorism which, thank God, never happened. I'll touch base on the foiled terror plan in a moment, but first the traffic problem.

To put a long story short, the 91 carries about 250,000 cars per day with the vast majority of them commuting to and from Orange County through the Santa Ana Canyon. Peak-hour carpooling and transit usage is very high with some of the most productive commuter express bus routes, packed Metrolink train platforms, congested carpool lanes and crowded park & ride lots all adding up to define the rush hour transit landscape. And these numbers are expected to grow.

With the construction of the 91 Project through the Circle City, many motorists have resorted to cut through on the east/west surface streets in an attempt to bypass the peak-hour congestion, some of which too are undergoing construction. As a result, Corona's main roads in and around the 91 and I-15 freeways are also heavily congested by outside through traffic during the rush hours, and that has infuriated residents.

When the newspaper interviewed Corona Traffic Manager Dennis Ralls about this problem, he hit the nail on the head and told the truth. He reported that the $1.4 billion 91 Project is not the cure-all for the Corona Crawl. But the second point that he raised is the key.

"To solve the problem, you either have to build another major alternative or more people have to start working closer to home," Ralls said.


Both must happen. And as a transit advocate, here's my "major alternative" and the governments of all levels should begin commencing it immediately.

1. Fully fund the 91 Express Lanes and promote Carpooling

Given the fact that the 91 corridor has very high demands right up there with an interstate, both the state and federal governments need to appropriate money to fully pay off the toll bond debt for the 91 Express Lanes for both counties. Once that happens, state and local officials should revisit its usage and occupancy requirement rules. I suggest abolishing the FasTrak transponder requirement for all carpools and keeping the 3-person minimum during rush hours, summer weekends and holidays for toll-free travel, 2-persons other times. If there's space available, non-carpools can still use their FasTrak transponders and buy their way in at the market rate to prevent the empty lane syndrome. If the HOT lanes become congested or approach full capacity, then dynamic signs would redesignate the lanes as carpool lanes by restricting non-HOV's from entering. It would revert back to HOT lanes once traffic clears up and space becomes available.

2. Develop Direct Access Ramps for the 91 Express Lanes at Major Transit Hubs

I-15 Express Lanes Direct Access Ramp
Better carpool and transit infrastructure needs to be developed for the 91 Express Lanes in both counties. There needs to be seamless connections between the North Main Corona Transit Center, the Savi Ranch area where a local bus transfer hub should be established, and the Village at Orange. Direct access ramps can make that happen. You're likely wondering, "What about funding?" That's true. Public funds are limited and taxes are already too high. But maybe a developer out there in the marketplace could be thinking about building some spacious townhomes over the sprawling parking lot at the Village at Orange, a spot in desperate need of better housing choices. If the governments told the development industry that it would get a generous break on taxes if a public parking garage and a direct access ramp at Meats Avenue were included in the housing projects and the developer agreed, then we would not have to wait decades for this to get built. The only thing the government would have to do is offer the tax break on the industry in a fair and transparent means and secure the right-of-way for the ramp and park & ride garage. That would go a long way and would allow Riverside Transit Agency Route 216 to operate at its prime and could lead the way for it to be rebranded as a rapid express line.

3. Upgrade Passenger Rail Service Options

Track infrastructure in between San Bernardino and Los Angeles via the 91 needs to be upgraded to the point where Metrolink trains can pass through the corridor every 15 minutes during rush hour and 30 minutes other times without disrupting BNSF freight trains. Like the direct access ramp funding issue, securing public funds would be very slow. But the money acquiring process could be sped up by working with BNSF and the private sector. Perhaps a tax break can give the Class One railroad an incentive to reinstate intercity passenger rail service. Or maybe the firm behind the XpressWest would be interested in extending a branch of the Las Vegas bullet train to the Anaheim Transportation Center via the 91 corridor if there was tax break incentive to do so. Part of the deal would be to allow Metrolink to run high speed IEOC Line express trains on the high speed tracks so that commuters can use high speed rail. Inland stops would include North Main Corona, Riverside, and San Bernardnio. Destination stops would be Anaheim, Tustin and Irvine.

4. Better allow working people to live where they work

Last but not least, the governments, both state and local, must finally reform any puritanical and trivial regulatory red tape that prevents developers from providing the infrastructure that would allow Ralls' second solution of "more people have to start working closer to home" to become a reality.

Look. The truth is people working in Orange County are electing to live in the Inland Empire not because they like driving long distances to and from work in their cars. It's not about people loving their cars. That would be insane. The reason people live far from their jobs is because quality and non-subsidized affordable housing is generally not available west of Santa Ana Canyon. Likewise, high-paying jobs are generally lacking in the Inland Empire although to be fair, logistics, construction, medical, and entry-level retail jobs are growing and small businesses continue to invest in areas like Corona and Murrieta. We're doing our part and we must continue to allow the marketplace to grow the good-paying positions. Once there's good competition in the Inland Empire job market, median salaries will go up because employers would actually have to look and compete for skilled labor or face costly employee turnover.

But with the demands for better housing way up in Orange County, you would think it would be a developer's dream to go into that region and address it by transforming the suburban shopping centers and strip malls into new, safe, and robust community-oriented transit villages with spacious, family friendly units with mid-level offices and ground-level retail outlets.

Obviously, that demand is not being met because high taxation and awful trivial regulatory rules at the state level combined with the general lack of mixed-use zones in retail and commercial districts locally prevent the builders from profiting from such work. Heck, even a competing firm or a NIMBY group can simply walk in and file a frivolous CEQA suit against such in-fill development and get away with it financially. To be fair, some OC cities have allowed for residential development in existing commercial corridors, but more has to be done.

Ironically, state politicians are calling for better growth and reduced vehicles miles travelled under the climate change banner. But the fact that existing law is exacerbating traffic gridlock through the Santa Ana Canyon and other corridors in and out of Orange County should wake up the politicians. Where is the environmental law that says that if housing costs surge in a job-rich region due to lack of infrastructure and high demands which results in a substantial increase in vehicle miles travelled, the local jurisdictions within 10 miles of the job hub are to complete a general plan update and public hearing, zone the regions for infill housing and make them shovel-ready with the state expediting the environmental review work with same-day approvals and protection against CEQA abuse. Where is that law which would draw developer competition with quality housing and lower prices?

It is long past time to solve this problem as this entire Inland Empire urban sprawl disaster has been going on for far too long. The remark that I commonly hear of homebuyers wanting spacious and cheaper family-friendly housing units in the Inland Empire is valid; I must make that clear. The culture of high demands of living in large, new homes is a contributor to the sprawl development on far-off, low-cost land on the outer finges next to new or non-congested highways. But if competing developers offered the same 3,000-4,000 square foot single family units in the form of stacked condos and apartments with plenty of open space commons, the cost to buy or rent one of those would be competitive at about $1,500 per month if supplies actually met demands. But right now, the market rate for one of these units in Orange County would be well over $1 million or about $4,000-$4,500 monthly.

That's why so many people commute on the 91. That's why Corona is plagued by gridlock.

Terror attack averted

Finally, with the crowds of commuters clogging the 91 each day, the terrorists behind the shooting massacre in San Bernardino were looking into committing a horrific act on the freeway during the rush hour according to the FBI, possibly in the heart of the canyon. The foiled plot that was initially planned a few years ago was to detonate a pipe bomb on the freeway in order to bring traffic to a halt. That would be followed by a shooting massacre on the helpless stopped traffic. Part of the mission was to shoot down the first responders who came in according to the report which would have led to all hell breaking loose on the 91. Also, Riverside Community College was another target.

With proactive law enforcement tactics following the San Bernardino shootings with the help of citizens' tips, that long-planned barbaric plot will not be executed. Thank God. Because this failed operation is now exposed, count on stronger intelligence-driven law enforcement along this and all other major transportation corridors. The suspect Enrique Marquez Jr is being held in a federal prison facility in Downtown Los Angeles.

And after hearing this story, I may actually smile the next time I'm stuck in traffic in Corona and it will likely be that way for some time. That's because I'll be thankful to the men and women in the law enforcement who risk their lives to protect gridlocked corridors from becoming terror targets. I'll never forget that each time I pass through the Corona Crawl.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Proactive Policing of the Transit System

How improved citizen and community involvement in law enforcement can reduce crime and terrorism.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

With San Bernardino being hit with an act of terror, potentially through ISIS, many people are now focused on one key global issue: Terrorism. 74 years ago from today, Pearl Harbor was attacked in an act of war by the Imperial Japanese Navy. Today, both ISIS and individual acts of violence continue wreck havoc all over the world.

Growing evidence is showing a connection of last Wednesday's massacre of the Inland Regional Center with radical Islamic terrorism. If investigators do find beyond a reasonable doubt that this shooting is linked with the Middle East and find that the Islamic State is responsible for this attack, count on this being an international story. But as I've stated numerous times, the transit infrastructure that we work hard to develop needs to be protected against all forms of violence and vandalism. That includes acts of terror. If a transit hub becomes a center for crime or a target for massacres or terrorism, what good will it be for We the People? I don't want our bus and train systems to become death traps.

So, how can we fight back?

To be clear, this is a transit blog. And The Transit Coalition does not pander to any other private or public entity. So I won't veer into the specific territories of any political agenda which includes partisan gun control laws. I will say that criminals and terrorists should not have the ability to commit crimes with any deadly weapon. At the same point, law abiding citizens must have the right and means to protect themselves through the 2nd Amendment. That's where proactive protection comes into play.

How proactive protection can secure transit

I strongly believe that our mass transportation system can be better protected through a process known as proactive policing.

In many cases, after a crime or act of terror occurs, the police react. That is called reactive policing. In contrast, proactive enforcement provides an extra layer of protection that could deter the act altogether.

The Community Oriented Policing Services office under the U.S. Justice Department defines proactive, community policing as "a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies that support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime." To be clear, proactive policing is not the cure-all solution to crime or terrorist acts at the local level. But being better prepared can stop many criminal and evil acts before they occur. The Justice Department has a good record in stopping would-be terrorists in the country in the past but we need to bring such tactics down to the local level.

So let's take the Corona Transit Center for example. This facility is off to a good start with 24/7 security and video cameras. I believe the surveillance at the station and aboard the RTA buses has helped deter vandalism. Good.

How can that be further improved? Let's suppose local law enforcement in the Circle City networked with RTA and directly with a group of regular commuters who transfer between Metrolink and CommuterLink express buses each and every workday. If that happened, the station area as well as their respective transit fleets could very well have a Neighborhood Watch arm, with a team of vigilant transit riders helping paid law enforcement in watching out for potential trouble before it happens.

In addition, by expanding the unpaid volunteer law enforcement ranks which would provide a stepping stone for those interested in careers in the field, the City of Corona could have one or more armed reserve deputies on patrol in the station block 24/7, proactively deterring violent crime. Any other block that has issues with gang crime, trafficking, or drug sales should also have a proactive law enforcement presence. With the strong support help, paid officers can then focus on the big and complicated tasks such as undercover investigations and criminal sting operations as their proactive tools.

With these or similar tactics, there would be enough defense and protection in the station block to be able to deter crimes and if necessary, disrupt and physically stop criminals as they attack, not well after. That would go a long way in preventing massacres and terrorism from quickly spreading in crowded transit stations before it becomes widespread.

The San Bernardino shooting mostly had a reactive enforcement presence, but there was some proactive activity. That was due to a citizens' tip which allowed police to catch the killers. That allowed investigators to identify and inspect their home in Redlands where they found the ammunition, pipe bombs and other circumstantial evidence linked to terrorism. Had the citizen not tipped off police, the terrorists may have gotten away and the situation could have been a whole lot worse. Plus, the possibility that ISIS played a role would not have been exposed. But we did catch the killers who were both shot down during a shootoff and law enforcement may have potentially found a link to organized worldwide terrorism.

Moving forward, it is long past time for the world's leaders to finally use military forces in an intelligent way to isolate ISIS and any other terror group and prevent them from bringing about further death and destruction to the world. We don't need this escalating to a full world war. Radical Islamic terrorism must be wiped from the face of the planet.

Once ISIS is isolated, the long-range diplomatic solution to all of this is for the world to challenge the head Islamic leaders to stop tolerating the radical interpretation of both the religion and Sharia law. I can say for certainty that the vast majority of good Muslims do not believe in the killing or massacring of innocents. The Press Enterprise reported today that local mosques have been preaching that since the September 11, 2001 attacks. Good progress, but the big leaders need to get involved and put that message front and center.

In terms of combating local and gang violence in San Bernardino, the numerous non-profit organizations there need to continue to do their good works in mentoring troubled youth, victims of human trafficking, the homeless and other people in need. By providing a place of belonging and mentors for teenagers growing up in abusive environments like the Country Inn Motel, the caring people at these non-profits can have a positive impact on the kids and discourage them from entering into the criminal gang culture. In the meantime, proactive law enforcement needs to be present to isolate and catch the criminal and gang leaders before they strike again.

Being a part of the USA, our transit centers and fleets should be tools for Americans to bring about life, liberty, and the pursuit for happiness to all who live here. The life aspect must be protected.

Friday, December 4, 2015

God Bless San Bernardino

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

I have a transit briefing written up as we commence the final month of 2015. However, because of the terrible shooting incident that occurred in San Bernardino, I will table that post until next week.

This act of terror with a potential connection to ISIS took place Wednesday at the Inland Regional Center. It was broadcasted all over the news media at the national level. The press inundated us with the bad news. As authorities and government officials continue to solve this case, we should remember all of the people who passed on, their family members, and those who are hospitalized.

With terrorism now entering into the Inland Empire, I believe We the People may be finally woken up to this grave crisis. There's a lot to debate from the story of how we should move forward with proactive preventative measures and how it relates to the transit system. But for now, we citizens need to spend the next few days remembering those who gone before us in this incident and allow the authorities to uncover the facts.

Talk to you next week.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Making the World a Cleaner Place

Protecting lives and reducing pollution in developing nations should be the goal of the UN Climate Change conference.

This NASA photo shows dirty smog off the coast of China. Could this be a major contributor toward climate change or not?

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

The Transit Coalition supports environmental justice and a cleaner planet to call home. The reasons should be obvious. While waiting for the bus or train, we, human beings need to breathe clean air. When we get home, we need to drink clean water and be nourished by food grown and harvested in chemical-free environments.

This week, there was quite a bit of media coverage over the United Nation's conference on climate change in Paris. World leaders and powerful politicians continue to place this issue high on the priority list, even though terrorism and the market economy remain the top concerns of US citizens according to the major polls.

That being said, there's quite a bit of politics involved in the climate change discussion. But these people really need to stop turning this valid issue into a political circus; the ideological, partisan agenda is to tax and fee the free marketplace. Of course, the increased costs and degraded services are passed down to We the People. One absolutely foolish comment I continue to hear is that terrorism is caused by climate change in the context of the Earth's temperature. By the way, protecting us from acts of terror and doing something about it should be the UN's priority campaign. Governments need to protect their people.

To be clear, hard scientific facts document that the Earth's temperature is changing. There is evidence that this is happening. Whether such fluctuations are caused as a part of natural evolution or man-made pollution remains hotly debated. Solid cases can be made on both sides. But erring on the side of caution, supporting efficient and non-punitive policies that make the Earth a cleaner place should be the universal goal whether one believes in man-made global warming or not.

Benxi Steel Industries
China remains a major global pollutant.
Being a global conference, the focus should be to hold the world pollutants to account, which include China, India, and other developing countries. The good people living in these nations generally have to breathe unhealthy air, drink polluted water, and consume food grown around dirty chemicals. Most live in dire poverty and lack the freedoms we enjoy here in the USA. That means they can't speak out against their oppressive governments over the life-threatening pollution problems.

However, We the People of the USA can take an active role because we do have the freedom to voice opinion and invest our resources globally. By cleaning up the drinking water, air quality, and farms in these countries, lives can be saved and serious transformations can take place for the better while deducing whether or not the climate change is man-made. If China and India do clean up their environments by significantly reducing their greenhouse gases and we see the reversal of the global warming stats worldwide (not just locally in the polluted regions), then the answer we've all been waiting for may come to reality: Are humans directly responsible for the Earth's climate change or was it part of natural evolution?

Global leaders should promote cleaning up the environment of the world's polluters without placing any heavy tax or fee burdens on the hardworking people or the industries providing the jobs. The way to do that is to allow investors to go into these countries and introduce clean alternative products while the governments hold the pollutants to account. Those items would be part of the trade agreement. The people living in these dirty areas can only dream of living in a cleaner environment and demands for such innovative products would be certainly high. I believe the marketplace can provide that.

Southwest Riverside County area enjoys clean air with fuel-efficient cars.
Note: I-15 Express Lanes pictured is concept only.
The combination of efficient government oversight with marketplace innovation has led to much cleaner cars and transit fleets here in the USA. The solar panel industry continues to mature and grow, providing for clean and renewable electricity. Computers and electronics are becoming more powerful yet consume less electricity. Bright LED light bulbs are allowing us to see better while going green on power consumption.  Again, the market delivered this under effective regulatory oversight on the polluters. Why can it not work elsewhere?

That is the fair position. That will clean things up in a non-punitive way while maintaining and growing the job markets for the good people living there. Plus, we may finally get some straight answers to this politically divisive climate change debate.

I hope this proposition can bring some common ground and unity for a first-rate economy and cleaner planet.