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
riversidetransit@gmail.com


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.

Bingo!

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.

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