Wednesday, December 21, 2016

How the SR-241/91 Express Lane Direct Connector can really get SoCal Moving

Imagine a 90 minute rapid transit route from Lake Elsinore all the way to Irvine. That would be a really nice Christmas present for commuters.

Rapid Express Transit: Imagine leaving your car and hopping on a rapid bus at a park & ride in Elsinore and arriving all the way at the Irvine Business Complex in about 90 minutes without transfers.
Background Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Catatonique © CC-BY-SA
Bus Route is concept only. Not endorsed or proposed by RTA.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Yesterday, I mentioned that the currently proposed design of the SR-241/91 Express Lane Direct Connector had a connectivity problem where motorists coming out of Irvine and using the ramp will not be able to utilize the eastbound HOT Lane egress point at the County Line. That meant those taking the ramp could only go directly to Riverside or points east, or southeast Corona via the I-15. Central Circle City and destinations north of the 91 at the I-15 including Norco, Eastvale and Ontario were excluded. I have called for local officials to bring this up during the state's comment process. Count on this "public hearing" not closing anytime soon on this mishap.

Graphic: Transportation Corridor Agencies
However once this connectivity issue is dealt with, this direct access ramp really has a potential to significantly cut down on Inland Empire commute times into the job-rich City of Irvine area. This would be a long awaited Christmas present for Inland Empire residents who work in the Irvine Business Complex area.

For starters, if the 91 Express Lanes is able to sustain rush hour speeds of at least 50-55 MPH, that would create a congestion-free corridor from the Corona area all the way into OC's economic hub of high-paying jobs.

To make that happen, here's what officials need to consider:

  • Permit a 1 1/2 mile Continuous Access between the 2 Express Lanes and single Auxiliary Lane between the Green River and Coal Canyon Road junctions. This will ease pressure at the intermediate egress/ingress point now under construction and allow motorists using the northbound 241 direct connector to exit the HOT Lanes at this location.

  • Adopt FasTrak Flex for the 91 Express Lanes so that HOV 3+ vehicles do not need to merge into a single 3+ carpool lane and create bottleneck conflict points at the toll gantries. HOV's would declare their carpool by using the switch on their transponder. This will also ensure that 3+ HOV's that use the new ramp will not be charged an additional 91 Express Lanes toll.

  • Abolish the bond debt! Hold the state and federal government to account of paying for the infrastructure; we pay a lot to both bodies and this intercounty corridor is used by people all over the state. It needs to be fully paid for, period.

  • FasTrak-Registered Carpools Ride Free 24/7 on the 91 to promote carpooling. Currently, 50% tolls are charged during rush hour on the eastbound 91 between 4-6pm which is slated to be abolished as the toll bond debt continues to be paid down. That would grow 3+ carpools and vanpools. Non-HOV tolls would then be adjusted to handle the increase in HOV 3+ traffic in the Express Lanes. This will allow more people to travel in the Express Lanes as opposed to more cars. Carpools will still be charged regular tolls on the 241 since the latter is a dedicated Toll Road. Once the debt service coverage ratio (ie. the amount of cash flow available to meet annual interest and principal payments on debt, including senior and subordinated debt) is projected to be at least 1.2 for a six month period, all 3-person or more registered carpools will able to ride free all day, every day.

  • Abolish the Mandatory FasTrak Requirement for 3+ HOV's once the bond debt is paid off and utilize strong CHP enforcement to stop deliberate carpool/toll payment cheating. Vehicles would declare their carpool either by not mounting a transponder or switching their FasTrak Flex to HOV 3+. That would allow any 3+ HOV to get on the Express Lanes for free and go, 24/7. Carpools without a transponder that use the 241 and pay through the ExpressAccount or One Time Toll option would also be able to utilize the 91 Express Lanes. 91 HOT Lane Non-HOV tolls would once again be adjusted to accommodate the additional carpool traffic.

  • 3+ Carpools Only when HOT lanes near capacity, even with high tolls - As the HOT express lanes approach full capacity based on real-time traffic conditions despite expensive posted tolls, the lanes would automatically become a dedicated 3+ carpool lane. That is, only high occupancy vehicles would be permitted entry into the facilities. Once traffic pressures ease, signs would revert the Express Lanes back to high occupancy toll.

  • The last point is the most important because the last thing this infrastructure needs is a bottleneck point of conflict from the 241 north to the 91 Express Lanes going east as the HOT lanes already operate at or near full capacity during the afternoon rush hour. Such a chokepoint must be avoided and the HOV 3+ restriction would address that. That would fare better than restricting ramp traffic from exiting the Express Lanes at the County Line.

    Concept only. Not endorsed by RTA. Do not use for trip planning.
    Riverside to Irvine Rapid CommuterLink Express Transit Line 795

    In order to further encourage carpooling and HOV use on these toll corridors, the Transit Coalition is calling for a new RTA CommuterLink rapid transit line in between Irvine and Riverside with a peak hour branch down the I-15 to Temecula with the main trunk serving the Corona Transit Center and park & ride lot. It would be funded by a pool of user tolls from the 91 Express Lanes, 241, 261 and the 241 direct access ramp.

    The line will connect Riverside County with the economic engine of the Irvine Business Complex including John Wayne Airport before terminating at UC Irvine. It would be dubbed Route 795 with a short turn trunk branch to Corona and two other extended branches to Riverside and Temecula.

    Each of the three branches would operate six peak hour trips spaced 30 minutes apart in the peak direction during rush hours. Hourly off-peak runs would operate for the Corona short trip in between the North Main Corona Transit Center and UCI with the Corona hub, John Wayne Airport and UCI being the main midday and late night trip generators. Again, user tolls will fund this route combined with regular RTA CommuterLink fare.

    With the HOT Lane infrastructure and guaranteed travel speeds, a typical trip would take about 90 minutes. That's right. All they way from Elsinore to OC's primary job hub in Irvine, a one seat bus trip in an hour and a half is possible with no transfers. The short trip in between Corona and Irvine would be about an hour with the full end-to-end journey from South Temecula all the way to UCI in about 2 hours or less. Also, RTA's CommuterLink monthly pass is only $75; how cool is that for commuting costs plus the short drive to the local park & ride lot!

    If public officials adopt these proposals or something similar and address the connectivity issue between the county line access point and the northbound 241 direct connector, we may finally have an efficient high occupancy vehicle multi-modal solution to the Corona Crawl with virtual transitways for high speed rapid express bus routes like Route 795 operating from early morning until late night.

    I have several other 790-series express bus routes envisioned for the corridor. When toll lanes have HOV transit infrastructure and connect to Inland Empire cities, funded rapid express buses become more and more feasible and desirable.

    Such a travel option will be a blessing for commuters, a gift many can't wait to see appear under their Christmas tree.

    Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    Tuesday, December 20, 2016

    Don't exclude Corona and Norco from the SR-241/91 Express Lane Direct Connector

    Circle City and communities north of the 91 along the I-15 must have a means to connect to this high occupancy toll lane infrastructure.

    Graphic: Transportation Corridor Agencies

    Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

    A decades-long envisioned high occupancy vehicle lane proposal of linking the 241 Eastern Transportation Corridor to the 91 Express Lanes has entered into the public comment period for its environmental impact process. Transportation Corridor Agencies which operates Orange County's dedicated toll road network is working with Caltrans on the project of developing the direct connector linking the northbound 241 Toll Road to the eastbound 91 Express Lanes and vice versa.

    Photo: Transportation Corridor Agencies
    One just needs to observe what happens in this area on any given weekday afternoon during rush hour and will come to the conclusion that HOV infrastructure is badly needed and that carpooling and transit use needs to be encouraged on the Toll Roads and connecting HOT Lanes. This connector will make this happen. To waste time sitting in traffic is one thing, but to also pay a toll on top of that is insulting to the Inland Empire worker.

    The irony is that this ramp had been officially proposed since 1992 according to Caltrans and has been mired with regulatory red tape. After decades of getting by all of the politics to get this infrastructure built, construction is getting closer. However, we must ensure that no Inland Empire body is excluded from utilizing this infrastructure.

    Don't Leave out Corona, Eastvale & Norco

    As tremendous as this project will be, there was a troubling design issue buried in Section 2-18 of the SR-241/SR-91 Tolled Express Lanes Connector Project Supplemental EIR/EIS which describes the details of the improvements. This paragraph might surpise motorists who may reside in Corona, Eastvale or Norco. City leaders should take note and might want to convey this to the state government:

    To accommodate the addition of the median-to-median connector, eastbound SR-91 would be realigned to the south. (Figure 2.1, Sheets 3 and 4). The northbound SR-241 to eastbound 91 Express Lanes connector would continue on eastbound SR-91, ending approximately 1,000 ft west of Coal Canyon Undercrossing. An eastbound auxiliary express lane would be constructed within
    the 91 Express Lanes. The proposed auxiliary express lane would begin approximately 2,000 ft east of Gypsum Canyon Road Undercrossing to Coal Canyon Undercrossing joining the initial phase
    of the SR-91 CIP at Coal Canyon Undercrossing. These improvements would provide a four-lane express lane facility, tapering down to three lanes between the connector and Coal Canyon Undercrossing. The number of existing eastbound SR-91 general purpose lanes would be maintained within the project limits. The eastbound 91 Express Lanes would have a 4 ft buffer on the right separating the general purpose lanes, and a 4 ft buffer to the left separating the express connector lane. 

    To put all of that technical language into perspective, what that basically means is that if a vanpool, commuter transit bus or toll-paying driver coming out of Irvine is headed to central Corona or any points on the SR-71 or I-15 north of the 91, they will not be able to use this direct access ramp.

    That's because according to this paragraph and technical drawings, a buffer will prevent motorists from using the newly configured 91 Express Lanes exit at the County Line. Under this proposal, taking this ramp commits the motorist of using the Riverside County section of the 91 Express Lanes. The following egress point is either the direct connector to the I-15 south or west of McKinley in Riverside.

    To be fair, this situation does not hold true going the other way. According to current proposed EIR documents, the connector from the Westbound 91 to the Southbound 241 will be a standard direct access ramp without the buffer restriction, meaning one can enter in the 91 Express Lanes from the County Line ingress point and be able to utilize the direct connector to the 241. However, the simple fact is that people do come home from work in the afternoon.

    Central Corona and Inland Empire cities north of the 91 including Norco, Eastvale, Ontario, and Chino must not be excluded and local leaders need to take a leadership role during this public hearing period. Similar exclusion is exactly what happened when the Express Lanes connectivity with the North Main Corona Transit Center was left out of the Riverside County 91 Project which forced the new commuter express bus transit services to bypass the busy peak-hour hub.

    State officials need to revisit this proposed design and allow these motorists that use this ramp to be able to exit the 91 Express Lanes at the County Line access point to ensure connectivity to these destinations. San Diego County's I-15 Express Lanes which carries more peak-hour traffic than the 91 shows a good example of how direct access ramps and intermediate access points can be designed.

    Source Graphic: SANBAG I-10 Express Lanes EIR
    A workable alternative would be to permit continuous access in between the 2 eastbound HOT lanes, the single auxiliary lane and the general purpose lanes between Coal Canyon and Green River Road which would address the weaving issue. The span of 1 1/2 miles of continuous access would be more than enough to ease pressure and conflict so that sudden weaving does not become an issue. A design variation of the I-10 Express Lanes shows what this could look like.

    With that said, I do believe this direct connector--if designed right--can really do something to get Southern California moving and can open the door to new transit opportunities. I will share more about this tomorrow.

    Monday, December 19, 2016

    Will a grid-based bus route network work in Downtown Riverside?

    The hybrid grid/hub design model is certainly doable, but county seat transit improvements are far from over.

    Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

    The 30-year-old 8-bay central bus terminal in Downtown Riverside will be shutting down with transfer operations moving over either to the nearby Metrolink station or upgraded street bus stops all throughout the central city core effective January 8 which will impact nearly every bus route in the area.

    The Transit Coalition has long advocated for a full-fledged RTA transit center next to the tracks as directly linking Southern California's regional rail network with connecting local buses and park & ride lots will contribute toward a robust hub-and-spoke transit mobility network with timed transfers and improved station waiting areas. Such a station is starting to come to fruition thanks to the new 9-bay mobility hub within footsteps from the train tracks. Three of the hub's stops will be literally adjacent to the Metrolink platform, the remaining six are placed on the far side of the parking lot along Vine Street. And that's the good news.

    The bad news is under this restructure proposal, not every downtown route is proposed to pass through the new hub, but rather the lines will somewhat emulate a grid-based transit network. That's due to the limited number of bus bays at the terminal. I'll mention why this design model may be tough for some trips in a moment.

    Plus, the nation's intercity carrier Greyhound will also be losing its Riverside stop. To date, no replacement station near the new Riverside Downtown bus terminal has been announced.

    However, not all is bad about this restructure and to be fair, the streetside bus stops have underwent upgrades with black bus shelters complete with posted schedule information and solar-powered lighting. Plus, the high-frequency main trunk line of Route 1 that runs through Downtown plus the Route 54 station-link shuttle will be routed to link several of these main transfer stops with the train station and new transit center. Freeway express routes will also continue serve the new terminal point. Thus, Downtown will operate on a hybrid hub/grid-and-spoke routing design.

    The Transit Coalition understands the limited land space and public funding limitations associated with building a full size, 25-bay bus station next to the Metrolink platforms complete with park & ride garages, direct connectors to/from freeway carpool lanes and a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over the 91 freeway into the downtown core.

    That's why we support public private partnerships of the development of such amenities where the government uses public money to get regulatory hurdles cleared and transit amenities shovel-ready and the private sector pays for the engineering and construction of the infrastructure.

    What the City of Riverside should do is work with Caltrans, RCTC and RTA, and zone the station block as a specific plan that can support the expansion of private sector jobs. If the private developers who are building the office towers and factories within the specific plan area also included public amenities into the development, they would receive big tax and fee breaks on their proposals.

    Qualifying amenities would include a hybrid public parking and park & ride parking structure to replace the surface Metrolink station lots. General public pays to park where retail and transit users can use their passes or receipts to park for free. Also eligible for development tax breaks would be an expansion of the RTA bus station from 9 bus bays to at least 25 plus additional space for private carriers like Greyhound, Megabus and casino buses; a police outlet for stronger proactive security; direct access ramps to/from the 91/60 carpool lanes; boarding platforms for the proposed Riverside Reconnects Streetcar, and a pedestrian overpass into the the downtown core. I believe the public would support this funding and amenity master plan for the downtown station block.

    The Transit Coalition believes generally that if every bus route in an area operated service frequencies of 15 minutes or better from early morning to late night, a grid-based design would work best because street-side transfer layover wait times would guaranteed to be 15 minutes or less since each route would operate at those intervals.

    However, because the vast majority of RTA bus routes that operate through Downtown Riverside do not operate this often, hub-and-spoke would have been the better choice as people needing to wait longer can use the amenities typically offered at transit stations like restrooms, drinking fountains, additional benches and a security presence. Plus, if the private sector builds the station, count on having a top-rated snack or coffee retailer nearby. But if you take a careful look at the current routing plan, you'll find that some direct transfers are gone such as the Omnitrans 215 to RTA 49 connection which now requires a third transfer or walking. That's why a grid-based design is troubling.

    But with Route 1 connecting to the Metrolink station, I believe this unique hybrid hub/grid-and-spoke design will be workable for the riding public, at least for now. But transit infrastructure projects in downtown are far from over.

    Public agencies need to expand the 9-bay bus layover area at Metrolink into a genuine Riverside Downtown Intermodal Transit Center and consider reverting the design model of the bus routes back to hub-and-spoke. The private sector should be given the incentive to develop such a first-rate mobility and economic job hub for the people of Riverside.

    Wednesday, November 23, 2016

    Thanksgiving: People Stay for Dinner, Family Time is Victorious

    More are rejecting the in-store shopping deals on Thursday night and instead buy online to keep the family unit strong.

    Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

    In an unexpected turn of events in modern retail history, more shoppers are discovering the secret of enjoying both the entire Thanksgiving feast and shopping bargains at the same time: The Internet.

    You may remember from last year that shoppers overwhelmingly rejected corporate greed and materialism and told the vast operators that run the big-box stores that they are enjoying the fullness of Thanksgiving night with their families and friends, a gift of time that is so precious for many.

    The marketing campaigns from a few powerhouses in the corporate retail sector attempted to skew the family holiday by encroaching in-store Black Friday deals into the heart of dinner time. The Friday after Thanksgiving is historically the busiest shopping day of the year where retailers compete for floods of shoppers by offering huge deals on products which are exclusive in store. After the feast of thanks, bargain-seekers would go to bed, set their alarm clocks well before dawn early Friday, line up in front of a major retailer and shop.

    With scores of people camping in front of major retailers for hours each Black Friday, some corporations thought they would be clever, and in a vain attempt, tried to crush the family holiday by extending Black Friday sales into Thanksgiving night. The madness peaked a few years ago. In 2014, Wal-Mart had door-buster in-store bargains that began 6:00PM Thanksgiving night! Remember the sale that offered a 65 inch television for $648 as well as an Xbox One Console with the latest game and a $30 gift card, all for just $329? The only way to cash in on those deals were to go to Sam Walton's big box mart in the middle of the turkey dinner because availability wasn't guaranteed anytime after 7pm...Or maybe there actually is a similar deal happening right now on the net. More on that in a moment.

    The greed for money and power from some retail giants certainly grew out of control and the tipping point has been reached. In-store retail workers have voiced and shoppers took note. Many customers denied the stores their powers to further damage the holiday tradition by staying with the family and shopping online. Reports are showing that traditional Thanksgiving is the victor. The retailers electing to open and have their employees work Thanksgiving night were humiliated with lackluster in-store sales and profit margins that even economists could find morally unjustifiable.

    According to a recent CNN report, the nation's largest shopping hub, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota will be closed Thanksgiving.  Office Depot and Radio Shack also elected to shut down for the holiday according to the report; they were both open last year. The latter was also embarrassed after an internal conference call was leaked to YouTube. Shoppers today have alternative options.

    Black Friday deals are already live on the net. Just today, mid-size retailer P.C. Richard & Son which is family owned and operated advertised a similar 65 inch screen for $580 online with free shipping. The Xbox One retails today for about $250 from several websites. Sounds like a better deal than the one from Wal-Mart in 2014. How many of you are excited about them as they were just two years ago? I like the idea of these internet sales opportunities without having to cut short my Thanksgiving dinner. In fact, online sales surged during the Thanksgiving break last year, which meant more shoppers avoided the mad rush at the stores. 

    By the way, P.C. Richard & Son is a leader of protecting the dignity of the holiday and encouraging folks to stay with the family. In fact it has dedicated a section of its website to make that point clear.

    Other retailers have gone the extra mile and even produced TV commercials letting the public know that no in-store deals will happen during turkey time. They include Designer Shoe Warehose, T.J Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods, and I'm sure there's other businesses that have done the same. Deal-seekers now know that they can grab bargains on the Internet which can be delivered after the holiday, which allows Black Friday sales to continue during this period while allowing families and retail workers the freedom of enjoying the fullness of the Thanksgiving holiday.

    I point this out each year because The Transit Coalition believes that a strong domestic family unit is the backbone toward a better and crime-free society. Our transit fleets that we work hard to advocate and support deserve not to be mired in crime or vandalism. People need to spend time with their families on Thanksgiving and they should consider doing that for the entire four-day weekend as well. The social time, fun with the children, and the dinner feast are priceless and irreplaceable. Family holidays like Thanksgiving keep our relationships and communities strong. Stronger families build up stronger communities and keep children out of the criminal culture.

    Let's do our part in bringing about a Better Inland Empire and treasure these holiday moments. That Black Friday deal is bound to be somewhere on the World Wide Web and not just in a store during the turkey feast.

    Have a blessed and Happy Thanksgiving!

    Wednesday, November 16, 2016

    LA Measure M | A Winner for Inland Empire Transit

    The existence of efficient local train and bus feeder connections at LA County Metrolink stations can make or break a trip by public transportation.

    Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

    Last week on Election Day, Angelinos by a landslide super-majority vote approved taxing themselves so that they can get Southern California moving.

    Measure M authorized an additional 1/2 percent sales tax for transportation and the indefinite extension of an existing 1/2 percent sales tax also dedicated to transportation which was originally set to expire in 2039. It required a two-thirds vote for passage; voters approved it 69.8% to 30.2%.

    With the passage of this proposition, local LA County revenue for multi-modal transportation projects will be approximately $860 million annually for decades. That excludes additional outside funding the county could get from the private sector and feds. It will be kept local and cannot be repurposed elsewhere. That means numerous projects to improve transit mobility will be paid for and built. This includes rail service to LAX, the Metro JEM Line, the transit gap closures along the Metro Green Line corridor, HOT Express Lanes with rapid express bus service, and possibly MetrolinkMax. The people have declared: Enough of the sub-standard ways to get around LA.

    Inland Empire residents need to be thankful too because this will directly impact the region. That's because commuters utilize regional services like Metrolink, express buses, and private carpools and HOV's to get into Los Angeles County.

    If an upgraded transit system in LA can better bring people from the train station or hub point to their final destinations, more people would rideshare aboard one of these services instead of driving alone and contributing to Southern California's clogged freeway system.

    Take for example the Metro Green Line and the I-105 Norwalk to West LA Corridor. Currently, there is a show-stopper rail gap in between the Norwalk/Santa Fe Springs Metrolink Station and the I-105 Norwalk Park & Ride Green Line Station. Once that hole is closed, passengers aboard the 91/Perris Valley Line can go all the way to LAX with one train transfer plus the connection to the LAX peoplemover line. Likewise, one can train all the way from the outskirts of Perris and arrive in Norwalk in about 1 hour, 45 minutes on Metrolink, transfer to the Green Line for a 15 minute trip to the Metro Blue Line transfer hub, and arrive at Downtown Long Beach 30 minutes later. Try making that commute by car on a Thursday or Friday afternoon. 

    Likewise, passengers commuting into LA via the Riverside or San Bernardino Metrolink lines will have more places to go to once they arrive at LA Union Station with the expanded services. That includes the Downtown Regional connector project that combines the LA Expo Line with the East LA branch of the Gold Line and the Blue Line with the Gold Line's Pasadena Branch. That means one transfer at LAUS to get to the job hubs in West LA or Downtown Long Beach from both of these Metrolink routes.

    The Inland Empire, mainly Riverside County, needs to get on board with this too. That includes ensuring that its HOT Express Lane proposals are able to support rapid express bus services with seamless connections to/from major hub points which include North Main Corona Transit Center, Rancho Cucamonga/Ontario Mills, Montclair TransCenter, Chino TransCenter, the San Bernardino Transit Center and downtown Riverside. The Foothill Transit Silver Streak, RTA CommuterLink and Omnitrans express services need to be able to utilize the Express Lanes while having smooth connections to/from these and other major hub points.

    That will certainly connect the Inland Region with LA's growing public transit system and expand choices to get from here to there.

    And memo to The Labor/Community Strategy Center, home of LA's Bus Rider's Union which opposed the measure citing class and racial discrimination: The proposal upgrades the Metro Green Line corridor, and brings two additional light rail routes and one bus rapid transit line right through South LA in addition to numerous sidewalk, street and local bus services improvements. The inner city community will certainly benefit and will not be excluded based on class or race, period. 

    Friday, November 4, 2016

    November Inland Transit Briefing: Toll Lanes and LA Measure M

    By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

    This Presidential Election and its political theater have certainly dominated the headlines. We've all got less than one week left of this circus and then we can finally turn some more attention back to transportation issues. I'll be glad when it's all over.

    Because of that, other than the soon-to-open 91 Express Lanes into Corona and an unusual pre-dawn thunderstorm that came into town, there's not a whole lot going on in the Inland Empire transit landscape. However, there's a few interesting transit stories that came into the spotlight.

    Rush Hour Light Show in Corona
    A few Monday's ago on October 24 when it was still dark, morning Corona commuters witnessed more than brake lights along the westbound 91 as a spectacular thunderstorm came into town over the Santa Ana Mountains shortly after 6:20am. One bolt nearly stuck the train station and rocked the boarding platforms with a thundering explosion which knocked out the lights for a short time. The excitement lasted about 20 minutes.

    Thankfully, nobody in the station was hurt during the show but several got a second shower in with the pouring rain that Southern California desperately so needs.

    The storm cleared out as the morning sun rose.

    Measure M & Conceptual Metro JEM Line in Los Angeles

    Up in Los Angeles, there's a key proposition on the local ballot. The Transit Coalition has been backing a local tax measure that would maintain funding to expand LA's growing urban rail and bus transit system which, without question, has been a success. Maybe even too successful with standing-room only conditions on many routes like the Expo Line.

    It's no question that these alternatives need to expand, especially along the I-405 corridor and Measure M will allow such projects to receive continued funding.

    The transportation corridor that links Orange County through West LA and into the San Fernando Valley along the coast is car-centric with its sole major transit infrastructure being a single 2+ carpool lane each way served by limited commuter express services. Those express transit services don't link up with the Inland Empire.

    In contrast, if one needs to get into Downtown LA from the Inland Empire, they have choices and connectivity.

    But getting anywhere from the IE to major destinations like LAX, Long Beach, the new LA Rams football stadium or any points along the 405 north of Irvine without spending hours transferring between local buses requires a car. And the constant congested conditions along this freeway demands that high occupancy transit alternatives are badly needed. The Transit Coalition is calling for a rail tunnel in between West LA and the SF Valley as a solution which is dubbed the Metro JEM Line (Jobs, Education, Medical).

    If LA has a robust, first rate rail and bus rapid transit system that connects with Metrolink and express bus services from Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, we can finally start closing these gaps and have efficient options to get around quickly through these dense corridors.

    Public Transit Options along Inland Empire HOT Express Lanes

    One infrastructure alternative that has also been proven to work has been high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes that supports rapid express bus transit routes and free carpooling.

    Just visit the I-15 corridor between Escondido and Downtown San Diego for a prime example of a robust hub-and-spoke rapid transit corridor along a major freeway route. From Escondido, one can take a 2-seat transit ride all the way to the Mexican border. Direct access ramps link rapid transit routes to local routes, shuttles and feeders. They also connect private carpools and commuters to the nearby multi-modal transit centers and park & ride lots. San Diego County has Toll Lanes Done Right! Why can we not get a similar system here in the Inland Empire?

    The Transit Coalition would like to see a such a workable system set up for the 91, I-15 and I-10 freeways where rapid express buses run from early morning until late night transporting people between major transit hubs via the Express Lanes infrastructure. Limited stop commuter express lines like RTA CommuterLink would also utilize it.

    Here in the Inland Empire, the 91 Express Lanes extension through Corona is nearing completion as crews finish bridge work and erect signage. 3 or more persons is slated to be the carpool occupancy requirement for toll-free or discounted travel and all vehicles regardless if they are paying tolls must have a valid FasTrak transponder linked to a valid account. It will not support pay-by-plate.

    I'm still trying to figure out how officials plan to route the existing and planned CommuterLink express buses and carpools from the North Main Corona Transit Center and nearby park & ride lot since this hub is completely voided of a connection. Either buses and carpools originating from this active peak-hour station have to backtrack to McKinley Ave to access the HOT lanes or use the general purpose lanes until they reach the County Line. After this project is complete, The Transit Coalition is going to watch for a solution of this transit and HOV gap and this has got to be dealt with.

    One interim idea would be to have the 91 Express Lanes be continuous access in between the I-15 and Maple Avenue and utilize switchable transponders to declare a 3+ carpool. That would solve this issue immediately without creating excessive unsafe lane weaving.

    To prevent congestion in the express lanes with the open access, should they get too crowded to maintain reliable speeds, they should momentarily become a dedicated 3+ carpool lane. "CARPOOLS 3 OR MORE ONLY w/ FASTRAK" messages should be shown in place of the toll rates on the message signs once traffic levels reach the point where speeds begin to slow. Non-carpools already in the lanes that have already locked in their toll will not be required to exit. Once traffic flow improves, the signs will revert the lanes back to HOT.

    The I-580 Express Lanes in the Bay Area for example is one of first HOT Express Lanes to offer continuous access. To be clear, re-striping to continuous access for this section would require additional toll antennas and cameras to be placed and spaced apart about every 1/2 to 3/4 mile to discourage toll collection dodging. CHP would enforce the 3+ carpool occupancy requirements for toll-free or discounted travel.

    Testing the Tolls on the Riverside County 91 Express Lanes

    Meanwhile crews are currently testing the 91 toll rate signs which are now appearing to show demo tolls based on congestion pricing. Last week during the early morning rush hour at 6AM, the new toll rate sign in Corona for the westbound 91 Express Lanes showed the following text:

    70A TEST495
    70A TEST980

    The prior Saturday night after 9PM when travel demands are much lighter, the same sign read:

    70A TEST180
    70A TEST415

    On the eastbound side of the 91 at the County Line after 9PM that same Saturday, the soon-to-be toll rate sign was showing:

    07A TEST180
    07A TEST140

    If these are demo tolls as the signs suggest, that could translate to:

    6AM Westbound Peak from Corona (except Friday)
    SR-241 $4.95
    Kraemer Blvd $9.80
    HOV3+$0 w/FASTRAK

    9PM Saturday Westbound Off-Peak from Corona
    SR-241 $1.80
    Kraemer Blvd $4.15
    HOV3+$0 w/FASTRAK

    9PM Saturday Eastbound Off-Peak from County Line
    I-15/Ontario Ave $1.80
    McKinley St $1.40
    HOV3+$0 w/FASTRAK

    For the record, the current OC 91 Express Lanes toll from the County Line access point to the 55 is $4.85 on weekdays at 6AM except Friday and $1.55 on Saturday based on the October 2016 Toll Schedule. Doing the math, the demo tolls between the County Line and the 55 would have been $4.85 during rush hour which matches the current rate. However, the Saturday toll calculates to $2.35 which does not match $1.55 but does match the $2.35 westbound rate charged during the 7PM hour.

    Again, just be clear, these toll rate numbers are tests and demos only. Exact wording and official and final non-HOV 3+ toll rates for the full 91 Express Lanes corridor are pending release.

    91 Express Lanes Weekend Shift with Revamped OC HOT Lanes 

    On the Orange County side of the 91 HOT Lanes, the "91 Weekend Shift" project has transformed the 20+ year old tollway with new paving, compliant white striping, new deliminator posts and soon-to-be new toll rate message signs. The Express Lanes closures have led to some Carmageddon stop-and-go congestion through the closed sections; however local surface street traffic in Corona has remained gridlock free.

    The Transit Coalition will continue to keep watch as our freeway corridors need better solutions to move more people from here to there other than driving solo in a car. Rapid express transit buses and carpools need to be able to utilize the growing HOT Express Lane network with seamless connectivity to/from nearby stations. Plus the state and feds need to better fund such corridors. That will allow local operators the ability to permit free non-FasTrak transponder carpooling on such systems which will better redistribute the traffic flow. Such infrastructure is needed to close the transit gaps in between the Inland Empire and coastal destinations northwest of Orange County.

    Friday, October 21, 2016

    Corridor Metrolink Routing for the Perris Valley Line and beyond

    The plan should be simple; boardings along the PVL can increase substantially by changing from a "segment" system to a "corridor" system.

    Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director


    Last month, the extended branch of the Metrolink 91 Line into South Perris received some bad press: Low ridership.

    That is not good considering that local government agencies battled wall after wall of red tape and a trivial environmental lawsuit to reinstate passenger transit service along an existing rail corridor right next to a freeway that has big commuter demands. As you may know, that hard work lasted over a decade. To turn things around, there is a prediction of some ridership growth since the Perris Valley Line was launched at a time when transit boardings are at a typical low and due to the fact that some schedule adjustments were made earlier this month.

    Back on October 3, officials improved regional connectivity into Downtown Riverside from the south which allows for more efficient timing for workers who are to report in at 8am. Short-trip Train 731 now departs an hour earlier from Perris and a fully funded feeder shuttle now circulates through the central city which will ensure employees are able to clock in on time.

    To my opinion, that change will help things out a little bit. 8 o'clock is a very common start time for daytime work. However it won't be a ridership game-changer for the route. Plus, the total commuter trip time on this short turn section nearly matches the time aboard Riverside Transit Agency CommuterLink Route 208 in between the two destinations with the latter costing less. So I believe the PVL still needs work beyond mere schedule changes.

    First, let's take a look a the strengths of the route. 

    For starters, as I mentioned earlier, the I-215 transportation corridor that the line serves is a major commuter route, with scores of peak-hour traffic headed toward Riverside and San Bernardino from the bedrooms of Perris and Moreno Valley in the morning. There's several job and school hubs as one descends the hill and into both of the central city cores.

    The central Perris station is a multi-modal transit hub which allows feeders to seamlessly connect. Soon will it also be with the Riverside Downtown station thanks to frequent connecting feeders from the new Route 54 and the existing Route 1. Plus, the new "Grand Central Terminal" transit station in San Berardino is also a prime hub point destination served by several local Omnitrans routes and the sbX Green Line BRT.

    So under this hub-and-spoke model, we should have an efficient means to move people up and down the I-215 and PVL corridor quickly and efficiently.

    Here's where I see the problems lie:

    First, the late morning and midday 730-series short run trains that operate between Perris and Riverside have very limited station pairs: 5 to be exact. That limits the coverage to Perris, Moreno Valley and Riverside which I believe is a driving factor to the low boarding counts. I predict that most I-215 commuters travel well beyond this area.

    Secondly, the reverse-peak and weekend runs of the original 91 Line don't go down the PVL corridor which hurts the stats. Don't forget that Moreno Valley has a growing logistics job hub in the region and inboud commuter demands into the area will grow from the north. That means one who lives in Corona and works at a warehouse or manufacturing hub in Moreno Valley at 8am should be able to take Train 700 that leaves North Main Corona at 6:50am, get to the March Field Station at 7:30 and shuttle into work by 7:45. But Train 700 currently ends in Riverside and that timed connection is not possible. To be fair, students headed to UC Riverside from the north and west can rely on RTA Routes 1 and 16 to connect between the downtown station and the school with a 15-20 minute bus ride.

    Number 3: Travel patterns show high commuter demands in between Menifee and Orange County via Corona that were not directly addressed; have you tried to utilize Railroad Canyon Road at the I-15 during the rush hour? That means additional IEOC Line trains to Orange County need to be routed via the PVL corridor and I say "additional" because those peak-hour trains are already packed by the time they reach North Main Corona. And finally, high demands between Moreno Valley and San Bernardino should call for selected San Bernardino Line trains to operate along the PVL branch.

    Rush Hour: Trains 705 and 700 pull into North Main Corona at 6:50am.
    Westbound 91/PVL Train 705 is very popular at this station.
    Metrolink and the local government agencies at Riverside County can increase productivity and revenue simply by changing the PVL from a "segment" system to a "corridor" system. Instead of having several of the 91 Line routes begin and end at Downtown Riverside, the segments should be combined or interlined to create larger corridors. A full-span peak-hour 91 Line train is a good start: those station pairs are strong for the commuter market. But why not include the IEOC and San Bernardino Line corridors too? Travel demands call for it. Plus running the Metrolink Riverside Line through to Perris can speed up the end-to-end trip time for Perris and Moreno Valley passengers needing to go all the way to LA and back. I understand there's going to be some additional hardball negotiations with the freight railroad operators as well as securing funding from the state and feds to get the extra trains going, but the transit market demands need to be met in order to move the people. Basically, the high-frequency lines would continue through the Riverside and San Bernardino hubs after a stop instead of just terminating there.

    That will certainly boost daily ridership of the PVL into productive territory and well above the original 4,000 daily goal. Plus, just wait until the long-range plans of bringing the rails down south and into San Diego are funded and built. Then everything will change.

    Wednesday, October 5, 2016

    Better Quality Assurance and Control with our Transit Fleets

    Flawed pieces to our bus and train systems must never be allowed into operations.

    Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

    When industries innovate, create and develop products, chances are they go through a process called quality assurance. That is to see whether the product and all its components and parts is meeting specified quality requirements before it is to be mass-produced at the factory.

    In fact, many companies in the private sector have a specific department dedicated to QA so that prototypes and first article samples can be closely inspected and tested. Once released to production, a robust quality control process ensures such parts and assemblies are meeting the specified quality requirements. Investments in both of these processes have been known to ensure that better and top quality products end up in the marketplace, and both increase buyer and user confidence and the company's credibility.

    However, if an issue were to slip through the QA process and such flaws end up into production, it can be a public relations embarrassment for the companies involved. Likewise, if a genuine product released to the factory floor has loopholes in production QC, similar hard lessons could surface in the news.

    Last October, Metrolink announced that there was a potential safety flaw in the railroad's Hyundai Rotem cab cars and leased BNSF locomotives to maintain rail operations. That December, the LA Times broke the story of where the main issue lies and reported in June that repairs are underway.

    Now, the railroad has taken legal action against the cab car maker.

    Last Friday, the railroad took this problem to court and filed suit against the South Korean manufacturer. The lawsuit identifies specifically where the safety issue is. The situation dealt with the assembly fittings within the cab car's pilot, also known as the cowcatcher or cattle catcher located at the base of the locomotive or cab car which is designed to deflect obstacles on the track that might otherwise derail the train.

    According the suit, the carbody weldments and pilot assemblies were found to be defective which could cause the pilot itself to dislodge. Unfortunately, this quality issue was not identified until after the 2015 Oxnard crash where the pilot broke off of the cab car after striking the truck which led to the derailment. As the investigation unfolded, inspectors found the defective parts on the car and further inspections of nearly every other Hyundai Rotem cab car revealed similar problems.

    Reports show that Hyundai Rotem was not correcting this issue as demanded by the railroad which led to this civil dispute.

    Because this case is still open in the court of law, I won't be pointing any fingers to anybody. We should let the facts play out. But I will predict that this situation is either a QA or QC problem because those defective parts should have never ended up on our trains in operations. QA ensures products in development meeets the specified quality standards. QC ensures products in production meets the quality requirements. Every part on our transportation infrastructure needs to go through these process. We cannot allow such quality flaws to slip into operations.

    Let the proven QA and QC processes ensure that we are riding aboard safe and top quality transit fleets.

    Friday, September 9, 2016

    September 2016 Transit Briefing

    by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

    Public safety and national politics pretty much dominated the news this last summer. Major regional transit development stories were relatively quiet. However, there was quiet a bit of activity happening at the state level with new proposed transportation laws and reforms among other things.

    Labor Unions Obstruct CA Affordable Housing but Lawmakers pass a stronger Density Bonus Bill

    If you read my last few posts that covered the failure of the state to pass the Smarter Smart Growth Law, you know I was pretty ticked off.

    It's not because Governor Jerry Brown's original streamlining proposal didn't pass. That wasn't my beef. But it was how the proposed policy to streamline the regulatory process to expand infill transit oriented residential development got voted down in relation to the housing supply crisis: Special interests dictating the rule of law in the state.

    To be clear, special interest groups and lobbies like labor, developers, environmentalists, businesses, and local governments all have a constitutional right to voice opinion to the state government. I have no issue with that. And they need to be able to speak out because it is a patriotic duty to bring valid issues to the attention of lawmakers in our democratic republic. The Transit Coalition gets involved too with state officials in promoting policies that will improve the efficiency of our transportation networks whether one drives, bikes, or rides public transit. Such participation is supposed to spark robust and productive public debate which should yield straight and fair laws that will benefit us all and make the world a better place.

    What is wrong is for a special interest group to have total power or direct influence over legislative decisions, especially for issues that affect each and every one of us like runaway housing prices and long distance commuting. Speaking out is good, but collusion is bad. And that's what happened with Brown's latest attempt to propose a variation of the Smarter Smart Growth Law. Both the labor and environmental lobby fully objected to the legislation--I don't understand way--and rather than confronting them with alternative realistic solutions that would benefit the workforce, the state's natural ecosystems, and We the People, the pandering lawmakers simply sided with their lobbies, ignored the issue and walked away.

    It's that type of pandering and greed of power that results in righteous anger from We the People, because it is a disgrace to our system of government. When state regulations obstruct the development industry from providing housing infrastructure for our growing population that results in unjustified market prices, it should be pure common sense for the state to pass regulatory reform like the Smarter Smart Growth Law without excuse.

    Thankfully, there were some good news on the Smarter Smart Growth Law. This story has received national attention as the Wall Street Journal ran an article last week describing this mess as well as covering similar pandering happening now in New York. Hardworking people in the Big Apple also have to deal with out of control housing prices. The public needs to be made more aware of this situation and the word is getting out by the national press. Good.

    Plus, an 11th hour bill to better enforce the state's density bonus law passed with bipartisan support with the expectation that Brown will sign it. AB 2501 will grant developers permits for up to 35 percent of additional building space if their plans included affordable housing units. Local governments would not be allowed to impose additional per-project requirements on developers that use the 2005 Density Bonus law.

    In addition, lawmakers passed a Granny Flats regulatory reform bill which allows property owners relief from local government red tape when building accessory dwelling units on their land.

    Both bills if signed into law will help things out, but it's only a small piece of the Smarter Smart Growth Law, and more has to be done to allow the industry get market housing prices and rents under control with additional inventory so that living costs are better inline with working salaries and other areas of the economy.

    But one thing is for sure: This special interest collusion that obstructed the Smarter Smart Growth Law has to stop. We cannot allow such groups to dictate We the People.

    State Transit Funding and Policy

    As you may know, the State of California has been a critical funding source for transportation projects and transit agencies within the state. We the People have declared over and over again through several statewide ballot measures and court cases that the state government may not use dedicated-transportation dollars for other programs. That includes all state taxes and fees collected from the gas pump, no matter how the state tries to spin or redefine the revenue collection process. Gas sales taxes, fuel excise taxes, and vehicle taxes and fees are transportation revenue the government collects that needs to be purposed back for transportation.

    According to this chart released by the Board of Equalization, state fuel revenue has been clocking in on average of around $6 billion per year since 2005:
    That's well more than $60 billion over a 10 year period. This money is supposed to go our transportation systems and Southern California should be getting the lion's share simply due to our population demographics. Had this been happening, we would already have MetrolinkMax with first-rate connecting bus transit services, and the H.O.T. Express Lane projects for the 91, I-10, and I-15 would have been built and fully paid for long ago complete with rapid express bus transit infrastructure and toll free non-transponder carpooling. But this is clearly not happening and our clogged and decaying freeways tell the truth.

    The state was debating the next spending plan which includes further increasing the fuel tax but what good is that if they continue to raid the transportation accounts and spend the money on other programs? This must stop because as cars become more and more fuel efficient, fuel revenues will go down and that $6 billion per-year kitty will eventually need to be replaced. Other lawmakers are demanding that existing transportation tax and fee revenues be spent on transportation.

    Although the legislature adjourned without passing the $7.5 billion funding bill, there is some hope that it will pass later this year. But the politics-as-usual needs to stop. Both sides need to come up with a fair, workable solution to get Southern California moving and that includes spending surface transportation-related tax and fee revenue on surface transportation. But at least this one does not appear to be driven by the special interests.

    Other last-minute bills that made it to the Governor's desk include the ban of criminal penalties for minors if they commit fare evasion. SB882 was signed into law Monday which prevents minors from being charged with a crime for failure to pay transit fares, although youth fare evaders can still be subject to a tough administrative fine if caught. So be sure to do the right thing and pay the first time around.

    Another transportation-related bill that passed and awaiting the Governor's signature involved taxi regulation reform. AB 650 would prohibit local governments from controlling taxi rates or limiting the number of taxis that can serve an area. It would also allow cabs to pick up and drop off passengers outside specific local jurisdictions. This will allow them to better compete with the growing on-demand ridesharing industry led by Uber and Lyft. Cities will still be allowed to enforce non-discrimination policies where providers cannot refuse service to specific neighborhoods based on ethnicity or race alone and can require cab companies to accommodate people with disabilities. 

    Strong evidence that Mass Transit Funding is not wasteful

    Lastly, there were some more good news on the transit front. For those who believe that spending transportation money on mass transit is a waste of money, I invite you to see the ridership numbers for the Metro Expo Line in Los Angeles. The Expo Line has been way too popular. Those trains have been overly-packed with people as boarding demands have overwhelmed the system to the point where it has created standing-room only conditions and impacted on-time performance with the passenger volumes--still very minor and much better than sitting in miserable traffic gridlock through West LA. Metro is working with its contractor in getting additional train cars made, tested, and put into service as soon as possible to relieve the crowding.

    It goes to show how public transportation is a key solution in moving large volumes of people from here to there. The 91 and I-15 freeway corridors are very similar, and they demonstrate why such transportation corridors need infrastructure other than additional traffic lanes. They need a strong regional passenger rail network and high occupancy vehicle lanes that can support a first-rate rapid transit system.

    Friday, August 19, 2016

    What does it take to pass the Smarter Smart Growth Law?

    More evidence Californians are overpaying for housing: Add special interest pandering to the list.

    St petersburg florida downtown.JPG

    Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

    Pandering lawmakers failed to pass a simple supply-demand bill proposed by Governor Jerry Brown that would better allow developers to address the housing supply shortage, urban sprawl, gentrification, a car-centric culture, and resulting runaway growth of expensive rentals and purchase prices. That's despite the fact that Brown allowed $400 million in affordable housing subsidies to be allocated for the spend-happy legislature as part of the legislation.

    This law would have lowered the cost of living by allowing developers to have projects approved without the layers-upon-layers of red tape. The proposed regulatory reform would have allowed the industry to better profit, compete and address the supply-demand imbalance. It would have expanded transit-oriented infill development with some units set aside for those making less money, especially in areas near public transportation. Our transit agencies that are looking to get people out of their cars and grow their bus and train ridership numbers and farebox recovery ratios would have greatly benefited with the residential developments just footsteps away from the stations and stops.

    Despite the smart growth initiative as a counter to urban sprawl and to build affordable non-subsidized workforce housing near transit routes as taught in Environmental Science 101, the influential environmental lobby opposed and the legislature was too cowardly to stand up for We the People and come up with a workable solution. They simply pandered to the special interests and said "no" without passing any variation of the proposal. To be fair, some lawmakers were courageous enough to back the bill, but some variation of it should have made it through to the Governor's desk.

    The powerful labor union lobby also objected to the Smarter Smart Growth Law that influenced the vote. The unions are demanding prevailing wages on the private development sector for projects approved under the proposed law. That would be something unprecedented and destructive to the marketplace because such projects would not receive any government funds but still be bound to special prevailing salary rules beyond the existing minimum wage and overtime labor laws. Again, how the labor unions and environmental lobby are able to have a direct influence over lawmaking decisions is a disgrace to the democratic republic.
    DSCN3187 prospectnewtown e 600.jpg

    That's despite the fact that the Smarter Smart Growth Law would stimulate the construction job market and put countless unemployed people back to work. That will grow the middle class and give them an opportunity to thrive, a historical key purpose of unions and collective bargaining. Remember: As the number of total jobs increase in the marketplace regardless of they are union or not, so does pay and good benefits because developers and their supporting businesses have to pay more to retain quality employees. That's to prevent them from applying for higher-paid work at their competitors. The developers that pay their workers the lower wages will end up facing higher costly turnover. Also, since buildings have to be built to code, developers that underpay their workers may also face steeper quality assurance costs as better paid workers can deliver better quality product the first time around.

    You may know that workers at the local Wal-Mart or McDonald's for example know that if they perform well and bring value to their corporations but their employer fails to give them better decent pay as both have historically demonstrated, they can apply to a competitor, and the under-paying corporations lose out on quality labor. That leads to costly turnover and a decline in customer service quality. And businesses know that both of these factors can be controlled by better paying their staff. When was the last time you went to a McDonald's or Wal-Mart and noticed or had something go wrong with your purchase?

    However lawmakers would not even consider this Economics-101 argument as part of the debate, and the Smarter Smart Growth law stalled. From my point of view, that is a pure greed of power from the labor union lobby; I don't think they're looking out for the working class.

    Growing up, I have personally been affected by these price hikes, gentrification and urban sprawl disaster, having twice been displaced from growing costs that grew much further than working salaries. Despite me having a decent-paying skilled-based job, I cannot afford to live anywhere near the economic job hubs in West LA, Orange County or San Diego. The rents and purchase prices are just too high, even for single room rentals. Housing inventories are just too short.

    If the people we elect cannot debate and pass a straightforward simple solution that addresses a grave cost of living and urban growth problem that is not in line with the rest of the market economy, we need to show the state who is in charge of governing the land: We the People, not the special interests.

    The political gridlock has gotten so bad that many of us have lost trust in the government and left the state. Countless Californians are way overpaying to just have a roof over their heads. We should be spending at most 30% of our household incomes toward housing payments or rents, but most of us are paying twice that amount. Many that do find a home somewhere decent and affordable must commute from far-off areas that strains the transportation infrastructure and pollutes the environment. I first learned about long-distance commuting and the environment back when I was in elementary school. And the state legislature does nothing when it could.

    Moving forward, Governor Brown must not give up on the Smarter Smart Growth Law. He must not, nor should We the People. The tools are there to convince the majority of hardworking California population that action must be taken at the state level. Workers must be able to have an option to live near their jobs with plenty of resources to spare without any form of financial help from the government.

    How can all working Californians have the option to live close to work without government subsidies and purpose at least 70% of their income to other areas? The state legislature needs to address that. Meanwhile, the blog series that "More Evidence that Californians are Overpaying for Housing" will continue.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2016

    CA Housing Crisis: Influential Power Groups in the State Capitol

    The special interests have had their day in Sacramento influencing lawmakers on smart growth policy. But who exactly is in charge of governing state law?

    Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

    As a California citizen, I am furious about how the state legislature is handling Governor Jerry Brown's proposal to address California's housing shortage problem.

    Here's the deal: Anybody living anywhere near a major job hub anywhere within the state knows the truth. They know that renters and prospective home buyers, more often than not, are either paying way too much or are priced out of a decent place to live. Rentals and unit prices have risen out of control in many areas, well beyond the growth of income and working salaries. That's because developers have to go through layers upon layers of government rules and regulations to build any kind of dwelling in developed areas. Critical mass has been reached as these rate hikes have made their way into the Inland Empire.

    In order for the home building industry to profit under current law, they generally have to resort to the outskirts of town and develop on cheaper land. Or they can wait until the prices are so high that they can drive up their GM percents by selling or renting premium luxury units that even medical technicians and school teachers can't afford for themselves let alone their families. The former results in urban sprawl and spread-out, car-centric infrastructure with disgraceful traffic conditions on the freeways; the latter in social class division. Plus, there is a possibility that this crisis has had a direct impact on the growth of transient encampments in wildlife corridors all over the state.

    Non-partisan environmentalists will tell you that all of these after effects are bad for the planet. That comes from my Environmental Science 101 textbook.

    Governor Jerry Brown has proposed legislation that would finally control this by allowing developers expedited and streamlined approvals if their proposals meets local general land use policies, is in-fill, and  multi-family. With the reduction in the red tape in the process, construction costs drop significantly for the industry which in turn sparks investments and better competition in areas with high housing demands and low supply. That in turn would help better balance the supply-demand scale and get prices at least closer to where they need to be.

    I call this law the "Smarter Smart Growth Law" because it has non-government, market-rate transit-oriented development written all over it. Other states in the nation have long adopted similar policies to streamline development, which is a driving factor to why workers can generally afford to live near their jobs.

    In addition, Brown attempted to lure the legislature into accepting the proposal with a $400 million deal for additional subsidized affordable housing if they were to pass the Smarter Smart Growth Law or some variation of it. The current proposal also requires that a percentage of market-rate homes built under this policy be purposed for subsidies with the percentage dropping for units built near major public transit lines. With nearly a half a billion dollars set aside for government spending--something this ideological legislature generally backs because it funds public sector jobs--why on Earth would it object to the Smarter Smart Growth Law?

    I'll tell you why. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times and other news agencies reported that special interests which include labor, environmental and tenant coalitions "have walked away from negotiations over Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan." The reports show that organizations like the State Building and Construction Trades Council, Sierra Club and Tenants Together, oppose the governor’s housing proposal which puts the proposal in jeopardy of not passing this year. The troubling part is that this statement implies that these special interest groups somehow have the power to directly influence state law.

    Under the U.S. Constitution, they are free to oppose the proposed law and voice opinion to the legislature. I have no problem with that. Yes, they will have a hard time defending their positions in the court of public opinion. The groups are generally saying that the Smarter Smart Growth Law or similar versions of it may put the local communities and the environment at risk with under-paid construction workers. But that is ideological spin and lawmakers should know better.

    Both the Southern California economy and the environment are already at risk with the resulting urban sprawl, super-commuting, illegal encampments in natural habitats and expensive homes near jobs. By blocking this law, developers will hire fewer workers because fewer projects will be approved. A reduction in construction jobs causes more workers to compete for fewer positions which gives employers little incentive to pay them better.

    But what is absolutely disgraceful about this story is the continued special interest pandering in the state government. The organizations mentioned  reportedly have an influential power grasp in the state Capitol and the legislature has been siding with them without taking into consideration the truth of the matter from the supporting party that affects each and every one of us.

    Again, to be fair, it is okay and our duty to write to lawmakers to voice opinion. That's a patriotic duty we have as American citizens. The Transit Coalition writes letters. But no one power, nor a group of powers should have the power to directly collude or influence lawmakers in the deciding process. That power belongs to We the People.

    Americans have the right to be represented. We live in a Democratic Republic. And state lawmakers should not cave on an important piece of legislation that addresses a grave economic and environmental situation just because their political donors oppose it. Somebody in the Capitol must take courage and write up the Smarter Smart Growth Law that will address this housing problem, grow the economy so workers can be better paid, and allow these people to live closer to their jobs which will protect the environment from gridlock and urban sprawl.

    What is happening in the State Capitol should never happen on American soil. But it is happening. And holding the power structure to account in solving this grave housing crisis will be the way to show that We the People, who have to put up with these grossly immoral housing prices and long car-centric commutes, are in charge of bringing about economic and environmental justice to the state.

    Freedom of the people to govern the state will reign.