How "Public transit should be practical"

Trains & Buses: Getting Southern Californians to where they need to go.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Very early this morning I had to attend a state-mandated training seminar in Southwest Riverside County for my job and decided to ride the local bus knowing that I had a bunch of emails, text messages and calls to tend to right before the morning session. That's one little preached benefit of taking public transportation since texting behind the wheel is both dangerous and illegal. Plus, I got a  power nap in.

When I got back to the house for lunch, the Press Enterprise newspaper was waiting on my driveway. I opened it up and found that the lead editorial points that "Public transit should be practical". True. It should be productive and performing efficiently. Its deck stated, "If taxpayers are subsidizing projects, they should focus on where people need to go." Okay. Nothing wrong with that either. The bus took me to where I needed to go, a mandatory work-related meeting. RTA, Omnitrans, Metrolink, and the municipal bus providers do exactly that.

So, I dove in to see what else it had to point, and that's where the ideological spin starts.

As you may know, the PE Editorial Board is not a fan of the California High Speed Rail and the Riverside Reconnects streetcar projects and published this dissenting piece today voicing opposition on both. I understand the newspaper's viewpoint of government overspending. Public transit lines have to be productive. Hey, I don't want my tax or high speed rail bond money wasted on overpriced infrastructure or spent on corridors with little or no demand. That point is valid. Upgrading the Magnolia Avenue transit corridor from local bus direct to a streetcar route may be premature given the current travel patterns. Instead, upgraded Rapid, Express and Metrolink transit routes would certainly fare much better for now. But I also don't want the baby thrown out with the bathwater.

To put a long story short, the private sector needs to be better incentivized to invest in bullet train technology in the USA since it has proven beyond a reasonable doubt to move people. The market is demanding that major inter-city transportation corridors within the state need upgraded infrastructure. The state should make the CA HSR master-plan shovel ready for these sections. Both CA HSR and the XpressWest systems have received some outside private funding, but the state needs to allow for more of that. Believe me, the market demands are there. Also, crowding on RTA Route 1 demonstrates that Riverside's Magnolia Avenue corridor is due for limited stop RapidLink service. If future urban growth and potential crowding on RapidLink call for it, work with RTA on upgrading the route with urban streetcar rail and get it shovel ready. That's how public transit can move people from here to there.

But getting back to the editorial; the opening paragraphs mocked public transit in general and bannered these points:

Know this about mass transit and the media: The particular topic – a new bus line, Metrolink extensions, a trolley proposed for Riverside, the bullet train connecting Northern and Southern California – doesn’t matter.

Most of us just love mass transit. And why not? We don’t ride such things, unless we’re taking a cool little trip to the coast for a day on the beach, or maybe a day of shopping in L.A.

In reality, the little people ride it. . They actually need to get from Point A to Point B. They must be subsidized.

Who's "most of us?" Who's "the little people?" Who's "They?" That opening statement is absolutely foolish in the context of what it's trying to oppose. Of course, the transit agency ridership stats don't back it up. That statement is pure ideological spin that was simply used as a cheap shot to oppose high speed rail and Riverside Reconnects. But don't tell the tens of thousands of commuters who use Metrolink daily and connecting feeding buses that their rides are a mere "cool little trip to the coast for a day on the beach."

Here's the truth of the matter: In 2014, the Riverside Transit Agency boarded 9.7 million passengers or about 26,500 per day, a record. Most of them are workers or students. Omnitrans has had a steady ridership flow of 14-16 million boardings per year for the last decade adding up to about 41,100 daily. The Metrolink Inland Empire Orange County Line alone reported an average weekday boarding count of 4,775 for FY-2015. The vast majority are workers using the train that take them "where people need to go." Those stats alone show that at least 72,000 trips from all over the Inland Empire each day are via public transit. Not "the little" number if you ask me.

Proposed: RTA RapidLink Gold Line service
Graphic: Riverside Transit Agency
To be fair, 72,000 is a mere fraction of the Inland Empire's total population so the PE is correct that the majority of citizens don't use public transit. But this minority can really negate our highways if the buses and trains didn't run and they each had to drive alone or get a ride. I mean come on: Do you really think our existing Inland Empire freeways can sustain an additional 72,000 daily vehicle trips, most of them during rush hour? That's why we have to subsidize public transit and need high occupancy vehicle infrastructure. Without the HOV transit options, several more freeway lanes would have to be built which ends up costing taxpayers far more than all of the transit agencies' operating budgets combined by substantial margins.

But getting back to transit. After traveling between the major cities up and down the state, how could one not support policies that would enable the marketplace to better invest in CA HSR and compete to address the high demands for better intercity travel options rather than simply trying to derail the technology in the process? After riding aboard Route 1 through Riverside during the rush hour, how can one not support an upgrade of the corridor to limited stop RapidLink service that would better move people along Magnolia Avenue rather than just throwing out the streetcar rail alternative altogether? But the divisive reporting continues and weakens the support that transit advocates need in trying to solve our transportation problems.

Getting from "Point A to Point B" in the most efficient and practical means possible should be something we should universally agree upon. Public transit has long provided that.