New Year 2016 Transit Briefing

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Happy New Year! As we transition out of the holidays and back into our normal routines, there's going to be quite a bit of important transit stories unfolding for 2016.

More California Gas Price Injustices

This story has just about infuriated many folks all over the Golden State and hopefully the broken politics surrounding California's isolated fuel market becomes better known so that the legislature will finally be held to account by voters in solving this problem.

Local media outlets all over the nation have been reporting that gas prices have been falling with the country's average dropping to $1.99 per gallon. Meanwhile, crude oil remain plentiful with prices at $34 per barrel. California is using the less-expensive winter-blend fuel and will remain that way until the March/April changeover to summer. You would think we would be enjoying the price breaks too.

However, California fuel prices have gone the other way, with Inland Empire prices soaring about 30 cents per gallon over Christmas and another 15 cents through the New Year. As of this post, we're paying just over $3.00 per gallon, a buck over the national average. I project that it will tick up even further as a few gas stations in the area are posting prices at about $3.20-$3.40 and reports continue to flow in that Southern California refineries are not producing nor importing, leading to a so-called "shortage" even though we have a wealth of crude oil. Meanwhile, go across the Arizona border to the Phoenix metro area where the lowest price stations are around $1.75.

I understand that Califorians pay more than the national average due to higher state taxes...Fair enough. But the price difference gap has already surpassed the $1 mark and quickly approaching $1.50 during the winter-blend season. The price gap should be around 65 cents this time of the year.

So here's the deal: Dereliction, ignorance and lack of will within the state government are all directly responsible for this economic injustice. Because of trivial regulatory red-tape in the business climate, the current oil industry within California lacks outside competition which has allowed it to get away with a supply shortage and higher prices without losing out on the sale. That has allowed them to maintain their high profit margins. In the free marketplace, if one company did not have what the customer was looking for due to a production shortage, it loses the transaction to a competitor, period.

Not too long ago, I held a checking account with a big-name bank. When it announced it was about to implement a $10 per month fee, I went to a local credit union that offered a better valued package, mobile deposits and widespread ATM access, saving me $120 per year on the unnecessary fee. Smaller community banks and credit unions are able to compete with the big corporate banks because efficient regulatory oversight allows them the freedom to do so.

But the big oil oligopoly has no direct outside competitors, at least not yet because state law prevents smaller investors from coming in to compete with the existing refineries. Yes, cleaner, zero-emission, CNG and all-electric cars are in hot demand, growing and could very well wipe out the gasoline industry in the future, but they are not yet the norm and remain far too expensive for many. While growing and becoming more usable, our public transportation system still has ways to go before it can be a viable option to get around for many trips. That means the oil industry has been allowed to get away with this shortage because trivial regulatory rules prevents outside entrepreneurs from producing what we need to get around, leading to an artificial supply shortage and high prices.

And this gross economic injustice increases all of our living costs whether or not one drives a car or not.

I'll keep a close watch on this one.

New track infrastructure for the Metrolink Perris Valley Line
Photo: SCRRA
Almost There: Metrolink Perris Valley Line

The long-awaited extension of the 91 Line into South Perris is here and will be open to the public very soon. Early 2016 is the expected launch date for operations.

The 24 mile extension will bring Metrolink from the Riverside Downtown station to South Perris with stops at Hunter Park, Moreno Valley March Field, Perris Station Transit Center and South Perris. The Riverside Transit Agency has plans to implement feeder service and other upgrades to its bus system. For instance, one will be able to train to Hunter Park and transfer to a feeder shuttle to UC Riverside, and connecting buses will ferry passengers from the March Field station to various employment hubs throughout Moreno Valley.

Metrolink's website has the latest info. Specific train schedules to be released soon.

Cost of Living in a Home in California

Just like the incompetence of dealing with soaring fuel prices, housing prices and rentals remain generally out of control all over Southern California no thanks in part to unnecessary bureaucracy at the state level which has led to an inventory shortage and soaring prices. Unfortunately, such trouble has already begun to seep into the Inland Empire.

Press Enterprise Columnist Sal Rodriguez wrote an op-ed during the New Year's Day holiday, reporting that the Golden State remains the "No. 1 judicial hellhole in the United States by the American Tort Reform Foundation." Yesterday, PE/OC Register writers Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox posted this op-ed citing that lack of enough building have contributed to soaring rents.

Zillow rental listings near the Irvine Business Complex job hub
I believe the complexity of California law has obstructed investors and the development industry from competing and expanding housing infrastructure in existing high demand areas. That has led to high prices and many hardworking people not being able to afford the rent or mortgage payments in neighborhoods anywhere near their jobs.

In addition, several local jurisdictions share the same responsibility on this issue too with outdated land-use general plans that don't address what the marketplace is currently demanding. That has led the industry to go out and build on cheaper land far from existing infrastructure. To be fair, some existing cities and localities are allowing for development but the region as whole needs a stronger will to deal with this problem. Also, I understand that units within or very near the job hub points will often be a bit more pricey.

Zillow rental listings near the Las Vegas Strip
But cross over into other Western states and you'll notice a stark contrast. Efficient regulatory oversight has allowed for good competition between builders which has led to affordable and non-subsidized rents and purchase prices even near the central city cores.

At the time of this post, Zillow had a spacious 1,300 square foot 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom unit in a clean, gated private complex in Las Vegas listed for an asking rent of only $950 per month, not subsidized by the government. The neighborhood has two pools, walking distance to the local shopping center and even the Orleans Hotel & Casino, and a short 12 minute bus ride to the Strip. The feeding bus line to the Strip's Deuce/Downtown Express Rapid lines runs every 20 minutes with hourly night owl service. Here's an aerial shot of the neighborhood:

I have a lot to talk about on this topic. Addressing California's housing shortage will be a prime solution in solving our long-distance traffic congestion problems.

In addition, the Inland Empire should continue to draw businesses to invest in our main city centers, especially the twin county seat hubs. There have been pushes to transform both Riverside and San Bernardino into business-friendly, metropolitan cores for the region. But the state government needs to help us too by allowing developers and investors to better compete and grow the infrastructure to meet demands so that our living costs are in line with the rest of the nation, not way higher. We're long past due for such regulatory reform.

Funding OC Direct Access Ramp Infrastructure

While doing some research on how to better connect the 91 Express Lanes with the Village at Orange transit hub, I came across this 2011 Q&A piece that documents that the City of Orange has been trying for the last two decades to develop an interchange at the SR-55 freeway at Meats Avenue. It would be a general-purpose junction which would redistribute high traffic demands from the Katella and Lincoln Avenue ramps.

I didn't see much marketing or other media reportage of the proposal but according the article, part of the 20+ year hold-up to develop the diamond-shape junction has been lack of funding. The project would also require several residential property acquisitions but would expand capacity, reroute traffic from two congested interchanges, and address an extensive backtracking issue for RTA CommterLink 216 and carpools.

If you read my posts of advocating for better transit infrastructure for the Inland Empire HOT Express Lane master plan, I have called for a HOT/HOV direct access ramp at Meats Avenue which would be paid for by infill developers through a public-private partnership. The development industry would be given a fair and competitive tax and fee break package if the SR-55 ramp, upgraded bus transit bus bays and waiting areas at the Village at Orange hub, and a public park & ride garage were included with the private development. Property acquisitions would be minimal and total costs would be far less than a full junction. Express buses, 3-person carpools, and toll-paying non-HOV's using the Village at Orange transit station would no longer have to backtrack via Katella Avenue in order to use the 91 Express Lanes.

A general purpose interchange in lieu of a HOT/HOV direct connector could very well address this issue too even though weaving will be required between the ramp and the HOT lanes. Anyway, I've got some other fresh and out-of-the-box ideas of how to solve this local traffic and regional transit connectivity problem without having to wait for decades for the cash. Stay tuned for that.