Friday, April 29, 2016

How divisive policy harms public transportation

...and how two simple game-changing solutions can change that.

Funding: The state and federal government should help both Orange and Riverside County pay down the toll debt for the 91 Express Lanes now under construction through Corona and pay for seamless HOV connections to carpool and transit hubs. Could a stronger local market economy expedite progress and infrastructure for future rapid-express bus service?

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

It's no question that we live in a polarized society. Special interests have pretty much taken over the state legislature. Common-sense solutions to solve our transportation problems are generally being ignored or stonewalled with all kinds of government red tape. Calls to reform CEQA and other laws that either slow down progress or drive up costs generally go unanswered. Pandering to the lawyer and labor union lobby could very well be the chief cause.

That's why expanding transportation infrastructure projects is often stuck in the slow lane or scaled down. That's likely why developers generally are reluctant to address the housing shortage statewide at or near existing job hubs like West LA and the Irvine Business Complex which drives up living expenses like rent to immoral levels. That's probably why the state is reluctant to pay down the toll bond debt for the 91 and pay for a connection to the North Main Corona transit hub and park & ride lots, which would provide the necessary infrastructure for future rapid-express bus service for the 91 corridor with potential 24/7 service including night owl runs.

To be clear, I'm not here to bash attorneys and the unions. In fact, both sectors are needed. We rely on people with the skills to interpret law, offer advice on complicated matters and our Constitution calls for an impartial judicial system whenever criminal or civil disputes arise and the right to be represented. Workplace abuse during the Industrial Revolution clearly show that workers must have the right to collectively bargain for livable wages and safe environments.

But both of these sectors have attained unprecedented powers in the State Capitol and the bills that come out the legislature tell the truth.

Such broken policy affects every public works project. The Perris Valley Line project for example was a victim of a trivial environmental lawsuit. The fiscally broke City of Wildomar lost money after fighting a CEQA case filed against a state-mandated housing document that was found to be frivolous and tossed out by the judge. And the endless layers of red tape on such projects drives up costs well beyond what the private sector finds acceptable by substantial margins. Just try to compare the per-mile cost between the XpressWest and California High Speed Rail projects and you'll see why the latter has received the negative press. Worse yet--If this divisive lawmaking pattern continues unchecked, the state's economic picture will be in dire trouble as businesses and people have the right to relocate elsewhere. That will without doubt, negate our transit networks.

The state is in desperate need of unified solutions. We need fair answers that will benefit the good of the people that those in power simply cannot ignore or stonewall. Here are two simple game-changers that will greatly help the state which will in fact provide additional resources for the lawyers and unions. There should be no excuse on Earth for the legislature to ignore these solutions:

Game-Changer I: Promote policies that will better allow the private sector to grow the market economy

If look at the major polls, this topic remains a top concern for working Americans right up there with global terrorism. As you may know, a better free market increases the number of private-sector jobs for the region. If employers grow and have to compete for workers in order to profit, working salaries go up. That's especially true if a competing firm wants the worker. Plus, in a healthy economy, the government takes in more tax revenue with the economic growth which will help pay for improved public services and capital. The government unions should back this because as staff responsibilities and duties go up, so can the number of government union positions and their wages. The improved state of the economy ensures that these raises and added public jobs are funded without tax hikes or service cuts. What special interest would not support a statewide boost to the economy?

Plus, more businesses will rely on more attorneys for advice which should warrant support from the lawyer lobby. If the attorneys knew that they'll be getting a sweet deal with a better economy and more clients, they just might be willing to accept some fair CEQA reform which would finally rid the state of frivolous and trivial environmental lawsuits.

Will somebody in the state legislature please take the lead on this?

Game-Changer II: Expand the role of community volunteers in the public sector

The concept of this solution is simple: Improve government services and worker productivity in a fiscally conservative way. How so?

Many churches and non-profit groups rely on such unpaid help. My writings for this blog and The Transit Coalition for example are unpaid; I post these talking points because I want A Better Inland Empire, and so should you.

People volunteer because they have the will to serve their community. Since public labor unions are keen to call for raises for their employees, government agencies should also assign greater responsibilities to those receiving them, especially those in the $100k club, which continues to grow. That would include overseeing community volunteers so that basic services don't fall into decline if agencies have to reassign or restructure departments to pay for these generous raises as demanded by the unions. That's another way to ensure huge salary hikes don't result in public service reductions.

Keep in mind the entire government system is owned by We the People. You and I own the mass transit system and the infrastructure that it uses with the exception of the Class-One freight rail lines. That means community-minded volunteers should be able to take better ownership the infrastructure and services. California's Adopt-A-Highway program is a terrific example with the community landscaping services and litter and graffiti removal programs. Private sector groups partner with the state and provide the manpower to complete these basic maintenance tasks of our sprawling freeway system.

But why not create similar initiatives like Adopt-A-Station where transit ambassadors can help riders board the right buses and trains while the paid security guard provides the oversight and armed protection who, by the way, is thoroughly trained in protecting the people and property? Like Adopt-A-Highway, the private sector would provide the manpower and the organizations would be permitted to have marketing material available for the riders.

What about Adopt-A-DMV-Office where similar ambassadors can help the public use self-serve kiosks to conduct basic transactions such as vehicle registration, snapping the pictures for the licenses and ID cards, updating people on their wait times, directing traffic in the parking lot, and keeping the public lobby area clean and maintained. Businesses like smog check garages and car insurance providers would likely love to organize such manpower in return for a sign that reads "DMV Courtesy Services Provided by...". Paid DMV employees would continue to handle the complex tasks like testing, answering hard questions, security, and managing the office. That could very well speed up the lines and allow the public to take better ownership of their local DMV office simply because we all own it.

How about expanding the volunteer's role in law enforcement through a wholesale expansion of reserve deputies, citizen action patrol, youth explorer, neighborhood watch, and working with restorative justice organizations and ministries that mentor with troubled youth and young adults. President Obama's My Brother Keeper program should be a part of this campaign.

Again, paid officers will continue to handle all of the difficult responsibilities as well as all serious and violent crimes; the volunteers could serve as the eyes and ears of the department. Reserves would have full peace officer authorities; they will be undergo the same hiring standards and academy training as paid officers, be armed, have the authority to arrest and issue citations, and can be tasked to patrol and enforce simple issues like quality of life and traffic laws.

President Obama's My Brother's Keeper Program
They would be supported by the volunteer community action patrol and neighborhood watch teams. That would reduce speeding, red light running, intersection blocking, cell phone violations, and carpool/HOT lane cheating in an eye blink. Did I mention a reduction of traffic collisions on the freeways? Plus, under this fiscally conservative system, law enforcement productivity would increase to the point where the criminal gangs in San Bernardino, Riverside, Moreno Valley, and even South LA would be out of business, lives would be saved and our transit stations free from other illegal activities like drug sales and vandalism.

All of this will greatly improve government productivity which reduces the stress and workload of the paid workers. Plus, it could allow the governments to save big money on costs without jeopardizing jobs or salaries. The unions should back this.

The truth of the matter is there are several ways for the state legislature to pander to both the people and the groups that paid for their election campaigns. The state government really needs to start solving our problems in an intelligent fashion. Allowing the private sector to improve the economy and expanding the community's role in public service through volunteering are two game-changers that will make California golden once more. And the special interest groups that reject such fair policies for their own selfish gain should take note: Californians of whom own the system have the right to relocate and take their assets with them if nothing is done to correct the problem, and history will record that.

Friday, April 8, 2016

April Inland Empire Transit Briefing

by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Metrolink Perris Valley Line

Anybody know what's holding up the Perris Valley Line? I've been hearing from various inside sources that some additional updates have to be done, but I received no confirmed specifics from official sources other than the predicted launch date has been bumped to mid-2016.

I'm suspecting unnecessary government bureaucracy is the hold up, but I could be wrong. You may remember that two years ago in 2014, Phase I of the French Valley Parkway offramp at the Temecula/Murrieta border was built in January but its opening was held up for months by red tape simply because the construction contractor erected non-compliant signs and didn't stripe the lanes properly which could have easily been addressed within a week under a streamlined regulatory process. The ramp did not open to the public until April, three months after construction was finished.

Whatever is holding up PVL operations should be dealt with as soon as possible. Once open, it will be a tremendous asset for regional mobility. But let's knock off the phony red tape and get some efficiency in regulatory oversight with our transit infrastructure.

Trouble in Downtown Riverside

Also from various anonymous sources, I've been hearing that the social environment in and around the Riverside Downtown Terminal has become rather rough with criminal activity plaguing the area.

The bus station is slated to be decommissioned by 2017 as a smaller transfer point is being developed next to the Riverside Downtown Metrolink Station for key routes including Route 1. The remaining lines can be accessed through upgraded street-side bus stops in the downtown area.

It's been a while since I've done a field study at this central hub point to confirm all of the belly-aching, but based on other supporting crime reports, I believe the testimony to be true. I predict many workers who commute by bus avoid the Downtown Terminal area for that very reason. The current bus station is on the northwestern edge of Downtown Riverside and a number of the connecting inner-city neighborhoods are troubled, especially the Eastside. That makes nearby crowded areas which includes the Downtown Terminal prime spots for abusive conduct, illegal drug sales, theft, and potentially serious violent criminal activity. Plus, complaints posted on Facebook could be showing that the existing security presence needs to be far-improved at this hub with better trained guards.

So, there's very little transit riders can do to protect themselves and their wallets from criminal activity while transferring and waiting for their next bus other than using a street-side stop, which is what the bus route restructure calls for.

This is all preventable from the power structure because the City of Riverside and the affected county agencies can stop this simply by designating the high-crime blocks which includes the terminal as safety zones and hiring additional law enforcement, highly trained security guards for the station and placing undercover officers there. Top that off by expanding the citizen's role in proactive prevention tactics such as neighborhood watch, restorative justice, pro-family growth programs, and other volunteer opportunities. That would greatly cut down on crime at the existing bus station until its time runs its course next year. Then, additional officers, security forces, and citizen community action patrols would be transferred over to the Eastside so that the Metrolink station and the new bus transfer point do not end up becoming the next haven for such crime.

That's something that must be planned and put into action. Plus, ridding Riverside of such bad behavior also pretty much solves the controversy of opening up additional public restrooms throughout downtown. The Transit Coalition does not want our transit stations to be criminal hubs. We do not want bus riders using either of Riverside's central bus stations to be victims of bad happenings.

91 Express Lanes in Riverside County

Future Eastbound Toll Rate sign with approved design for the 91 Express Lanes at the County Line
Note: Toll rates shown
(10 cents per mile off peak) are concept only and have not been released by RCTC.

Construction of the 91 Express Lanes extension into Corona continues. If you happen to be on the freeway, crews have begun to erect the digital toll rate signs for the Inland Empire segment. The design of these signs use the federally regulated generic design with a digital message screen that will display the posted toll which is currently being used for the I-10 and I-110 Metro ExpressLanes. Nope, the catchy signs with the blue and white marketing and branding of the 91 Express Lanes are not being used for the Riverside County segment.

In addition, a couple of Fastrak toll antenna collection points are going up. I saw one just west of the I-15 interchange. The other is just east of the Highway 71. The antennas near the 71 will have a separate 3+ carpool lane simply marked as "HOV 3+ ONLY". I was hoping that switchable transponders would be used instead of the single 3+ lane since OCTA, TCA, and LA Metro all offer such transponders. That would reduce bottlenecking and lane weaving at the toll collection point as evidenced on the Orange County side during the afternoon rush hour.

Riverside County 91 Express Lanes Toll Rate Sign
Note: Peak toll rates shown
are concept only and have not been released by RCTC.
Like the Orange County segment, 3-person or more HOV's can travel the Riverside County 91 Express Lanes for free with a FasTrak, except when traveling eastbound during the PM peak period, Monday through Friday between the hours of 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. Currently during this rush hour period, 3+ vehicles pay 50% of the posted toll in Orange County.

Once the toll bond is fully paid off, The Transit Coalition will call for the transponder mandate and discounted afternoon peak hour tolls to be abolished for all 3+ HOV's, rendering the 91 Express Lanes for both counties a dual 3-person carpool lane each way with the FasTrak toll buy-in option for non-HOV's during peak times. The 3-person minimum would be in place during rush hours, summer weekends and holidays for toll-free travel, 2-persons other times.

Non-carpools would be able to continue to use the lanes for the posted toll if capacity permits. Law enforcement would control all carpool and toll payment cheating with heavy fines and points for deliberate violations.

91 Express Lanes and Corona Transit Center Connectivity

Concept: RTA CommuterLink 206 on I-15 Express Lanes in Wildomar
Note: Concept only. Not endorsed by any public entity.
I'm still trying to figure out how officials plan to route Riverside Transit Agency CommuterLink Express buses and private carpools that use the Corona Transit Center and nearby Park & Ride lots with the new HOV infrastructure since the busy multi modal mobility hub is voided of an Express Lanes connection. That has sparked some local concerns.

Perhaps backtracking to McKinley Avenue via Hidden Valley Parkway might be the best interim solution until the state and feds finally decide to pay for this direct connection, preferably via a direct access ramp, let alone the remainder of the debt.

Local officials should not let this one go.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Non-foolish Solutions to Affordable and Safe Living in IE

No April Fool's joke: We need game-changing solutions to crime and expensive housing

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

The Press Enterprise published a few rather disturbing front page articles on Monday. The first deals with growing property crimes taking place all over the state. The second covers worsened affordable workforce livability for the entry-level employees. Groups are calling for further increasing California's minimum wage. These are not April-fools stats. This is serious. Both of these factors, if left unchecked will damage the transit infrastructure that we pay and work hard to build; workers will be left with substandard housing they can barely afford. However, if resolved non-foolishly, it could transform California back to a genuine Golden State.

Let's begin with the controversy concerning living costs versus wages. As you well know, cost of living in California has reached critical mass. If you haven't read the blog series on this topic in relation to how other metropolitan areas fare, I invite you to do so. Overpriced rentals and purchase prices have created the disastrous effect of demands for housing in the otter fringes of the Southland, leading to super commutes that clogs the transit system. Now, this pattern of high prices have crept into the Inland Empire which includes Corona and Southwest Riverside County. Because of that, I predict that most entry-level workers making at-present California's minimum wage of $10 cannot afford a decent single bedroom apartment without subsidies. To afford rent according to several financial experts means purposing no more than 30% of one's gross income.

There is growing support and demand to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour statewide as several workers are looking for a break in the high costs. I have to show some degree of compassion and say that on the surface, this is a morally correct position. I mean, come on. If one bedroom rentals have well surpassed $1,200 per month all over the state, such a raise would certainly help more workers to afford the rent; that's likely why support is so widespread. However, I cannot back this as the cure-all solution. Inland businesses see such a statewide hike as a strategic threat and could respond by holding back on hiring or expansion within the state which would exacerbate the problem. Somebody has to pay for those raises, that is, you and I through increased prices and declined service in the retail sector. Without market demands, the inflation would be seriously artificial and next thing you'll notice, we'll be back to square one and calls for a $20 minimum will surface... To be clear, The Transit Coalition takes no position on this issue.

As a solution to the wage/cost situation, I will argue that promoting policies that expand marketplace job opportunities and demands for workers can and will lead to wage increases across the board because companies will actually need to look for labor and will end up paying more to find it, especially if a competitor wants to hire the worker. Want an example of that? Go to Orange County. Meanwhile, tying the current $10 minimum to market demands and fluctuation of the dollar value from this point forward in lieu of flat increases ensures the government-mandated floor is in line with costs-of-living such as food, transit fares, and gas prices. That would be the fair way to handle this.

Regarding the expensive housing issue, I will submit once again that any state or local red tape that prevents developers from addressing the high demands for better workforce housing be reformed immediately which includes CEQA. That will spark developer competition, lower internal building costs, improve choices and lower rentals in first-rate complexes. Plus, it will cut down on long distance commuting--a notion that every environmental organization should be promoting. Essential oversight like earthquake-resistant infrastructure and banning frivolous lending that led to last decade's crash has to remain as regulations but the codes need to be simplified to cut down on costs that developers have to face. That's likely why new developments are lagging behind despite soaring demands which drives up living costs for the people. It's long past time for government leaders to knock off the pandering to ideology. The spin and divisive solutions have to stop.

Inland Empire Crime

Now, let's look at our criminal justice system, the corrections departments and the recent rise in crimes, another serious topic.

Partisanship on both sides may have also plagued the discussion on this subject too. Many blame the crime growth on the passage of 2014's Proposition 47 which reformed the state's Three Strikes Law by reclassifying some felonies as misdemeanors. Although there may be a connection between the two, there's something else that has to be addressed. The passage of that law was morally warranted as some petty offenses certainly do not warrant an automatic 25-year-to-life sentence, and there were several cases like that in the criminal justice system. That was a fact. But while an unintended consequence was crime growth, I don't think the initiative is directly at fault.

I believe the state and local jurisdictions were simply ill-prepared for the changeover. Labor pandering on the political-left could be to blame. As you may know, both California and the United States as a whole has soaring incarceration rates. Prison, jail and police department budgets in general within the state are already strapped, again with labor interests dominating the expenditures. Riverside County is certainly no exception. The long history of overspending in this sector means proven restorative justice solutions, support volunteer, and other productive resources to actually "correct" prisoners in corrections departments are either not being funded or allowed into the jail and juvenile detention systems. That means that inmates committing crimes on the streets that were impacted by Proposition 47 were very likely previously jailed in morally harmful environments for petty crimes which I predict increases their likelihood to stay in the criminal culture upon release, a.k.a. Recidivism.

Meanwhile, allowing restorative programs and mentors within the jail and prison system in lieu of simply warehousing criminals in dark, dangerous and corrupt environments reduces future crime and the resulting recidivism rates. The corrections department would actually be doing its job in offering "corrections" to inmates who seriously desire to turn away from crime. The Kairos Prison Ministry International group for example shows that prisoners that participate in their weekend groups are less likely to end up back in jail upon release. Both the state and local governments have plenty of cash and resources to deal with this situation as low and non-risk inmates could be reassigned from the overcrowded jails and prisons to other secured housing quarters at remote rehabilitation, training, and skill-building sites. It will take the power of we the people to overcome the voice of big labor. That's the only solution I can think of.

The Transit Coalition works hard to educate the public on transportation-related matters and wants to ensure our fleets won't be plagued in crime or overpriced housing. It's going to take non-divisive co-operative ideas, game-changing strategies, and straight and serious answers to solve both of these problems. We the people have got to get on board.

This is no April Fool's joke.