Monday, June 27, 2016

More evidence Californians are overpaying for housing - Part V

How we can protect the environment and develop affordable non-subsidized workforce housing while ensuring local governments have fair general control over land use...

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

The historical debate between the housing affordability crisis, the environment and local control continues. California could have a milestone event written in its history books very soon should the state government get on board with this story and write its next chapter.

Last month, Governor Jerry Brown announced plans to clear the way for lower-cost marketplace housing and better buyer choices for all of us through a proposal that would better allow developers to address the housing inventory shortage. If made into law, the Streamlining Affordable Housing Approvals proposal essentially would allow urban developments with units set aside for lower-income families to bypass strict environmental impact rules now mandated through the California Environmental Quality Act. The new proposal would allow such construction to proceed without neighborhood review processes provided that the development is compatible with the current local land use and zoning, is infill smart growth, and offers attached units.

According to the proposal currently as written, the developer would need to fulfill the following five requirements in order to qualify to pass through the current red tape:
  • The applicant or proponent submits the development application to the local government with its intent to utilize this provision and declares under oath that it conforms with its requirements.
  • The development is consistent with the current local general plan and zoning standards in effect at the time of application.
  • The home units have to be attached and infill within in an already developed area, meaning the housing must be on land adjacent to existing residential, commercial, public institutional, or transit passenger facility or at least 75% of the site's perimeter is developed with these uses.
  • The housing must have at least 20% of the units purposed for lower-income households that make 80% or less than the area's median income.

    The assisted housing threshold is significantly reduced if the infrastructure is built within an 1/2 mile of a major public transit bus stop, train or ferry station with peak hour service frequencies of 15 minutes or better with weekend runs. If built near an area with these public transportation amenities, then only 10% of the units must be set aside for the lower-income households or 5% purposed for those making 50% or less than the locale's income average.
  • Unless already zoned for housing, the development cannot take place on government-defined prime farmlands, wetlands, fire danger areas, hazardous waste sites, floodplains, flood ways, and earthquake fault zones.   

Also, existing tenants living in places that would be redeveloped would have some direct help from the state. Projects that would directly displace existing residents such as demolishing an existing residential building being rented would render the residents eligible for benefits under the California Relocation Assistance Act which would cover advisory services, moving expenses and replacement housing assistance with both purchase and rental options.

This proposal was originally bundled into the state's annual budget bill but was tabled until August. If the development follows this criteria and qualifies, the local governments would no longer be allowed to mandate per-project discretionary review such as mandating a conditional use permit. Also, since such approvals would be ministerial as defined by the state proposal, such infill would be exempt from CEQA law and all of its abuses like trivial red tape and lawsuits not related to the environment.

Even with the affordable unit percentage mandates, this will, without question, lower overall costs for developers, improve profit margins for smart growth development and spark better competition, especially for housing development near major public transportation routes. The cost savings can then be passed to the buyer or renter.

After reading through the criteria, Brown's proposal has transit-oriented "Smart Growth" written all over it. And that's what the major environmental groups have historically promoted:

Livable communities, designed for people rather than for automobiles. This requires changing the layout of many new developments, as promoted by the ìneo-traditionalî planners and New Urbanists. - Sierra Club Stop Sprawl Campaign

Vacant and abandoned properties contain enormous, untapped economic potential and recognizing these kinds of properties as valuable assets is a crucial part of reviving flagging economies. Congress and the federal government can play a critical role in incentivizing the private sector to invest in our communities and redevelop vacant and abandoned properties. - Smart Growth America

Interestingly enough, Brown's proposal ran into opposition from the political left when it was announced in May. According the Los Angeles Times, this happened:

A coalition of labor and environmental organizations has come out against the proposal, arguing that the governor’s plan would harm public health because it allows housing projects to sidestep the state’s premier environmental law.

“It would be a disaster for local government, local communities, the environment and the citizens of California,” said a May 18 letter to state lawmakers from the State Building & Construction Trades Council, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other labor and environmental groups.

In addition, the Sacramento Business Journal printed this:

“It would simply tie the hands of local government in approving major development projects with significant impact on local communities,” wrote the authors of the letter, which was signed by the State Building and Construction Trades Council, multiple other construction unions and some environmental groups.

When I fact-checked this coverage, I was not able to find any published press releases, published letters or official statements to back up the reportage; so I won't call out these organizations for now.

But why on Earth would big labor oppose this proposal? Shouldn't the unions back this as a building boom in infill housing would create thousands of construction jobs for the middle class all over the state? If developers have to look for construction labor, wages have to go up because businesses would have to compete for the workers by paying them more, especially if it involved two competing firms. Plus, all of those new workers would still have the right to organize which they should if their employer was defying or dodging labor laws or provided an unsafe working environment.

There is an argument that could answer this question. Some say that these special interests oppose the Governor's proposal because they can use CEQA to delay projects in order to get backroom labor deals from developers. That means, environmental law could be exploited to pander to labor unions as well as the lawyer lobby. If that's true, that is CEQA abuse at its absolute finest. Either way, that type of crony capitalism has to be stopped, period.

Plus, it would be absolutely foolish for any environmental group on the planet to obstruct what is being proposed. It is a stone cold fact that CEQA abuse and other government red tape has blocked infill transit oriented development in the past or made it too costly to the point where builders can't profit from it. This type of smart growth urban development is meant to improve the environment by giving workers an option to live closer to work and utilize the numerous transportation choices available other than driving alone in a car from a faraway home.

But under current law, the market generally has no other choice than build bigger homes on cheap undeveloped land in order to profit. That has contributed to Southern California's urban sprawl disaster and congested freeways. Yes, there is some infill development happening right now in developed areas. But current smart growth projects in Los Angeles and Irvine involve premium apartment and condo units that are far too expensive for the average worker.

To be fair, the opposition's argument over local control does carry some valid points. Jurisdictions need to retain such authority to govern what type of development can go where. But that is no excuse to throw out the entire proposal.

Under the provision, the local governments would retain strong control of their jurisdictions if this proposal as written were to become law.

After all, counties and cities would still be able to define their local land use and general plans. Specific zones such as community master plans, downtown districts and transit villages could still be designated. They would continue to be able to predefine the unit density per acre, accessibility and parking space requirements into the rules. That means if the local government determines that a project is inconsistent with the existing general plan and zoning standards and rules, it can still reject the project. For example, a 50-story 2,000 unit apartment tower cannot be built on land zoned for 3-8 story buildings and 100 units-per acre. Local governments would also have 30 days within the application submission to give written documentation of, and explain the reasons for the non-compliance.

With all that said, that also means the local governments have a responsibility for their people to conduct general land use plan updates regularly with transparency and public outreach as their populations and demographics change. That would ensure the people still have their voice heard within the public forums on decisions on urban development in general. A good example of such transparency were the land use public hearings for Temecula's Jefferson Avenue corridor and Southwest Riverside County's Highway 395 corridor.

A local government's general plan and zoning like Jefferson Avenue and Highway 395 are intended to plan for prospective development. The new provision will give these jurisdictions an incentive to better plan for growth and define what types of development can go where.

Now is the time to act

"Not in by backyard" and NIMBY obstructionists are certainly a major contributing factor to the housing crisis. Some in the lawyer lobby have resorted to greed in capitalizing on CEQA loopholes from infill smart growth projects. And some in the labor and environmental lobby may be contributing to this as well.

The Governor's proposal is only a starting point and has to be strengthened so that hardworking Californians are not priced out of a home. Keep in mind some cities will react by keeping their general plans outdated or adopting red-tape hurdles of their own to hinder development. But Southern California is rich in the number of cities and there are many like LA, Irvine and Temecula that would welcome infrastructure expansion through updated land use policies to handle population growth demands.

The state government did approve a final spending plan a few weeks ago with a hint that it may go along with the Governor's proposal given that Brown agreed to set aside money for subsidized housing; that is something this ideological legislature backs.

I will continue to track the progress of this reform bill when this continues in August. Chances are there will be some refinements made before it reaches Brown's desk, but this proposal could be a major starting point in finally solving our decades-long history of marathon commutes, traffic congestion, urban sprawl and expensive housing. The point where California workers can finally live somewhere decent near their jobs is within reach and history will record this new era of smart growth workforce housing development.

Let's get Southern California moving!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Another Trivial CEQA Environmental Suit against Highway Safety

The state and RCTC have long proposed truck lanes for SR-60 through the Badlands for safety's sake but opposition uses California's own law against it. 

Photo: Riverside County Transportation Commission

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

If you passed through the 60 freeway in between Moreno Valley and Beaumont, you know there is a narrow section of four lane highway that circulates its way through the Badlands Hills. As you may know SR-60 has very high truck demands with commercial rigs accounting for 16% of total traffic according to state documents. If you add it up, for every 10 vehicles, 1 or 2 of them are full-size trucks. Factor in the growth of commuter and leisure traffic passing through with the contrasting vehicle speeds between them and the trucks. Factor in lack of shoulders on each side of the road. Factor in twists and curves. There you have a recipe for a dangerous road environment and the collision stats confirm that.

Safety alone should be a valid reason that this project led by Caltrans and the Riverside County Transportation Commission must move forward regardless of what ideological spin is put out there. If there's a safety issue along our roadways backed up by hard facts, it has be addressed without question. The recent installation of "Your Speed" alert signs to control speeding and restricting truck traffic to the right lane along this segment of the 60 may have helped, but those fixes alone have not and cannot rectify the problem. The continued high accident rates are due in part of the narrow lanes, lack of shoulders, and contrasting speeds between trucks and cars. Both the truck lane and shoulders will resolve that.

Map: Riverside County Transportation Commission
You would think that a safety project like this would be fully funded and cleared for development immediately. But the state government got a nasty taste of its very own environmental law. Loud opposition yesterday filed a California Environmental Quality Act lawsuit against Caltrans as the primary respondent and the Riverside County Transportation Commission as a party in interest. You heard that correctly. Truck lane opponents used state law against the state government. The primary plantiff is the Center for Biological Diversity supported by the Sierra Club and Friends of the Northern San Jacinto Valley. Those groups see a connection of the added truck lane with a growth in the logistics and warehouse industry in the Inland Empire:

Approving yet another freeway expansion opens the door for more urban-industrial sprawl, precludes compatible land uses, and disrupts ongoing wildlife conservation efforts.
- Tom Paulek of the Friends of the Northern San Jacinto Valley.

Adding truck lanes just encourages more truck traffic into and through our region instead of utilizing and expanding rail to take more trucks off our freeways and reduce the air pollution they generate. - Tom Thornsley of Residents for a Livable Moreno Valley.

Conservation and community groups filed a lawsuit today over a Southern California freeway-expansion project designed to increase heavy truck traffic in an area threatened by massive new industrial warehouse development. The additional truck lanes would facilitate development of projects like the adjacent World Logistics Center, a sprawling 4.2 square mile warehouse complex that would add 14,000 daily truck trips, worsen already poor air quality and harm wildlife in the nearby San Jacinto Wildlife Area.
- Center for Biological Diversity Press Release

But that last statement is spin. According to government officials, the SR-60 truck lane project was in place long before the World Logistics Center proposal. Plus, the hard fact remains that the collision rates on this highway document that this highway expansion project is clearly about safety, not facilitating additional truck traffic even though the latter could be a consequence given the recent growth in logistics, procurement, and manufacturing jobs.

To be fair, if the market demands an expansion of the Class One freight rail system deeper into Moreno Valley as pointed by the opposing party, the state and feds should clear the way. By the way, the Coalition's position on Iddo Benzeevi's WLC master plan is posted on this blog. Generally speaking, we want to support the infusion of middle-class jobs the entrepreneur wants to bring in and at the same point, we want to ensure the nasty pollution doesn't come along for the ride. Moreno Valley clearly needs the jobs and its people need to breathe clean air. Both of those points are valid. Thus, we have taken a "No" position for now on WLC. But if more powerful, yet cleaner, low and non-emissions trucks do become the norm and the state government finally stops displacing transportation funds like vehicle weight fees and decides to upgrade the connecting highway corridors to sustain the increased travel demands, then WLC could be an environmentally friendly asset which everybody should back. Hopefully, the separate CEQA suit against WLC will resolve these legit issues and that's what environmental law is supposed to do.

But even though The Transit Coalition questions the warehouse master plan, I believe the SR-60 truck lane lawsuit is another example of CEQA abuse.

Confining the highway expansion within or very near the existing right-of-way is not going to destroy the California gnatcatcher, southwestern willow flycatcher, and the bell's vireo. It's a damn shame that these environmental groups cannot acknowledge that this highway has a serious safety problem and that separate truck lanes and shoulders are seriously needed to reduce the collision rates and save human lives.

The suing party spins the debate by mentioning these animals but fails to mention protection of humans travelling through the Badlands which includes passengers aboard two RTA bus routes. The current environment of SR-60 is dangerous for we humans, yet these groups are obstructing a key safety project that will improve the environment for us while ensuring sensitive wildlife habitats are preserved.

This whole CEQA situation and continued abuse of the law has to stop. It has to stop. Projects that are meant to improve the environment are the ones that often get obstructed. SR-60 must not be a dangerous environment for those passing through. The Governor and legislature need to intervene and reform CEQA to legally protect safety projects like the SR-60 truck lane and shoulder project from these disgraceful suits.

Thankfully, some reform is underway as state leaders are working to remove the legal barrier toward infill residential smart growth development. That will tackle the housing affordability crisis and thus cut down on urban sprawl, long distance commuting and pollution which will help with SR-60 traffic flow. Did the environmental groups miss that?

We need to reform the rest of CEQA and put an end to these trivial lawsuits. Human lives are now dependent on that.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Government Red Tape against XpressWest High Speed Rail

If the President and Governor support bullet trains, why are they allowing their visions to be obstructed by their own government rules?

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

DesertXpress Enterprises, the private firm behind the development of the proposed XpressWest high speed rail line between Palmdale and Las Vegas announced Thursday that it will not proceed with outside funding from China Railway International. You may remember that last September, the Chinese offered a $100 million initial investment for the line. But now, that deal is cancelled. High Speed Rail transit advocates and supporters are likely scratching their heads and wondering what the heck happened and how this can be corrected.

All kinds of generalized statements and excuses regarding the disconnect such as "difficulties associated with timely performance" and troubles with "obtaining required authority to proceed" flooded the news media, but there were very little specifics or solutions reported. The good news is DesertXpress Enterprises will proceed in working to complete the project but that's the only general solution I saw publicized in the coverage. Again, no specifics.

As you may know, the XpressWest when completely built out will be very desirable and profitable for rail developers and their operators. The I-15 freeway corridor linking Southern California with the Gambling Capital of the World is clearly a tremendous market for high speed rail investments.

Las Vegas Strip lights at night

Ground transportation bus services are already in high demand and very competitive. Advanced purchase promotional fares between LA and Vegas generally cost the same or just a few bucks more than a day pass to ride the local city bus. That is a fact.

The freeway itself is very heavy during the weekends and holidays. That is a fact.

The speed limit on the I-15 freeway through the Mojave Desert is 70 MPH. That is a fact.

Putting in mass transit infrastructure that can travel twice the speed of the 70 MPH posted I-15 speed limit would certainly draw these tourists from their cars and into the train which would certainly generate profits for the operator. Plus, abundant feeder services are available in Vegas to get travelers from the Vegas station to their destination hotels and locations including the Deuce and SDX Strip/Downtown Express transit routes, local connecting buses, traditional taxis, commercial ridesharing services including Uber and Lyft, and hotel and commercial shuttles.

It's pretty obvious that DesertXpress Enterprises knows this and desires to capitalize on it. Yes, the starting SoCal station is Victorville, but longer range plans calls for a connection to Los Angeles Union Station via Palmdale.

So what the heck is taking so long in getting this investment up and running? Why are outside investors like China Railway backing out? In a statement published in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, DesertXpress pointed to government bureaucracy:

Our biggest challenge continues to be the federal government’s requirement that high-speed trains must be manufactured in the United States. As everyone knows, there are no high-speed trains manufactured in the United States. This inflexible requirement has been a fundamental barrier to financing high-speed rail in our country. For the past 10 years, we have patiently waited for policymakers to recognize high-speed rail in the United States is a new enterprise and that allowing trains from countries with decades of safe high-speed rail experience is needed to connect the Southwest region and start this new industry.

Federal law requires that the trains and all of their components be American-made. That means that the company that ultimately assembles these trains must have a manufacturing plant in the U.S., as well as an American parts-supply chain. That's where the problem lies and exceptions had to be made for the California state to move forward on it's bullet train project.

The feds in 2014 recently granted the California High Speed Rail Authority a waiver of the federal “Buy America” requirements, allowing up to two prototype trains to be foreign-built. “FRA estimates that it could take HSR train set manufacturers a minimum of one and a half to two years to establish the required facilities to support a domestic HSR train set assembly capacity,” the federal agency wrote in its Nov. 24 waiver notification letter published by the Sacramento Bee. That means DesertXpress' statement has some truth.

German train manufacturer Siemens also produces high speed trains and has a plant in California. Parts would need to be domestic for U.S. high speed rail projects. The company currently has a factory in Sacramento to build trolleys, light rail, and regional rail trains. They also assemble electric locomotives for two of Amtrak’s East Coast passenger routes, and plants in Georgia and Ohio for propulsion equipment and motors. They could be a pioneer to manufacture 100% Made-in-USA high speed trains too. So there is some hope the industry will get around red tape and get HSR moving.

But even if DesertXpress' statement is spun, they do have a valid point that the government is getting in the way of HSR progress. And this has happened once before when DesertXpress previously tried to secure a federal loan less than two years ago, but was turned down in part due to this law.

White House Concept: Official Obama Administration HSR future vision.
The irony here is that both Governor Jerry Brown and President Obama are very pro-high speed rail. Just listen to them:

What is important is the connection that we are rooted in our forebears and we are committed and linked to our descendants. The high-speed rail links us from the past to the future, from the south to Fresno and north. This is truly a California project bringing us together today. - Governor Jerry Brown. 

Building a new system of high speed rail in America will be faster, cheaper, and easier than building more freeways or adding to an already over-burdened aviation system - and everybody stands to benefit. - President Obama

However their own respective state and federal government rules which they oversee could very well be obstructing the necessary private investments to make their bullet train visions become a reality.

Unnecessary red tape is very likely the prime obstruction of the XpressWest. Government bureaucracy is more than likely the driving factor of the excessive price tag of the California High Speed Rail project which has grown to levels that is spooking investors and support. Both administrations must know that they cannot fully fund their bullet train master plans quickly with public funds alone under America's free market economic system. The private sector has to invest in it, manufacture the raw parts into trains, and each firm involved must be able to profit, period.

Plus, where exactly are the existing high speed train manufacturers and experience? That is, who makes the raw materials to generate the parts? According to DesertXpress, they're not in the U.S.A. How can high speed rail developers possibly obey the Made-in-USA rule and source their manufacturers of the U.S. high speed trains if no raw HSR manufacturer exists in America? They can't.

Yes, foreign manufacturers like Siemens could transfer HSR manufacturing tasks over to their factories in the U.S.A, but the issue involving the exclusive use of raw domestic parts still has to be addressed. The feds are even aware of this as mentioned in the 2014 waiver letter. But they have to go a step further and make the playing field level and fair for all manufacturers and developers, not just the contracting firms for the CA HSR project. They should not have an exclusivity.

At minimum, all high speed rail developers need to be allowed to work with the foreign factories of the raw parts of the bullet train sets as well as be permitted to import prototype trains and first articles, at least until the industry can set up shop and build up experience in the country. Raw components and parts that should be cleared for import would include materials such as the train's outer panels, interior wall panels, the wheels, glass panels, doors and electronic controls made specifically for high speed rail.

That would better allow Siemens to export parts to the Sacramento plant. Crews there can then assemble them together and perform the necessary quality assurance work to ensure we have top-tier train sets assembled and inspected by U.S. labor. I predict that was the intent of the "Buy America" rule. That would be a fair compromise which would very likely draw better interest and investments from the marketplace while ensuring the finished trains were assembled and quality-checked in this country.

DesertXpress Enterprises and other business investors well know that it's way more difficult to invest and profit in high speed rail infrastructure than it should be. High taxes on businesses and all kinds of unnecessary red tape regulations are choking up private investments on high speed transit to the point that it has scared off even the Chinese.

If you look at the LA Times article in detail, federal records show that DesertXpress Enterprises underwent numerous approvals from several federal agencies, and there's still more regulatory approvals to go including the environmental impact report. That EIR could be a vulnerable target of a trivial environmental lawsuit under existing state CEQA law. But both the Governor and the President envision high speed rail which makes this whole regulatory situation very puzzling. They need to lead the way in streamlining the approval process and get the corridors environmentally cleared and shovel-ready for U.S. developers like DesertXpress Enterprises and their supporting investors. That's where public money and government resources for high speed transit should be spent. Pro-business and pro-economy politicians in Congress may be willing to back this as this would stimulate the market economy in a very conservative way. Pro-union lawmakers may be willing to back this too given the growth in American manufacturing jobs.

Both Obama and Brown need to call on their legislative branches for regulatory reform to make this happen.

If the state and feds want high speed rail, they need to get out the way and allow the private sector to invest and develop it. They have plenty of money to do that. Where's the will?

Monday, June 6, 2016

June 2016 Inland Empire Transit Briefing

Metrolink 91 Line Train 702 departs from the North Main Corona Station for Riverside at about a quarter 'til five in the afternoon. Starting today, it will go all the way to South Perris!

by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Grand Opening Today - Metrolink Perris Valley Line

The day has come. Regional rail service makes its debut into the Perris Valley area through Moreno Valley. The Metrolink Perris Valley Line is now open!

Weekday 91 Line trains 701, 703 and 705 which previously originated in Riverside will all now start at the South Perris Station and continue all the way to Los Angeles Union Station via Fullerton. The new intermediate stops from South Perris include the downtown Perris Station Transit Center, March Field/Moreno Valley Station, and Riverside Hunter Park with feeder service to UC Riverside. For the afternoon rush hour, trains 702, 704 and 706 will all continue past Riverside and return to Perris. In addition there will also be three short-turn round trips in between Perris and the Riverside-Downtown Station and two late PM peak hour one way trips each way between LAUS and Riverside. 91 Line weekend service between LA and Riverside remains unchanged.

Expect lots of excitement and widespread media coverage today of this long-awaited extension of the Metrolink 91 Line. All aboard!

Be sure to check out the full Metrolink schedule change that went into effect.

More Good News from RTA

The Riverside Transit Agency continues to bring us service improvements that will greatly help Inland Empire transit mobility. Three important developments took place since May.

First, RTA has launched new feeder service for the Metrolink Perris Valley Line. In addition, the agency adjusted ten existing bus lines (Route 13, 19, 20, 22, 27, 30, 61, 74, 208 and 212) so that they too can connect to the new regional rail branch. This will allow rail passengers to better connect between the train station and their final destinations.

Secondly, RTA is looking to get grade school students outside during their summer break with a 25 cent one-way fare deal. For the entire summer, June 1 through September 11, all students, grades 1 through 12, can ride any RTA bus for only a quarter each way. This includes CommuterLink and the beach bus runs of Route 202. The 25 cent fare and beach bus service will be a big draw for Southwest Riverside County youth; they can cool off and spend the whole day at the beach in Oceanside with transportation for 25 cents each way. I predict that 202 is going to be busy this summer.

Last but not least, expect a flood of new college students aboard RTA Route 3 and the connecting local and express routes that serve the North Main Corona Transit Center in August. In a landslide vote, students at Norco Community College have said "yes" to RTA's very popular Go-Pass program, which would give them unlimited rides on Riverside Transit Agency (RTA) buses for the next three years beginning this fall. The free rides also cover CommuterLink buses; Routes 206 and 216 currently connect to Line 3 at Corona. Students just swipe their student ID and they're good to go.   

The measure passed with a whopping 87% of the student body in favor. This adds Norco College to the list of participating schools with UC Riverside, Riverside Community College, Mount San Jacinto College, Moreno Valley College, La Sierra University and Cal Baptist University.

Carmageddon Gridlock in Southwest Riverside County

Last Saturday, a brush fire broke near the San Diego County line at the I-15 freeway just south of Temecula. The southbound lanes of the highway were closed for several hours as firefighters battled the blaze. Unfortunately, Carmageddon hell broke loose in Temecula as the southbound I-15 and just about every major north/south surface street in the southbound direction experienced gridlock with delays spanning 90 minutes to two hours.

On the northbound side of the 15, it was bumper-to-bumper from before SR-76 in Pala Mesa to the Riverside County border. Adding to the dilemma was the fact that Pala Temecula Road, the connector that links south Temecula to Pala was also shut down from another brush fire that broke the prior Tuesday. That left the two lane Rainbow Canyon Road and De Luz/Sandia Creek Roads as the sole direct links between the Inland Empire and San Diego County. Both were gridlocked as were the streets that fed into them.

Getting corrective action written up in a case like this caused me to scratch my head. Unlike solving commuter traffic gridlock issues that I've seen before in Corona, the solutions to leisure, holiday and vacation traffic gridlock is not necessarily promoting ridesharing or balancing the job-to-housing ratios. Also, carpool and high occupancy toll lanes just basically provides additional traffic lanes for these travellers given that the majority of them are HOV's, although to be fair, the I-15 could really use them for commuter rush hours in between the North Desert and Escondido. But they won't be any good whenever the freeway is closed for a brush fire.

The answer to solve leisure traffic problems is more long-range because the need is to develop infrastructure that will group these existing "Fam-pool" HOV's into one giant "carpool" to take them to major places like the beach, ballgame, theme parks, airports, and other popular entertainment destinations. That is called intercity passenger trains with funded bus feeder service. Getting a high speed intercity rail line for the I-15 corridor needs be cleared so that the private sector can invest, build and operate these routes.

For example, I'm sure there's enough market demand for a train route from the I-15 to the coast for summer beach-goers and the business operating the rail line will likely offer family fare packages and plenty of on-board entertainment and food. Plus, a tax break incentive could be offered to the high speed passenger rail providers if they allowed Metrolink to operate commuter-oriented bullet train runs on its tracks during rush hours.

Promoting Fatherhood and the Family on the Angels Express

Speaking of taking the train for leisure, you may have noticed the marketing theme for this year's Anaheim Angels Metrolink Express service is very pro-family. The theme is "Every Moment Matters" with the posters and ads showing a father spending time with his son aboard the train.

In addition, the Health & Human Services department has promoted the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse program with billboard ads. I saw one along the I-15 in south Corona.

The core problem of gang violence taking place in San Bernardino, South LA, Moreno Valley and neighborhoods in Riverside is the direct result of the lack of the domestic family unit, especially cases involving boys growing up without a caring father. The Families Civil Liberties Union compiled these disgraceful facts:
  • 85% of all children that exhibit behavioral disorders come from fatherless homes (Source: Center for Disease Control)
  • 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes (Source: U.S. D.H.H.S., Bureau of the Census)
  • 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes (Source: National Principals Association Report on the State of High Schools.)
  • 75% of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers come from fatherless homes (Source: Rainbows for all God’s Children.)
  • 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes (Source: U.S. D.H.H.S., Bureau of the Census)
  • 80% of rapists motivated with displaced anger come from fatherless homes (Source: Criminal Justice & Behavior, Vol 14, p. 403-26)
  • 70% of juveniles in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes (Source: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Special Report)
  • 85% of all youths sitting in prisons grew up in a fatherless home (Source: Fulton Co. Georgia jail populations, Texas Dept. of Corrections)

I'm glad that pro-fatherhood messages are finally being put out there by our local agencies and federal government, especially with the Metrolink Angels Express service. But this is only the start. More messages like these have to be made, printed and posted. They need to be on our streets, bus stops, schools, tv commercials at home and any other needed location.

I remember growing up in school, and each year, Red Ribbon Week, the "Drug use is Life Abuse" campaign from the Orange County Sheriff's Department and programs like D.A.R.E. were all drilled into me by teachers in the classroom, the media and local law enforcement speaking at the school assembly. I was sold that drug abuse was not good and to not give into peer pressure. I'm grateful that I followed this advice.

This message combined with teaching youth to obey all righteous authority and turn to positive role models and mentors and not criminal gangs needs to be broadcast to every American citizen and their children. Messages to sponsor and mentor a troubled youth need to be put forth so they have somebody to turn to for help and acceptance in lieu of criminal drug dealers should their father at home be abusive or absent. We cannot allow any more troubled kids to be brought into a lifestyle that leads them to incarceration or premature death.

We need to deal with this serious social problem.

Friday, June 3, 2016

More evidence Californians are overpaying for housing - Part IV

California citizens have long-demanded non-subsidized housing affordability and now we have a definite answer. Governor Brown has recently made a big announcement and we'll take a look at it.

Concept: In-fill residential development in East Anaheim oriented around conceptual BRT express services via the 91 Express Lanes.
Note: Concept Only. Not endorsed by City of Anaheim, OCTA, Caltrans, or any public entity.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

If you read this blog often, you know we believe that the housing affordability, super commuting, urban sprawl, and dire freeway congestion problems in Southern California are the direct result of a lack of housing inventory caused by broken policies at the state and local levels. Job-rich Orange County for example has a huge problem in that area with the median-price home today more than $600,000 with typical marketplace rents creeping toward $2,000 per month for single bedrooms and over $3,000 for 3+ bedroom family units according to various real estate sources. Similar price hikes have begun to encroach into the Inland Empire which includes Corona and Southwest Riverside County. As a result, both the 91 and I-15 freeways as well as the local surface streets in Corona suffer from excessive through-commuter traffic during rush hours as the affordable non-subsidized homes are in the far-off regions.

More disturbing facts: From 2003 to 2014, California cities and counties granted permits to only 45% of the residential units needed to meet market demands, according to the Housing and Community Development department. Meanwhile as this blog has shown through this series on this topic, other major metropolitan areas generally don't have this problem to this scale with the exception of New York City, Portland and a few other areas.

Last October, I laid out a scenario where a guy named Tom earns a generous $69,000 per year salary working at a firm in the Irvine Business Complex. For many of us, that would be a dream wage. Tom is married with a stay-at-home wife and two children. The wife cannot work. With the child tax credits, about $5,000 is taxed out from Tom's salary per year, leaving the net income around $64,000. At that time, the median home value in Irvine was a whopping $733,100 with median rent at $3,000.

A listing on Zillow had a 3-bedroom single family rental unit at 1,906 square feet listed for $2,985 per month in the older Deerfield neighborhood a few miles east of the Irvine Business Complex job hub. The rent adds up to more than $35,800 per year or a whopping 56% of the net household income; almost double of what should be paid according to financial experts.

The root cause of skyrocketing rents and housing unit purchase prices in Southern California is the broken rule of law at the state and local levels that obstructs inventory development. Back in January, I began this multi-part series "More Evidence Californians are overpaying for housing" in an effort to see whether a single provider of a household with a full time job can afford a 3-bedroom unit for the rest of the family by purposing 30% of the income toward housing costs in other metropolitan areas. The positive results and findings pretty much embarrassed the state.

Governor Calls for Action

Concept: In-fill job and retail development in Moreno Valley
But now, the state government is finally doing something about this economic and urban sprawl disaster as Governor Jerry Brown has announced a plan during his budget proposal that would reduce costs to homeowners and renters not by subsidies, but by better allowing the marketplace to increase the housing supply through reductions in the state's infamous and costly red-tape process.

Essentially, it will suspend or reduce the requirement of local environmental approvals, in particular, under the California Environmental Quality Act, which delay projects or make them prohibitively expensive or not profitable, especially in-fill smart growth projects near transit lines.

Call for CEQA Reform

Think about it. CEQA abuse and obstruction is currently an epidemic and the state government has allowed it to go unchecked for far too long. For decades, "Not In My Back Yard" activists, development opponents, and some lawyers have used CEQA as a tool to block locally approved projects through expensive lawsuits even though the development proposed is clearly not an environmental threat. In fact, some projects that are meant to improve the environment are often obstructed in court. The Metrolink Perris Valley Line which will finally open next week fell prey to that. CEQA often gives NIMBY's and some in the lawyer lobby a tool to distort market supply and demands which allows their properties to be worth more money. Pure greed of power.

More shocking facts: San Francisco law firm of Holland & Knight released a study last year showing such CEQA abuse at epidemic proportions. The findings are shocking and spell out the irony:
  • CEQA is not a battle between business and environmental advocacy groups: 49 percent of all CEQA lawsuits target taxpayer-funded projects with no business or other private sector sponsors.
  • The most frequent targets of CEQA litigation are projects designed to advance California's environmental policy objectives.
  • CEQA's most frequently targeted public infrastructure project: transit.
  • CEQA's most frequently targeted industrial/utility project: renewable energy.
  • CEQA's most frequently targeted private sector project: housing – with the most frequently challenged type of housing project being higher density urban projects such as transit-oriented development and multifamily (including affordable) housing.
  • Despite claims by special interests that defend CEQA litigation by contending that it combats urban sprawl, 80 percent of CEQA lawsuits target infill projects in established communities rather than greenfield projects on undeveloped or agricultural lands outside established communities.
  • CEQA litigation is overwhelmingly used in cities. Special interest CEQA lawsuits often target core urban services such as parks, schools, libraries and even senior housing.
  • Sixty-four percent of the petitioners filing CEQA lawsuits are either individuals or local "associations" that often have no prior track record of environmental advocacy. By contrast, recognized state and national environmental advocacy groups comprise only 13 percent of CEQA petitioners.
  • CEQA litigation abuse is primarily the domain of Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) opponents and anonymous new unincorporated entities, including those using CEQA litigation tactics to gain leverage against business competitors, negotiate union agreements, or stop neighborhood-scale changes required to meet new state mandates such as greenhouse gas reductions or improve critical local services and facilities such as schools and parks. 

There is no question that CEQA abuse is a key example of government obstruction of in-fill urban smart growth at existing California job hubs that has contributed to expensive housing in the state. Now finally, the state government is taking action.

If Brown's proposal becomes law, it will give developers and entrepreneurs an incentive to better compete with the existing big-name home builders and finally address the housing shortage in an intelligent means which will help get prices and rents under control.

I will continue to cover this story as it unfolds and get specifics, but generally speaking, it is long past time for the state to step in and help the working family. Most of us can attest to this situation. Uncounted hardworking families in California struggle every month to pay the unjustified high rents and mortgage payment. Many families often pair up under one roof which overwhelms the infrastructure. Others resort to units far from their jobs and have to spend hours upon hours commuting which clogs the freeways and local streets with through-traffic. Limited affordable rooms for rents have also likely increased the homeless transient population and obstructed supplies in the hotel and motel industries, leading to price hikes there. How can independent developers in the marketplace compete with the bigger-name existing home builders in solving the supply issue if government red tape like CEQA abuse prevents them from making any money? They can't under the current system.

These are all legitimate environmental issues that every environmental organization should be addressing; such groups should not be siding with the greed and overpriced housing.

To be fair, the local governments need to retain their authority to govern land use and approve development projects fairly and impartially. They should retain the power to zone sensitive habitats and wildlife corridors as open space zones and park space. That's why we have planning commissions. But there are jurisdictions out there that would be on board of allowing the market to keep prices in check for their people with adequate inventory. With CEQA abuse proposed to be moved out of the way for housing especially in-fill projects near transit routes, we might finally see some change in the right direction.

Allowing abuse of current environmental law to block projects meant to improve the environment is harmful to the environment. Allowing such abuse to unjustly hike housing prices beyond affordability for working families is morally unacceptable.

The state needs to confront this serious environmental and economic crisis.

Further Need for CEQA Reform

One last fact: Although developed areas, Southwest Riverside County and the Lake Elsinore area are both voided of a full community college campus; students needing access to a full-service campus have to commute north to Menifee or Norco, or south to San Marcos. That sends additional through-traffic along the freeways and local surface streets and overwhelms those schools with outside area students. Mount San Jacinto College proposed developing a science, technology and math campus with open spaces and condensed structured parking (ie. limited surface parking lots) along Clinton Keith Road in Wildomar to address this issue and other growth demands. It's on 80 acres of flat land which would be in-fill given the surrounding residential developments and local land use plans. This school should have been funded and developed decades ago.

Despite this campus being very feasible, environmentally friendly and the fact that it would reduce peak-hour commuter demands to Menifee, Norco and San Marcos via the congested I-15 freeway, it still has an open CEQA lawsuit on the books that was recently appealed to an appellate court after the suing party lost its trivial case in a costly trial paid for by you and I.