Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thanksgiving: People Stay for Dinner, Family Time is Victorious

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

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a blessed and Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

LA Measure M | A Winner for Inland Empire Transit

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

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 4, 2016

November Inland Transit Briefing: Toll Lanes and LA Measure M

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

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

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

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

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

The storm cleared out as the morning sun rose.

Measure M & Conceptual Metro JEM Line in Los Angeles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Transit Options along Inland Empire HOT Express Lanes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testing the Tolls on the Riverside County 91 Express Lanes

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

70A TEST495
70A TEST980

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

70A TEST180
70A TEST415

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

07A TEST180
07A TEST140

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

6AM Westbound Peak from Corona (except Friday)
SR-241 $4.95
Kraemer Blvd $9.80

9PM Saturday Westbound Off-Peak from Corona
SR-241 $1.80
Kraemer Blvd $4.15

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

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

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

91 Express Lanes Weekend Shift with Revamped OC HOT Lanes 

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

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