Wednesday, December 21, 2016

How the SR-241/91 Express Lane Direct Connector can really get SoCal Moving

Imagine a 90 minute rapid transit route from Lake Elsinore all the way to Irvine. That would be a really nice Christmas present for commuters.

Rapid Express Transit: Imagine leaving your car and hopping on a rapid bus at a park & ride in Elsinore and arriving all the way at the Irvine Business Complex in about 90 minutes without transfers.
Background Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Catatonique © CC-BY-SA
Bus Route is concept only. Not endorsed or proposed by RTA.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Yesterday, I mentioned that the currently proposed design of the SR-241/91 Express Lane Direct Connector had a connectivity problem where motorists coming out of Irvine and using the ramp will not be able to utilize the eastbound HOT Lane egress point at the County Line. That meant those taking the ramp could only go directly to Riverside or points east, or southeast Corona via the I-15. Central Circle City and destinations north of the 91 at the I-15 including Norco, Eastvale and Ontario were excluded. I have called for local officials to bring this up during the state's comment process. Count on this "public hearing" not closing anytime soon on this mishap.

Graphic: Transportation Corridor Agencies
However once this connectivity issue is dealt with, this direct access ramp really has a potential to significantly cut down on Inland Empire commute times into the job-rich City of Irvine area. This would be a long awaited Christmas present for Inland Empire residents who work in the Irvine Business Complex area.

For starters, if the 91 Express Lanes is able to sustain rush hour speeds of at least 50-55 MPH, that would create a congestion-free corridor from the Corona area all the way into OC's economic hub of high-paying jobs.

To make that happen, here's what officials need to consider:

  • Permit a 1 1/2 mile Continuous Access between the 2 Express Lanes and single Auxiliary Lane between the Green River and Coal Canyon Road junctions. This will ease pressure at the intermediate egress/ingress point now under construction and allow motorists using the northbound 241 direct connector to exit the HOT Lanes at this location.

  • Adopt FasTrak Flex for the 91 Express Lanes so that HOV 3+ vehicles do not need to merge into a single 3+ carpool lane and create bottleneck conflict points at the toll gantries. HOV's would declare their carpool by using the switch on their transponder. This will also ensure that 3+ HOV's that use the new ramp will not be charged an additional 91 Express Lanes toll.

  • Abolish the bond debt! Hold the state and federal government to account of paying for the infrastructure; we pay a lot to both bodies and this intercounty corridor is used by people all over the state. It needs to be fully paid for, period.

  • FasTrak-Registered Carpools Ride Free 24/7 on the 91 to promote carpooling. Currently, 50% tolls are charged during rush hour on the eastbound 91 between 4-6pm which is slated to be abolished as the toll bond debt continues to be paid down. That would grow 3+ carpools and vanpools. Non-HOV tolls would then be adjusted to handle the increase in HOV 3+ traffic in the Express Lanes. This will allow more people to travel in the Express Lanes as opposed to more cars. Carpools will still be charged regular tolls on the 241 since the latter is a dedicated Toll Road. Once the debt service coverage ratio (ie. the amount of cash flow available to meet annual interest and principal payments on debt, including senior and subordinated debt) is projected to be at least 1.2 for a six month period, all 3-person or more registered carpools will able to ride free all day, every day.

  • Abolish the Mandatory FasTrak Requirement for 3+ HOV's once the bond debt is paid off and utilize strong CHP enforcement to stop deliberate carpool/toll payment cheating. Vehicles would declare their carpool either by not mounting a transponder or switching their FasTrak Flex to HOV 3+. That would allow any 3+ HOV to get on the Express Lanes for free and go, 24/7. Carpools without a transponder that use the 241 and pay through the ExpressAccount or One Time Toll option would also be able to utilize the 91 Express Lanes. 91 HOT Lane Non-HOV tolls would once again be adjusted to accommodate the additional carpool traffic.

  • 3+ Carpools Only when HOT lanes near capacity, even with high tolls - As the HOT express lanes approach full capacity based on real-time traffic conditions despite expensive posted tolls, the lanes would automatically become a dedicated 3+ carpool lane. That is, only high occupancy vehicles would be permitted entry into the facilities. Once traffic pressures ease, signs would revert the Express Lanes back to high occupancy toll.

  • The last point is the most important because the last thing this infrastructure needs is a bottleneck point of conflict from the 241 north to the 91 Express Lanes going east as the HOT lanes already operate at or near full capacity during the afternoon rush hour. Such a chokepoint must be avoided and the HOV 3+ restriction would address that. That would fare better than restricting ramp traffic from exiting the Express Lanes at the County Line.

    Concept only. Not endorsed by RTA. Do not use for trip planning.
    Riverside to Irvine Rapid CommuterLink Express Transit Line 795

    In order to further encourage carpooling and HOV use on these toll corridors, the Transit Coalition is calling for a new RTA CommuterLink rapid transit line in between Irvine and Riverside with a peak hour branch down the I-15 to Temecula with the main trunk serving the Corona Transit Center and park & ride lot. It would be funded by a pool of user tolls from the 91 Express Lanes, 241, 261 and the 241 direct access ramp.

    The line will connect Riverside County with the economic engine of the Irvine Business Complex including John Wayne Airport before terminating at UC Irvine. It would be dubbed Route 795 with a short turn trunk branch to Corona and two other extended branches to Riverside and Temecula.

    Each of the three branches would operate six peak hour trips spaced 30 minutes apart in the peak direction during rush hours. Hourly off-peak runs would operate for the Corona short trip in between the North Main Corona Transit Center and UCI with the Corona hub, John Wayne Airport and UCI being the main midday and late night trip generators. Again, user tolls will fund this route combined with regular RTA CommuterLink fare.

    With the HOT Lane infrastructure and guaranteed travel speeds, a typical trip would take about 90 minutes. That's right. All they way from Elsinore to OC's primary job hub in Irvine, a one seat bus trip in an hour and a half is possible with no transfers. The short trip in between Corona and Irvine would be about an hour with the full end-to-end journey from South Temecula all the way to UCI in about 2 hours or less. Also, RTA's CommuterLink monthly pass is only $75; how cool is that for commuting costs plus the short drive to the local park & ride lot!

    If public officials adopt these proposals or something similar and address the connectivity issue between the county line access point and the northbound 241 direct connector, we may finally have an efficient high occupancy vehicle multi-modal solution to the Corona Crawl with virtual transitways for high speed rapid express bus routes like Route 795 operating from early morning until late night.

    I have several other 790-series express bus routes envisioned for the corridor. When toll lanes have HOV transit infrastructure and connect to Inland Empire cities, funded rapid express buses become more and more feasible and desirable.

    Such a travel option will be a blessing for commuters, a gift many can't wait to see appear under their Christmas tree.

    Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    Tuesday, December 20, 2016

    Don't exclude Corona and Norco from the SR-241/91 Express Lane Direct Connector

    Circle City and communities north of the 91 along the I-15 must have a means to connect to this high occupancy toll lane infrastructure.

    Graphic: Transportation Corridor Agencies

    Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

    A decades-long envisioned high occupancy vehicle lane proposal of linking the 241 Eastern Transportation Corridor to the 91 Express Lanes has entered into the public comment period for its environmental impact process. Transportation Corridor Agencies which operates Orange County's dedicated toll road network is working with Caltrans on the project of developing the direct connector linking the northbound 241 Toll Road to the eastbound 91 Express Lanes and vice versa.

    Photo: Transportation Corridor Agencies
    One just needs to observe what happens in this area on any given weekday afternoon during rush hour and will come to the conclusion that HOV infrastructure is badly needed and that carpooling and transit use needs to be encouraged on the Toll Roads and connecting HOT Lanes. This connector will make this happen. To waste time sitting in traffic is one thing, but to also pay a toll on top of that is insulting to the Inland Empire worker.

    The irony is that this ramp had been officially proposed since 1992 according to Caltrans and has been mired with regulatory red tape. After decades of getting by all of the politics to get this infrastructure built, construction is getting closer. However, we must ensure that no Inland Empire body is excluded from utilizing this infrastructure.

    Don't Leave out Corona, Eastvale & Norco

    As tremendous as this project will be, there was a troubling design issue buried in Section 2-18 of the SR-241/SR-91 Tolled Express Lanes Connector Project Supplemental EIR/EIS which describes the details of the improvements. This paragraph might surpise motorists who may reside in Corona, Eastvale or Norco. City leaders should take note and might want to convey this to the state government:

    To accommodate the addition of the median-to-median connector, eastbound SR-91 would be realigned to the south. (Figure 2.1, Sheets 3 and 4). The northbound SR-241 to eastbound 91 Express Lanes connector would continue on eastbound SR-91, ending approximately 1,000 ft west of Coal Canyon Undercrossing. An eastbound auxiliary express lane would be constructed within
    the 91 Express Lanes. The proposed auxiliary express lane would begin approximately 2,000 ft east of Gypsum Canyon Road Undercrossing to Coal Canyon Undercrossing joining the initial phase
    of the SR-91 CIP at Coal Canyon Undercrossing. These improvements would provide a four-lane express lane facility, tapering down to three lanes between the connector and Coal Canyon Undercrossing. The number of existing eastbound SR-91 general purpose lanes would be maintained within the project limits. The eastbound 91 Express Lanes would have a 4 ft buffer on the right separating the general purpose lanes, and a 4 ft buffer to the left separating the express connector lane. 

    To put all of that technical language into perspective, what that basically means is that if a vanpool, commuter transit bus or toll-paying driver coming out of Irvine is headed to central Corona or any points on the SR-71 or I-15 north of the 91, they will not be able to use this direct access ramp.

    That's because according to this paragraph and technical drawings, a buffer will prevent motorists from using the newly configured 91 Express Lanes exit at the County Line. Under this proposal, taking this ramp commits the motorist of using the Riverside County section of the 91 Express Lanes. The following egress point is either the direct connector to the I-15 south or west of McKinley in Riverside.

    To be fair, this situation does not hold true going the other way. According to current proposed EIR documents, the connector from the Westbound 91 to the Southbound 241 will be a standard direct access ramp without the buffer restriction, meaning one can enter in the 91 Express Lanes from the County Line ingress point and be able to utilize the direct connector to the 241. However, the simple fact is that people do come home from work in the afternoon.

    Central Corona and Inland Empire cities north of the 91 including Norco, Eastvale, Ontario, and Chino must not be excluded and local leaders need to take a leadership role during this public hearing period. Similar exclusion is exactly what happened when the Express Lanes connectivity with the North Main Corona Transit Center was left out of the Riverside County 91 Project which forced the new commuter express bus transit services to bypass the busy peak-hour hub.

    State officials need to revisit this proposed design and allow these motorists that use this ramp to be able to exit the 91 Express Lanes at the County Line access point to ensure connectivity to these destinations. San Diego County's I-15 Express Lanes which carries more peak-hour traffic than the 91 shows a good example of how direct access ramps and intermediate access points can be designed.

    Source Graphic: SANBAG I-10 Express Lanes EIR
    A workable alternative would be to permit continuous access in between the 2 eastbound HOT lanes, the single auxiliary lane and the general purpose lanes between Coal Canyon and Green River Road which would address the weaving issue. The span of 1 1/2 miles of continuous access would be more than enough to ease pressure and conflict so that sudden weaving does not become an issue. A design variation of the I-10 Express Lanes shows what this could look like.

    With that said, I do believe this direct connector--if designed right--can really do something to get Southern California moving and can open the door to new transit opportunities. I will share more about this tomorrow.

    Monday, December 19, 2016

    Will a grid-based bus route network work in Downtown Riverside?

    The hybrid grid/hub design model is certainly doable, but county seat transit improvements are far from over.

    Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

    The 30-year-old 8-bay central bus terminal in Downtown Riverside will be shutting down with transfer operations moving over either to the nearby Metrolink station or upgraded street bus stops all throughout the central city core effective January 8 which will impact nearly every bus route in the area.

    The Transit Coalition has long advocated for a full-fledged RTA transit center next to the tracks as directly linking Southern California's regional rail network with connecting local buses and park & ride lots will contribute toward a robust hub-and-spoke transit mobility network with timed transfers and improved station waiting areas. Such a station is starting to come to fruition thanks to the new 9-bay mobility hub within footsteps from the train tracks. Three of the hub's stops will be literally adjacent to the Metrolink platform, the remaining six are placed on the far side of the parking lot along Vine Street. And that's the good news.

    The bad news is under this restructure proposal, not every downtown route is proposed to pass through the new hub, but rather the lines will somewhat emulate a grid-based transit network. That's due to the limited number of bus bays at the terminal. I'll mention why this design model may be tough for some trips in a moment.

    Plus, the nation's intercity carrier Greyhound will also be losing its Riverside stop. To date, no replacement station near the new Riverside Downtown bus terminal has been announced.

    However, not all is bad about this restructure and to be fair, the streetside bus stops have underwent upgrades with black bus shelters complete with posted schedule information and solar-powered lighting. Plus, the high-frequency main trunk line of Route 1 that runs through Downtown plus the Route 54 station-link shuttle will be routed to link several of these main transfer stops with the train station and new transit center. Freeway express routes will also continue serve the new terminal point. Thus, Downtown will operate on a hybrid hub/grid-and-spoke routing design.

    The Transit Coalition understands the limited land space and public funding limitations associated with building a full size, 25-bay bus station next to the Metrolink platforms complete with park & ride garages, direct connectors to/from freeway carpool lanes and a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over the 91 freeway into the downtown core.

    That's why we support public private partnerships of the development of such amenities where the government uses public money to get regulatory hurdles cleared and transit amenities shovel-ready and the private sector pays for the engineering and construction of the infrastructure.

    What the City of Riverside should do is work with Caltrans, RCTC and RTA, and zone the station block as a specific plan that can support the expansion of private sector jobs. If the private developers who are building the office towers and factories within the specific plan area also included public amenities into the development, they would receive big tax and fee breaks on their proposals.

    Qualifying amenities would include a hybrid public parking and park & ride parking structure to replace the surface Metrolink station lots. General public pays to park where retail and transit users can use their passes or receipts to park for free. Also eligible for development tax breaks would be an expansion of the RTA bus station from 9 bus bays to at least 25 plus additional space for private carriers like Greyhound, Megabus and casino buses; a police outlet for stronger proactive security; direct access ramps to/from the 91/60 carpool lanes; boarding platforms for the proposed Riverside Reconnects Streetcar, and a pedestrian overpass into the the downtown core. I believe the public would support this funding and amenity master plan for the downtown station block.

    The Transit Coalition believes generally that if every bus route in an area operated service frequencies of 15 minutes or better from early morning to late night, a grid-based design would work best because street-side transfer layover wait times would guaranteed to be 15 minutes or less since each route would operate at those intervals.

    However, because the vast majority of RTA bus routes that operate through Downtown Riverside do not operate this often, hub-and-spoke would have been the better choice as people needing to wait longer can use the amenities typically offered at transit stations like restrooms, drinking fountains, additional benches and a security presence. Plus, if the private sector builds the station, count on having a top-rated snack or coffee retailer nearby. But if you take a careful look at the current routing plan, you'll find that some direct transfers are gone such as the Omnitrans 215 to RTA 49 connection which now requires a third transfer or walking. That's why a grid-based design is troubling.

    But with Route 1 connecting to the Metrolink station, I believe this unique hybrid hub/grid-and-spoke design will be workable for the riding public, at least for now. But transit infrastructure projects in downtown are far from over.

    Public agencies need to expand the 9-bay bus layover area at Metrolink into a genuine Riverside Downtown Intermodal Transit Center and consider reverting the design model of the bus routes back to hub-and-spoke. The private sector should be given the incentive to develop such a first-rate mobility and economic job hub for the people of Riverside.