Thursday, June 15, 2017

Still Parking for Public Transit at Murrieta Wal-Mart


by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
riversidetransit@gmail.com


Back in the beginning of April, "Public Parking Prohibited" signs were posted at the parking lot entrances to Sam Walton's discount department store in Murrieta. Reading the signs from a literal standpoint meant customers only were allowed access; no more commuter parking.

However, 2 1/2 months later, I was able to confirm that commuters are still able to utilize the parking lot during the day for the RTA CommuterLink bus stop located at the Murrieta Wal-Mart without fear of towing, at least for now. I saw this myself. In addition, I was able to get some information locally. To be clear, I don't like using unidentified anonymous sources as facts for this blog as I don't want you the reader thinking I made this stuff up.

So to back up this confirmation, I went over to this location just after 5AM in the morning and saw for myself that scores of commuters are still allowed to park along the outer areas of the lot to catch the bus and the private vanpools. This is 75 days after the parking restriction signs went up. That being said, it appears to be business as usual.

It would be wise for public officals to keep the riding public in the loop, look for and secure an official designated Park & Ride location for the Murrieta area, and improve and streamline parking access for the Promenade Mall Mobility Hub stop. Southwest Riverside County has a robust workforce. Most of them commute long distances. We need infrastructure so that they can leave their cars at a secure lot and board one of these HOV's to and from work.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Carpool Lanes: Should Riverside County "Open to All" outside of rush hour?


Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
riversidetransit@gmail.com


The answer is no. However the debate has surfaced again.

The State Assembly voted overwhelmingly to advance a bill to relax the HOV 2+ restrictions during off-peak hours and weekends in Riverside County. Nearly four years ago, the state targeted the 134 and 210 Freeways in Los Angeles County; The Transit Coalition opined that 24/7 enforcement was necessary in LA County and Governor Brown agreed when he vetoed AB 405 in 2013.

AB 91 targets the freeway carpool lanes in Riverside County but excludes 91 Express Lanes. The Transit Coalition's position and Brown's 2013 veto statement does not support the opening of the carpool lanes to all road users in such a fashion but to be absolutely clear, off-peak traffic patterns on some freeways may correctly dispute this. The keyword is "some". Therefore, the workable means to address this problem is not by opening the HOV lane floodgates from Sacramento, but to allow local authorities statewide to manage the carpool occupancy requirements and enforcement periods on a corridor-by-corridor basis.

Traffic and civil engineers should be the ones tasked to write up the formulas and specifications based on the raw traffic data to aid local leaders in managing such lanes. The same holds true of determining whether such facilities should allow for continuous access or have dedicated access points. There are some Riverside County freeways like SR-60 through east Moreno Valley that experience very few vehicles in both the carpool and general purpose lanes outside of peak hours; thus, this corridor doesn't need 24/7 enforcement. But some sections like the I-215/60 segment east of Downtown Riverside or the I-215 in between Riverside and San Bernardino fare differently. That HOV section may need to be kept at 24/7 with improved public transit services; engineers should decide on that and advise the politicians, not the other way around.

Generally speaking, policies need to ensure the carpool lane remains moving at all times during regular traffic conditions. A firm valid objection to AB 91 or any other similar proposal is creating a circumstance where opening up the carpool lane to all would fill it beyond capacity during off-peak hours with solo drivers and slow it down. Because SoCal's freeway network is so vast, carpool lane usage policies need to be managed locally.

One caveat to this discussion: If there's a sigalert, traffic collision, construction, maintenance work, hazard, or any other acute road incident that is tying up traffic in the general purpose lanes outside of rush hour, allowing law enforcement and Caltrans to temporarily open up the high occupancy vehicle and toll lanes to allow all traffic to pass through would absolutely be justified. This includes relaxing access lane-change restrictions by allowing drivers to cross over the double white/yellow lines. Digital freeway signs would announce such permissions.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

RTA's FY18-FY20 Short Range Transit Plan

Corona and the I-15 transportation corridor must not be excluded from proposed SR-91 express bus service.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
riversidetransit@gmail.com


It's that time of the year again when the Riverside Transit Agency will revisit its mobility plan and fiscal year budget.

RTA conducts this SRTP update each year in order to remain eligible to receive external funding. In addition, the plan offers the public, stakeholders and other agencies to review and provide comment. There are two big service adjustments planned for this cycle:
  • Mid-year implementation of CommuterLink Route 200 service connecting San Bernardino and Anahiem via the 91 Express Lanes with proposed hourly weekday headways and limited weekend service with departures every two hours.
  • RapidLink Gold Line service implementation in late August with 15 minute headways during rush hours.
In addition the plan calls for a number of improvements for local lines, numerous transit mobility hub upgrades, and enhancements to the Dial-A-Ride Plus program, which provides additional paratransit service beyond the federally mandated 3/4 mile boundary. Did I mention many new transit centers dubbed as "mobility hubs?"

Proposed: The Inland Empire Connector - CommuterLink 200

Coming up in the New Year of 2018, RTA has proposed to launch a very promising CommuterLink Route 200. Unlike the other 200-series routes, this backbone express line is planned to operate every hour on weekdays with limited weekend service of two-hourly intervals. From the east, Route 200 is slated to go from the San Bernardino Transit Center and connect with the Riverside Downtown Metrolink Station, Lemon Street in downtown near the county buildings and courthouses, La Sierra Metrolink Station, Village at Orange transfer hub, ARTIC, Disneyland, and the Block at Orange area. Along the freeway sections of the route, the bus will utilize the carpool and the 91 Express Lanes as its virtual transitway. The fleets will be full-size 40 feet CommuterLink buses.

That's all the proposed information I have regarding this line, but it will provide a long-overdue all-day transit line for the 91 corridor, and by utilizing HOV transit infrastructure, it will draw additional choice riders from driving solo in their cars into taking the bus.

Finally...There will be a quick and reliable means to get in between Riverside and Orange County outside of rush hour given the hourly weekday frequency. That's the good news.

The bad news is this new line is proposed to replace Route 216, which currently spans between Downtown Riverside and the Village at Orange with intermediate stops at the Galleria at Tyler and the Corona Transit Center. That means the Corona station stop, now used by Route 216 is proposed to be excluded from Route 200. This is speculative, but I predict the failure to include a 91 Express Lanes connector to/from North Main Corona could have led to this proposal to remove the Corona stop in this process.

Another issue appears to be service redundancy with Omnitrans Route 215 in between San Bernardino and Riverside. I assume some kind of a fare or transfer arrangement will need to be made for this section and that it will remain at its current frequency and service span. In addition, the initial Route 200 proposal does not include the Galleria at Tyler transfer hub nor will it directly connect with the RapidLink Gold Line. Those also need to be dealt with.

To be clear, the Route 200 proposal is not yet final given that it's bundled into a SRTP document and chances are a separate public comment period will be needed in order to advance it. People originating from or headed to destinations in Corona or along the I-15 corridor need to demand that they not be excluded from Route 200. This connection to/from O.C. must be maintained with some kind of feasible and practical alternative.

But this fundamental flaw demonstrates exactly why high occupancy toll lanes need transit infrastructure. If you don't connect the lines, transit services get threatened.

Fortunately, the finished 91 Express Lanes through Corona left room for a future second direct connector to/from the I-15 North and I've noticed there may even be room to spare in the median to build a third direct access ramp to/from West Grand Avenue given this extra shoulder space. If that drop-ramp can be engineered into a future project, that will be HOV transit mobility gold for North Main Corona (no pun intended)! Buses and carpools would only need to travel a few blocks from the Corona Transit Center and neighboring park & ride lots to access the HOT Lanes. Stay tuned for more information...

Proposed: RapidLink Gold Line

I've blogged a bunch of RTA's longtime proposal of bringing limited stop, rapid service for the Magnolia and University Avenue transit corridors in between Corona and Riverside. It's almost here! The RapidLink Gold Line is proposed to start late in August with 15 minute headways during rush hours for the entire route span.

To keep it short, if you've ridden the local Route 1, you know that "Stop Requested" bell goes off at nearly every stop and any mid or long range regional trip can become slow and tedious, especially during peak commuter travel periods. I've experienced it firsthand and with only 14 total stops, RapidLink will provide a quick and speedy alternative to get up and down this corridor during the rush hour. Hope to see it expanded to all day service very soon!

Friday, May 5, 2017

The 91 Express Lanes can really get Southern California Moving

The new HOT Lane extension through Corona promises relief from congestion and many people are taking advantage of it. What simple policies can be adopted to guarantee travel speeds?


Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
riversidetransit@gmail.com


When it first opened in 1995, back in the days when one way off-peak tolls were under a buck, the 91 Express Lanes became one of the first FasTrak-automated toll lane facilities around. Built with private funds, the Express Lanes were the solution to provide capacity improvement to the SR-91 corridor at a time when no public funds were available.

On the surface, the public-private partnership appeared noble; the operator California Private Transportation Company would assume the risks involved and the state would get additional transportation infrastructure at no cost to taxpayers. It sounded like a perfect solution.

However, buried in the agreement between CPTC and Caltrans was the disastrous non-compete provision that created a 1 1/2 mile no-improvement zone along each side of SR-91. The clause prohibited any improvements along the corridor for a 30 year period. As the Inland Empire grew, transportation officials knew that a new agreement had to be made.

Photo: OCTA
In 2003, the Orange County Transportation Authority purchased the 91 Express Lanes which eliminated the non-compete provision, clearing the way for further infrastructure and transit improvements.

Following the purchase, the toll lanes underwent a complete marketing makeover with the new 91 Express Lanes logo, the catchy blue and white toll rate and message signs, and new transponders. In addition, the toll lanes became a High Occupancy Toll facility with the announcement of the "3 Ride Free" incentive where carpools or other HOV's with 3 or more passengers and a registered FasTrak transponder can travel toll free except eastbound between 4-6pm Monday through Friday.

The elimination of the non-compete rule also allowed for the development of the Riverside County extension of the 91 Express Lanes to the I-15 junction.

The New 91 Express Lanes

In March, officials launched the opening of the extended HOT lanes into Riverside and south Corona, thus creating the four-lane, 18-mile Express Lanes within the median of the 91 Freeway in between SR-55 and I-15. The facility offers one intermediate access point at the county line near Green River Road for motorists to enter and exit as well as a direct access ramp at the I-15 freeway to/from the south.

As a separate project, the Orange County section was revamped with federally compliant signs, white double lines that separate the HOT Lanes and general purpose lanes, new delineators, and new paving.

As mentioned, vehicles with three or more people travel toll free except eastbound, Monday through Friday from 4-6pm. During this PM rush hour period, these HOV 3+ motorists pay 50% of the posted toll. The carpool discounts are applied by using the dedicated 3+ Lane at the toll gantries.

This extension is a milestone moment for the Corona Crawl.

Continuous Improvement

As with any other transportation project around, continuous improvement of the corridor will be perpetual. This includes adopting policies that will keep the 91 Express Lanes moving at guaranteed speeds of at least 45-50 mph during rush hours.

Because travel demands along the 91 corridor are so high, the Express Lanes too have been filling to capacity for both sections. That means immediate solutions must take place. One noticeable issue is bottle-necking at the toll collection points with weaving traffic between the two toll and single 3+ carpool lane as the prime suspect. Bottle-necking is also present at the end of the Express Lanes headed eastbound for the branch that continues into Riverside. On top of adjusting tolls of which officials are currently executing, two other solutions which can be executed immediately can resolve that. Here is what should be considered:

Adopt FasTrak Flex Carpools with 3 or more passengers can then use the switch on their transponder to declare their carpool and not have to weave to the single 3+ Lane to receive their discounts.

Prior to starting their trips, motorists will indicate the number of occupants in the vehicle by moving the switch on the transponder to the appropriate setting (1, 2, 3+). 2-person carpools will still be charged the full toll on the 91 Express Lanes and 3+ HOV's 50% eastbound from 4-6pm on weekdays.

Because the 91 Express Lanes already offers a switchable transponder option for account holders that use LA's Metro ExpressLanes, the only major work that will need to be done is to reprogram the toll gantries and enforcement beacon lights to support FasTrak Flex and use Flex as the main transponder.

HOV 3+ Only When demand increases and travel speeds fall below 45 mph despite high posted tolls, the 91 Express Lanes should automatically close access to non-carpools with the message displayed on the electronic signs reading “HOV 3+ ONLY w/ FASTRAK”, indicating that the non-carpools will not be allowed to enter the Express Lanes until average speeds go above 45 mph.

Toll paying drivers already in the Express Lanes when the sign displays “HOV 3+ ONLY w/ FASTRAK” will be able to complete their trip and not be mandated to exit at the County Line.

Another issue that should be considered is simplifying the intermediate access point at the County Line by restriping the third exit/entrance auxiliary lane as one continuous access weave lane instead of separate sets of exit and entrance lanes. That means motorists should be able to use the entire 1-mile stretch of this section to enter and exit the Express Lanes via the weave lane legally. This will reduce bottleneck conflicts in this area. Currently, there are a multitude of sections with double white lines without the delineator posts separating the lanes. The double white lines define the exit and entry points but can get very confusing if one is not paying attention to the signs. Thus, it can become very easy for drivers to make lane change mistakes and accidentally cross over the double white lines with no intention to evade tolls or cheat the system.

San Diego's I-15 Express Lane system has it right.


All officials have to do is restripe the intermediate exit/entrance lanes as a single full mile, continuous access weave lane and separate the two Express Lanes with a single section of double white lines or even have this section be continuous access too depending on traffic patterns. The mile-long continous-access section will better allow vehicles entering and exiting to accelerate or decelerate via the weave lane and to store additional potential vehicle queues which will ease pressure and reduce illegal lane changes in this area.

On the public transit front, there is official word that the 91 Express Lanes is slated to get a variation of Rapid Express bus service for the corridor with departures every hour during the workweek with the route starting at the San Bernardino Transit Center and ending at Disneyland with service to ARTIC. This will be a big story. A tri-county, all-day bus route along the 91 with hourly frequency on weekdays...How will that impact the existing RTA Route 216? How can the existing Corona Transit Center and the Village at Orange hub points play roles in this too? What about weekends? The analysis is coming...

Monday, April 3, 2017

No more Public Transit Parking at Murrieta Wal-Mart


by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
riversidetransit@gmail.com



I'm in the process of writing up an analysis of the new 91 Express Lanes in Riverside and hope to have this published later this week. I've taken four round trips aboard the HOT lanes during its first few weeks in service, all of them except for one have been in a 3+ carpool. The lanes have been a blessing. We finally have some decent HOV infrastructure through Corona and I've found that both branches of OCTA Route 794 have been re-routed to use them. With the 91 Express Lanes serving as a virtual transit way for this line, I predict that it and the connecting Park & Ride lots will see some sharp growth in the months to come. More on this soon.

Speaking of Park & Ride lots, I need to break the story of a situation in Southwest Riverside County. The Murrieta Wal-Mart Park & Ride, one of the busiest commuter lots in the region that serves RTA Route 206 to Corona, Route 202 to Oceanside, the future Route 205 to the Village at Orange, and about a dozen private vanpools is slated to be closed to commuters. Management posted towing warning signs at the lot entrances which bans public parking. Customers only from now on.

I was able to confirm this issue and got some information from local management and passed it on to RTA so that action can be taken so that hopefully, a replacement bus stop next to a public lot can be found. To be clear, since I have contacted somebody locally, I really cannot publish any details of the disposition or what was discussed, but it appears very clear that Sam Walton wants out of providing commuter parking just because this store has gotten so busy.

I am thankful that the retail giant has provided the Park & Ride section ever since the dawning of Lines 202 and 206, but with growth outpacing lot capacity, I can understand why this action was needed to occur from a business standpoint. If I were the district manager and saw my store's parking lot filled with non-paying commuter traffic, I'd execute the exact same thing.

The reason this is an important story is that most of Murrieta's residents commute out via the I-15 freeway. Public Park & Ride lots with commuter transit and vanpool options are essential given these demographics. To have such Park & Ride infrastructure cut off at these transit stops for an extended period of time will negatively impact traffic in through an already congested corridor and seriously hurt ridership aboard the 202 and 206. RTA needs to secure an alternative site, follow the lead of the private vanpool companies and stop these buses there, immediately. There are a number of official Park & Ride lots out there that deserve transit services.

I'll keep a close watch on this story as it unfolds.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The 91 Express Lanes Riverside Extension is almost done

Dual HOT lanes to replace the existing 91 carpool lane through Circle City.

Video Rendering: Riverside County Transportation Commission 91 Project

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
riversidetransit@gmail.com


It's a project that's been talked about for years and one that's decades overdue. It's the extension of the 91 Express Lanes from Orange County through Corona to Interstate 15. With the infrastructure nearly built completely, crews are now striping in the dual high occupancy toll lanes. Opening day is scheduled for Monday, March 20.

With the painting of the new lane stripes came the temptation of motorists sneaking into the soon-to-open lanes to bypass stopped traffic which was reportedly occurring last weekend. Sorry folks, the 91 Express Lanes in Corona is not open yet and is still a construction zone. Stay out until opening day! RCTC is working on putting up additional cones and barriers while work and inspections are being finalized.

As far as the existing carpool lane through Corona, it is being replaced with the HOT lanes where 3 or more persons will now be the carpool for toll-free or discounted travel with a FasTrak via the high occupancy vehicle infrastructure. Because HOV demands are so high for the 91 during rush hours and weekends, 3 or more persons needs to be the carpool occupancy requirement--similar travel patterns as the I-10 corridor just east of Los Angeles. I have long wondered how the conversion of the existing carpool lane into the 91 Express Lanes would take place. Now we know...

Upon traveling through the corridor, I found that the existing HOV lane that is to be replaced is quietly being re-striped into the far left general purpose lane whereas the two 91 Express Lanes will be two newly striped lanes just to the left of the former carpool lane once they're opened. It's interesting to note that vehicle occupancy enforcement of the old 2+ HOV lane during the tail end of this construction period was next to impossible because of very limited signage that restricted the far left lane to 2+ carpools. The only temporary carpool lane signs that restricted the left lane that I recently found were the diamond symbols in the left lane with very few "Left Lane Carpools Only" signs near the median. In fact, while traveling through the areas where the new HOT Lanes are striped, the temporary signs were gone and one could not tell whether the far left traffic lane is the current 2+ carpool lane because there were no signs in the area that restricted this lane to 2+ HOV's.

With that said, I found that this method was a workable approach regarding the conversion of this carpool lane. That's because it is just as congested as the regular lanes during rush hours and most weekends and conversion of it to general purpose would minimize HOV displacements in place of routing the carpools via a newly striped lane only to displace them again once the express lanes open.

Speaking of signs, crews continue to replace the 91 Express Lanes signage on the Orange County side. Remember seeing "91 Express Toll Lanes - 2 Miles" or "3+ Lane"? Those and other signs have been updated to comply with federal design guidelines and now read "EXPRESS LANES ENTRANCE - 2 Miles" and "HOV 3+ LANE." New digital toll rate signs using a compliant generic design have replaced the catchy blue and white signs with the 91 Express Lanes branding.

Regarding usage policy and transit access, there are some unresolved problems. The first is linking the North Main Corona Transit Center and Park & Ride lot with the Express Lanes. Although two new RTA CommuterLink bus routes will serve the 91 Express Lanes, central Circle City and points north via the I-15 are excluded. For now, backtracking to McKinley is necessary for carpools, casino buses and RTA Route 216 to connect from this station area with the 91 Express Lanes.

Plus, I find that the enforcement of 3+ carpools needs to be simplified. For example, why do motorists with a switchable FasTrak of which already self-declares their carpool have to merge to a single 3+ Lane at the toll collection points in order to get their carpool discounts? That creates a bottleneck point of conflict with unnecessary weaving. The congestion is already evident on the Orange County side during the afternoon rush hour. If one has a switchable tag set to HOV 3+, that vehicle should be free to travel through in any lane and receive the discount. In addition, the state and feds need to pay down the bond debt so that 3+ HOV's can travel free 24/7 and not be required to set up a toll account.

If those issues are resolved, count on having a first-rate HOT lane transit system for the 91 which will finally place the term "Corona Crawl" into the history books for high occupancy vehicle traveling. But other than that, the 91 Express Lanes will be a tremendous asset and step forward for the 91 corridor. With 18 miles of high occupancy toll lane infrastructure, 3+ HOV's, transit buses and toll-paying non carpools will have another option to get through to Orange County quickly.

March 20th cannot come fast enough.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Don't Jeopardize Federal Transit Funds and Innocent Lives

The economic and social sanctions of disobeying U.S. immigration law is grave.




Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
riversidetransit@gmail.com



For years, the market economy followed by national security has been the most important issue for Americans according to the major polls. That has since shifted to immigration as CBS News released a poll last Thursday showing that problems related to people coming into the USA is now the priority item for President Trump and Congress to solve.

The poll also cites that the economy is in good shape with 61% affirming to 31% saying no; 8% don't know. I predict that Southern California remains an exception simply because the cost of living and the job-to-housing balance here remains out of control.

For the record, CBS reported that the polling was conducted before the Trump administration released an executive order addressing the priority deportation of criminals who are in the country illegally.

The Transit Coalition does not take positions on immigration policy. But if such issues threaten to put the brakes on federal transit funding and jeopardize the lives of people that use the infrastructure, then I will put in my two cents based on existing facts.

Keep in mind that the U.S. Constitution demands that the federal government protect its citizens from foreign attacks. That includes those who come in here illegally with the intention of committing destructive crimes or acts of terror for their personal gain. This includes human trafficking and illegal drug smuggling by the criminal cartel organizations from the southern border. I believe ICE must catch and arrest these people wherever they may be and secure the borders to stop such criminal intrusion from coming into the country. We need to be protected. Unfortunately the press has generally been silent on this point, hence many of us are not even aware of this important factor in this debate.

What the press has not been silent about is the fact that the USA is an immigrant nation with a long history of embracing diverse newcomers and providing opportunity to immigrants, migrants, refugees, and people on the move. Peaceful people who are undocumented are therefore spooked that they too may be deported, hence there is outrage. If this fear does becomes reality and mass deportation of peaceful people do occur, the result would be so morally illicit that I predict such action would be political suicide at the federal level.

In fact, I will submit that the majority of today's 11 million undocumented immigrants would prefer to live and work lawfully in the United States...if they could. That means I believe that immigration laws must be reformed to meet our country's need for the labor that they provide, facilitate the reunification of law-abiding families, and establish a process where they can register to be here legally.

We need to reinstate proven answers such as revisiting guest worker programs and providing a means for peaceful immigrants to reside here lawfully. Also, immigrants fleeing political persecution or social chaos should be able to either seek asylum in the United States, a safe zone within their home country or qualify for refugee status. There has to be an efficient security screening process in place so that terrorists or those causing such persecution are not able to slip through, and that could explain why temporary migration bans are in place from the Middle East so that the U.S. can set up such processes. Again, the media was generally quiet about that factor.

I can go on for days talking about immigration policy, but enough. We need to tackle a key transportation issue which is the threat of the withholding of federal funds should a local jurisdiction decide to disobey U.S. immigration law.

Currently, there are cities within the state and nation that are refusing to cooperate with ICE simply because they oppose Trump's policy on immigration. They provide sanctuary for those living in the country illegally with some reports and hard evidence indicating that they are even harboring criminal immigrants as well.

Although they have the right to oppose the law, write to Congress and challenge such views in court, localities do not have the right to disobey existing immigration policy, especially if it involves arresting, investigating and deporting a criminal to protect the public. Otherwise, they face the grave sanction of losing federal money and that includes transportation funds. Worse yet, innocent U.S. citizens die. That included a man who was robbed and shot down earlier this month by a suspected criminal illegal immigrant while waiting for a Denver light rail train because the local sheriff and mayor refused to cooperate with ICE back in December regarding prior custody of the suspect.

Insubordination to the feds in the name of politics is destructive and damaging to the U.S.A. and the people who use the transit system. This whole situation is very serious. We pay a huge portion of our income to the feds in the form of taxes and we expect that money to come back in the form of public infrastructure, safety and services through the state and local departments and transit agencies. Such money must not be cut off. Law enforcement needs the funds to protect us from criminals and must be able to work with ICE on achieving this.

How can we possibly improve transit mobility and keep our cities safe if local politicians defy federal law and threaten the receipt of federal funds by doing so? As I said, we all have a right and duty to scrutinize U.S. immigration law, lobby for reforms, appeal suspected wrongful ICE actions, and challenge Trump administration policies in court. It's no question immigration law is overdue for change. But we need to obey existing federal law to protect the funding of public services and more importantly innocent lives.

Let's not throw out obedience, transportation and lives with the flawed immigration policy.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Where was the Transit Marketing during the Ortega Highway Closure?

Route 74 reopens after 3 weeks of SoCal freeway gridlock.


Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
riversidetransit@gmail.com

 

Southern Californians have to be relieved that the commuter highway linking Lake Elsinore to San Juan Capistrano is now reopened to through-traffic. The good news came about midday Wednesday and by Thursday afternoon, motorists noticed that traffic patterns have greatly improved...from gridlock back to typical congested conditions.

Late in January, Mother Nature dumped so much rain on the Ortega that it destroyed a section of highway east of Rancho Mission Viejo. Caltrans required a project repair time frame of 3 weeks due to the extent of the damage. Okay, fair enough, but because tens of thousands of motorists use the 74 during the rush hour, the shutdown made a mess of the morning commute and created serious Carmageddon gridlock in the afternoon.

For those who had to commute solo by car out of the Irvine Business Complex area of Orange County and back to the IE each day during the p.m. peak congestion...I would like to give these people a medal because I have no clue of how these motorists did it. They had to handle a 2-3 hour commute each afternoon because traffic was not moving anywhere between the job hub and Corona during the course of the closure. Even if they took the 241 Toll Road in an attempt to bypass the standstill 55 freeway, the queue of stopped cars was backed up from before the 241/261/Chapman Avenue junction. Local surface streets and the Corona Foothill corridor were heavy drives as well.

Thankfully, the 91 corridor has Metrolink as an option and I noted that several more commuters were boarding the train because that was the only efficient option to get around all of the congestion. Since ridership demands increased, the question I need to ask is: Where were the extra train and bus departures and transit marketing during this closure?

The viable option to get around this disaster would have been for the state to increase and market emergency expanded Metrolink train service and connecting bus feeders. I posted such a suggestion 3 weeks ago. But the solution didn't happen and motorists were stuck in a jam.

I did not see any billboard ads, freeway alerts or anything along affected roadways advising commuters to take the train to Orange County and use the connecting feeder buses to get to work and back. The state well knows the commuter travel patterns for the Ortega Highway and being the most practical travel option to get around the shutdown, expanded emergency public transportation should have been offered with additional train departures to handle the ridership surge in conjunction with additional express bus departures for the I-15 corridor. Such public marketing does work because both of the prior freeway shutdowns in LA and Corona had expansive literature informing the public of the closures that yielded a positive reaction that didn't result in gridlock and an increase in transit use.

Government officials may want to better prepare for something like this in the future because the Southern California region consists of hills and valleys and shutdowns of key routes like the Ortega will most likely happen again; if such commuter routes are unexpectedly closed for any reason, there needs to be a fallback mass transit option to keep people and commerce moving, especially if it involves high volumes of rush hour commuters.

To summarize: The Ortega is all fixed and reopened. Another storm is expected to come in later tonight. Officials need to have emergency action plans at the ready to make commuters more aware of their travel options and to prevent this type of Carmageddon gridlock from repeating.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Could we get some Transit Alternatives around the Ortega Highway Closure?

The state government should consider funding an emergency train/bus bridge via the 91 corridor to bypass gridlock.


Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
riversidetransit@gmail.com


During the weekend of January 22, Mother Nature dumped so much rain into Southern California that it contributed to numerous potholes, mudslides and destroyed a section of the Ortega Highway. The two lane mountain road connects Lake Elsinore to San Juan Capistrano and has for decades served as a major link for commuters. Because of the storms, Highway 74 is shut down to through traffic with the damaged section just east of Gibby Road in Orange County.

While verified local traffic is permitted to enter while repairs are being done, the vast majority of rush hour traffic passes through via the Ortega Highway. With the mountain pass no longer a through routing option until who knows when (reports are saying, "weeks"), Caltrans has directed motorists to detour via the 91 Corona Crawl or Highway 76 from Oceanside. Although both of these routes are alternatives, they are far from being good ones simply because both are already congested commuter corridors.

Last Thursday's afternoon rush hour tells the truth. All I can say is that if you're commuting by car out of Orange County and back toward Lake Elsinore during peak congestion, good luck. The 91/55 corridor was backed up beyond the Irvine Business Complex through Corona. Even if one takes the 241 toll road, motorists are stopped just past Chapman Avenue. For the southern detour, the 76 was slow-and-go coming out of Oceanside with the I-15 north heavy from the 76 into Murrieta.

One way commute times can span in excess of 2.5 to 3 hours. I mean could you imagine spending 3 hours going in, working 8-10 hours, and another 3 headed home? Factor in another 8 for sleep and the 24 hour cycle has been fully consumed.

Chances are this pattern will continue until Caltrans repairs this section, which must happen soon but still must be done correctly to ensure the road is safe. That's likely why the reopening date is "weeks" away.

While that's happening, the state should provide emergency funding to our transit agencies to expand public transportation and public marketing outreach so that people can get to and from work without having to endure hours of gridlock or being forced to stay overnight in OC.

The detour via Highway 76 and I-15 though Temecula is a tough call for transit alternatives simply because there is zero high occupancy vehicle lane infrastructure in between Oceanside and Lake Elsinore. However, the 91 detour is a great candidate to expand transit. A train and/or bus bridge via the Metrolink IEOC Line from South Perris to Oceanside should be offered on top of a marketing campaign for the existing commuter services. In addition, more resources need to be set a aside for operations to handle the surge of new riders. That will allow commuters the option to use these public HOV's to bypass the stopped traffic either via the rails or the 91 Express Lanes.

If officials did that, that would at least thin out the congested conditions on our freeways to the point where commute times would be acceptable once more while we wait for Caltrans to finish the repair work needed for Ortega Highway.

Monday, January 16, 2017

More evidence Californians are overpaying for housing - Part VII

A state department report outlines a variation of the Smarter Smart Growth Law as recommended answers. Will state and local politicians finally adopt this proven solution for California's working families?

Too Expensive: Housing prices and rentals just north of the Irvine Business Complex are a disgrace to workers.
Source: Zillow

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
riversidetransit@gmail.com



Critical mass has been reached in Southern California's expensive housing issue, and that is an understatement.

Just take a look at the housing market a few miles north of the Irvine Business Complex area and the numbers provided by Zillow should speak for themselves. While the market is active in this area as shown on the map above, inventory shortage have led to morally illicit pricing for hardworking families.

I could never imagine growing up that regular single family tract housing just east of the 55 freeway in between Tustin and Orange can creep into the $1 million club with single family rentals going for over $2.5k to $3k per month. These are not luxury mansions; these are regular single family homes without the extra bells and whistles of clubhouses, gated streets, or community swimming pools. These are basic housing units within a 20 minute bus ride away from the Irvine Business Complex job hub via OCTA Route 71. It just goes to show that we are in a financial mess for something basic like shelter with reasonable commute times to-and-from work.

For the record, the home referenced on the map above in Tustin near the Tustin Avenue corridor listed for $105,000 is actually a 3 bedroom fixer condo. A 30-year mortgage for that would appear to be very friendly at $500 per month at zero down. However, the posted land-lease fee of $1,242 and the HOA at a whopping $360 is an additional $1,602 per month bringing the monthly house bill of this fixer-upper to $2.1k per month plus the repair costs to make the unit livable. Sorry folks...

It should be clear that homes in excess of $750,000 and single family rentals creeping toward $3,000 per month have led to an increase of transients and have forced the family provider into super-commuting if they want to purpose about 30% of their net income after taxes to housing.

The 91 freeway is a disgrace; the 91 Express Lanes extension slated to open in just a few months and additional Metrolink trains through Corona cannot come fast enough. The I-15 freeway corridor on the south side of the Inland Empire is another example. That links the Southwest region into San Diego County and has become the new 91 Corona Crawl with morning rush hour traffic starting at 5 am and afternoon congestion through Temecula sometimes backing up 15 miles into the rural Pala Mesa area. Temecula surface streets suffer with through-commuter traffic as housing have now become expensive there. Thankfully a local infill growth master plan is in the works just west of the I-15 freeway in Temecula but major I-15 freeway improvements and high occupancy vehicle and rail transit infrastructure are decades away.

The state government has at least finally acknowledged the source of this problem and the local press has been covering it. Last week, the state's Housing and Community Development department released the report "California's Housing Future: Challenges and Opportunities." The Press Enterprise and OC Register spread the news and opined in an editorial that every politician and decision-making official should read.

The report provides yet even more evidence that the cost of living has gotten out of control. The stats and hard supporting evidence there are overwhelming. I could double the size of this now 7-part blog post series and spend several months just talking about it.

For starters, the report cites home ownership slipping to 53.7% in the state, 10 points below the national average in 2014 and lowest of all states except New York and Nevada. New York's housing situation is driven primarily by a similar inventory shortage in New York City. That means that almost half of the hardworking families in California are at the mercy of land owners and rental hikes. This is a disgraceful stat, and this must change.

Affordable: Workers in Las Vegas have plenty of market choices for shelter.
Source: Zillow
Nevada's placement on the list is interesting as this shot of Zillow just west of Las Vegas speaks otherwise. Housing is affordable in the low land. It's possible that the foreclosure crisis and resulting negative credit scores could be contributing factors in the Silver State as Vegas was hit hard last decade. However the resort casinos and other industries continue drive the market economy there. I hypothesize that incentives to rebuild buyer credit may be needed in Nevada.

In addition, we have more hard data that while the population in Southern California has shot up, home development has actually been in a deficit of about 100,000 units per year. That should be direct proof that a supply shortage is leading this entire issue and that we need game-changing solutions to entice developers to expand infill housing all over the region.

The HCD report spotlights the Smarter Smart Growth Law as the answer: Reform development regulations and reduce the government red tape and stumbling blocks to increase infill housing supply. This has to happen at both the state and local level. Essential rules like earthquake resistant structures, fire codes, and street access need to be maintained. But unnecessary issues like CEQA abuse on infill development must be reformed.

The buck stops with the governments reforming such regulations to get to the bottom of this crisis. Whoever takes the lead on this campaign will be a hero for California's working families.

Monday, January 9, 2017

More evidence Californians are overpaying for housing - Part VI

ABC 7's Vista LA brings the community gentrification issue of expensive homes into the media spotlight.


Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
riversidetransit@gmail.com


Southland residents who were watching TV Saturday night and tuned into Chanel 7 got another taste of what overpriced housing can do to existing communities: Gentrification.

Gentrification was defined on the Vista LA show and the dictionary as the displacement of poorer residents as the affluent and middle class take over. However, from what I observed in this entire story of the expensive housing crisis, it's actually the working middle class that often gets displaced out of town while the poor are displaced into cramped living conditions or on the street. In fact, there have been cases where entire cultures have been driven out.

Irvine is one example. Through the 70's and 80's this affluent city housed LA's office workers who commuted daily via the I-5 and the Marines and their staff stationed at the former Tustin and El Toro bases. The region was also flush with orange groves. Though the military jobs evaporated with the base closures in the 90's and the citrus farms being developed, the growth of OC's economic job hub of the Irvine Business Complex kept the region economically alive. However, the continued population growth and lack of residential housing brought the purchase price of regular tract housing to $750,000 or more with single bedroom rentals in excess of over $2,000 per month which had displaced many of these workers into the Inland Empire. To be fair, infill residential development is rapidly taking place in Irvine but still not fast enough in other areas of Orange County.

All one has to do is ask the hundreds of thousands of commuters that work in Irvine or other areas of Orange County and commute in via the 91 Freeway of why they don't live where they work. They will correctly tell you it's too expensive.

According to the Vista LA news story, developers have recently been looking into investing in areas like Boyle Heights and South Los Angeles. Both of these regions have rich cultures and house the region's working class families, most of whom work in the service sector. Because of high housing demands and low supply, land owners have been able to raise rents annually by substantial margins which results in economic pressure on these working families because salaries have generally remained stagnant. According to the report, some families faced rent hikes upwards of $500 per month or 25% in a single year; chances are their income to pay for such hikes didn't reflect that. As a result, these people are priced out and forced to leave. Thus, the cultures and demographics at both of these LA suburbs are in trouble.

Venice and West LA went through this phase a few decades ago as wealthy investors and actors bought up the property but regulatory rules prevented developers from expanding the housing supply to meet the new demands which too resulted in the displacement of the working class families in this area. To be fair, infill smart growth was still maturing back then, but out-of-control pricing still remains in 2017.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti understands the issue and knows that LA needs a growth in housing supply. In addition, he supports informing residents of their tenant rights and enforcing the Ellis Act law to better protect residents living in leased units, especially subsidized housing.

This issue has now crept its way into the Inland Empire. Corona and the Temecula Valley have become expensive with the remaining affordable areas like Menifee, Hemet, Lake Elsinore and other towns along the SR-74 corridor threatened. To say we are at a crisis point is an understatement.

There is no question that high demands for housing and low supply are the cause of this entire issue. In fact, go to South LA, check out the population density, and look at the housing infrastructure. Then, take a stroll through Old Town Temecula. You'll find that the former is way more populated; the latter is more developed but with far less people living there. The hourly bus service frequency of local RTA Routes 24 and 79 should speak of that. Compare that with the numerous LA Metro bus routes and the Metro Rail Blue Line that run through South Central every 15 minutes or better.

I will say once again that the state government needs to pass a variation of Governor Brown's proposed Smarter Smart Growth Law; policy that will streamline the regulatory process for infill residential development that meets local zoning rules so that housing demands can be met and market unit prices and rentals can become affordable for the working class. For example, the proposed 1,000 housing unit arm of the Sears Mail Order Building renovating project in LA deserves expedited processing simply because it is infill. The investor should have been cleared to develop those units years ago.

Regulatory reform at the state level is the key to encourage the development industry to better compete and develop the infill housing necessary to expand supply. That will allow inventory to finally meet market demands in the Golden State and I believe that this is the answer to reverse cultural displacement and gentrification because market rents and purchase units will once again be competitive and affordable. South LA can one day become a paradise with first-rate housing infrastructure that existing residents can partake in.

In fact, a reverse term for gentrification has been coined and is floating around in this debate: "Gentefication" which means the people moving back and investing themselves into the community and protecting the historic culture and demographics of the area.

We need to encourage this new "gentefication" and pass the Smarter Smart Growth Law to fight gentrification, and expanding market housing supply and inventory for the working middle class is the answer. The governments need to get rid of all of the unnecessary red tape that stands in the way and finally solve this problem.