VMT Isn’t the Problem

For several years, people interested in transportation and urban planning have been discussing the impacts of motor traffic (mainly private cars) on all sorts of things. Over the last several decades, planning in much of the world has trended toward catering to car traffic, often at the expense of other modes of transportation. A popular measure of how much traffic there is is vehicle miles traveled (VMT) which is as it sounds: a tally of how far vehicles are traveling. Here in America, that figure rose for several decades as more people drove more. All that driving has had a real impact on many different aspects of society.

In recent years, advocates are increasingly shining a light on the true effects of that impact, with many cities starting to take notice and advance (largely token) measures to address the imbalance. The advocates often point to VMT as part of the proof of the ills of the current transportation network in America and one state has even gone so far as to transition their traffic impact metrics to VMT instead of LOS that it is virtually everywhere else. But is VMT really the issue? Or perhaps a better way to ask the question is would the effects of cars on society be different if they weren’t going as far, particularly as it relates to the physical environment?

When approached from that point of view, the answer seems more clear: VMT is not the problem but merely a symptom. This will certainly come as a shock to many people who have argued that VMT is bad for several years. Certainly, there are several ills that increase as cars are driven more such as crashes, emissions, time spent away from family and home, and many other less-than-optimal outcomes. However, at the end of the day, VMT is just another metric that can be used to identify and describe the true problem: car-centric planning and design. But without acknowledging that the true problem is one of design priorities, not the metric, we risk taking the wrong approaches to addressing the issue because there are many car-centric solutions to the problem of high VMT which are ultimately detrimental to the goal of using VMT in the first place.

These solutions can take one of several forms. In some instances, new roads can shorten trip distances and there are even entire projects that shorten trip distances (i.e. grocery store in a community). Both of those types of projects can be completely car-centric and unusable by other forms of transportation, yet they can at least nominally, be recognized for reducing VMT because they technically do. However, few would say that such a project is actually beneficial to a community. New roads have the potential to induce driving while a project that brings shops closer but also plops a large parking lot in an otherwise quaint environment can degrade the quality of the neighborhood, including by ultimately injecting many more cars into a part of town that may have previously not been so heavily traveled.

At the other end of the spectrum, a people-centric environment can be detrimental to lower VMT by being designed to completely exclude cars or at least force through traffic to take a detour around the area that adds length to what would otherwise be a straight trip (see video below). Such a location sounds like it would be beneficial and desirable in many a community, but a focus on reducing VMT can lead to a project that would whittle away at the oasis in an attempt to provide a reduction in VMT. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is the same issue that has long been a hallmark and the bane of the LOS metric and led to calls for its removal. Under LOS, car-centric projects were advanced, even at the expense of all other modes, because they were projected to “improve” vehicular flow to maintain certain levels-of-service. Similarly, absent astute guidance and engaged leadership, that status quo threatens to continue under the guise of reducing VMT.

Of course, the future is far from certain. Advances in autonomous and electric vehicle technology may well mitigate the more pressing issues of private car use by reducing crashes and emissions. However, the use of VMT as the metric to measure how car-centered society is may well prove to just be a stepping stone to a broader realization that cars and people just don’t mix and that places where the latter are living, working, and generally going about their lives are not places where cars should be unless they’re just visiting.

San Bernardino Transit Center Celebrates One Year of Service

One artist used Omnitrans’ old logo as part of his drawing. Photo: author/iNLand fIEts.

This past Saturday, visitors to the San Bernardino Transit Center (SBTC) were treated to a tunes, a cold drink, and a place to rest between buses as Omnitrans held a party to celebrate the first year of operations of the SBTC. As local all-girl band Alive in the Lights rocked out under a cloudless sky, members of the community participated in a chalk art contest in the plaza in front of the SBTC. Artists were competing for a $250 grand prize and they brought their A-game with many great designs. As they drew, they were entertained by antics provided by the SANBAG See Tracks, Think Train campaign mascot  out spreading the word of practicing safety around tracks.

A little over year ago, on August 24, 2015, that dignitaries and curious onlookers stopped by the soon-to-be-completed SBTC in the eponymous city to celebrate the grand opening of the new transfer and customer service facility. The anticipation turned to excitement on September 8, when the SBTC officially opened to the public. Envisioned by Omnitrans since the 1980s, the Transit Center replaces the transfer hub that had floated around the 4th St. area of downtown San Bernardino for decades.

It brings together almost all of their East Valley service into one central location, providing connections to the sbX Green Line, MARTA Off the Mountain service, VVTA BV Link, (as of today) Pass Transit Commuter Link 120, Metrolink by the end of next year via the under construction Downtown Passenger Rail Project, and the Redlands Passenger Rail Project which is projected to be open by 2021. However, the coordination to ensure those connections are available and make sense did delay the completion of the TC, which was originally supposed to open before or at least in conjunction with sbX. At some point in the distant future, CA high-speed rail may also arrive at the site, which would truly awaken the city.

The facility has a staffed customer service desk and 24/7 security to maintain peace and order. Omnitrans has thus far received largely positive reviews of the facility from the riders, many of whom really appreciate the fact that there is an indoor waiting area, public bathrooms, and connections all in one place. The lobby isn’t a grand hall, but it’s design is functional and elegant and provides travelers a much-needed respite from the elements, especially those who are waiting for connections to Omni’s services that run at only an hourly frequency.

However, not everyone is completely happy with the TC. In addition to the usual complaints about the use of tax dollars for public transit, several people have expressed concern about the lack of parking provided at the site. This is certainly an interesting argument because, realistically speaking, there are few instances where Omnitrans’ local service provides a travel time that is superior to that of driving and most of them are not really in the areas around downtown San Bernardino. As such, it doesn’t seem very likely that many people would drive to park and take the bus, something which is already borne out by the parking lots that Omnitrans built for the sbX Green Line that are 99% empty 99% of the time. Building another lot at the TC for bus passengers doesn’t seem necessary and Omnitrans was right to not do so.

In the future, Omnitrans hopes to bring a transit-focused development to the empty lot seen behind the canopies.

Not doing so also meant that they have space that is available for development on the site that will be easier to convert to that use from an empty lot than it would be from a designated parking lot. However, since the TC is also going to connect to Metrolink, parking will be provided in conjunction with the completion of that portion of the project. Additionally, 10-minute drop-off parking is available on Rialto Ave. at the front of the TC. Furthermore, there are literally dozens of acres of surface lots available within a two block radius of the site that could be tapped with some sort of agreement to provide parking for the TC if it’s truly necessary, including over 13 acres directly adjacent the TC at the San Manuel Stadium.

While parking for cars at the TC isn’t plentiful, there is a decent amount of bike parking strewn around the site, albeit of mixed utility. The good part about it is that it is of an inverted U shape and square, but unfortunately, the racks themselves were installed far too close together, rending them partially useless. In addition to the bike parking, the TC is also host to the San Bernardino Bike Hubitat co-op shop. Since opening in May, the Hubitat has helped hundreds of Omni patrons continue rolling.

In the next few years, the SBTC should see an increase in use as more transit connections come online. However, most of the ultimate success for the Center rests squarely on the shoulders of the City. As they look to exit bankruptcy, they have the opportunity to really become a regional powerhouse and world-class city with smart investments and leadership. The coming transit connections provide an extremely advantageous starting point, but they still need to really take the reigns and look forward to the future. Hopefully, that realization happens soon and we can look forward to many more anniversary celebrations.

Progress Report: Downtown San Bernardino Passenger Rail Project

Work is humming along on SANBAG’s project to extend Metrolink service from the current terminus at San Bernardino’s Santa Fe Depot to the Transit Center in downtown San Bernardino. This move of a little over a mile will bring new options and connections to transit users from San Bernardino and many surrounding communities. Though it opened last year, the Transit Center currently only has connections with fixed route bus and BRT service. Once open, this project will provide the first passenger rail service to downtown San Bernardino in at least 70 years.

The switch that will be installed just north of Rialto Ave. is under construction. All photos: author.

Over the last year or so, the construction phase of this project has been ongoing, with changes slowly manifesting themselves all through San Bernardino’s Lytle Creek neighborhood. By far, the biggest changes are of the transportation right-of-ways. The DSBDPRP is double-tracking the entire loop from the Short Way Subdivision, through the BNSF San Bernardino yard past the Santa Fe Depot, then onto [what remains of] the Redlands District to just past G St., where it splits to provide a third track at the Transit Center and otherwise rejoins the existing double-track segment. The double-tracking will allow trains to freely flow from the Transit Center to the yard that is located about two route miles away in Colton.

In addition to the double-track, two grade crossings are being closed by the project: 3rd St. at the tracks and I St. south of the tracks (the intersection with Rialto from the north remains as a right in/out). The closures aren’t completely bad as especially with I St., it provides a great opportunity for a modernization project on an otherwise chronically overbuilt street. However, it appears that they closures will also cut the neighborhood access off, so that is a bit of a loss to the community.

One of the cross tracks from the Colton Crossing embedded in front of the Santa Fe Depot.

The Santa Fe Depot itself is also seeing some upgrades. The project is rebuilding the passenger boarding experience to be run-through to allow all trains to be able to continue on to the Transit Center. This includes an overpass of the tracks. But there have been other changes to the outside. Most significantly, the area in front has been altered to more parking away from directly in front of the building to showcase the entrance and really give a more stately look to the building. A nice walkway now leads directly to the front door and a crossover from the Colton Crossing has been embedded in the concrete directly in front of the building. There is also a pad and stop for the Amtrak Thruway bus service that makes daily stops at the station.

The completed switch awaits installation as work on the second track continues.

Finally, farther west, work has begun on the full extent of the double-tracking. Just north of Rialto Ave., workers have been putting together the switch that will provide the start of the double-track segment that goes through to the Transit Center. Additionally, fencing has been installed at the end of King St. to seal the corridor and keep people off the tracks. While the IEOC Line is the only scheduled Metrolink service to use the Shortway Sub, it is also the connection to the yard, so nearly 50 trains per day will pass through the area to reach the yard in Colton.

Ideally, there will be no major snafus as the year winds down and soon after we ring in the new year, we can begin to take advantaged of one of the most important transit connections in the Inland Empire. Already three years behind, it can’t open a moment too soon. In tandem with the coming Redlands Rail, mobility options in the East Valley are really set to be substantially improved. Hopefully, the cities in the region will be willing and able to properly manage the opportunity that they’re being handed.

More Parking, Apartments Headed for Riverside’s La Sierra Metrolink Station

Transit and transportation agencies pay a lot to provide the patrons somewhere to store their car while they use the service, despite the dubious results, and these parking lots consume a lot of land. Yet, even in the face of oversupply, agencies continue to push forward with plans to expand parking options at stops and stations. One member of that club is the Riverside County Transportation Commission. Back in March, they took comments on a plan to add over 500 more spaces to one of the stations along the Metrolink 91/Perris Valley and IEOC lines. This expansion would occur on an agency-owned vacant lot directly adjacent the existing parking lot.

The apartments under construction as seen from the southeast. Due to the bluff, they are around the same height above the street as the homes.

In addition to the 500+ spots planned for transit passengers at the station, the Metro Gateway project is currently under construction on two other pads at the station. This development will add 187 units to the neighborhood, but despite being directly across the lot from transit, will also include nearly 300 more spots for the residents and their visitors. That brings the total number of new spots at the station up to about 800, not just the 500 planned by RCTC, an increase of around 75%.

A recent parking audit of the station found around 100 free spaces at 8:30 AM, representing an occupancy of greater than 90%. However, because there are no trains heading west between 7:40 and 10:40 and only one heading east at 9:21, it’s reasonable to assume that the 8:30 numbers represent a daily peak, though it is plausible to believe that some of those spaces might be used by students attending CSU Fullerton when the school year starts. Nevertheless, there continues to be space available and the recent opening of the extension of the 91 Line to Perris added nearly 1700 more spots to the total available in the area around Riverside.

Putting up signs that say “transit oriented” doesn’t automatically make something actually transit-oriented, even when built by a train station.

Meanwhile, though it’s being billed as TOD, the Metro Gateway development would be better described as transit-adjacent development. In addition to the exorbitant amount of parking included, Metro Gateway lacks any visible signs of incorporating a mix of uses that would bring life to a site that is realistically devoid of life. While there is a retail plaza already located across La Sierra Ave. from the station where the new residents will likely be able shop as well as a bowling alley next door to the north, including some office/retail/light industrial space as part of the project would’ve been really helpful for improving the current parking crater around the station more than just some apartments will. Doing so would’ve been a great way to make the La Sierra Station more than just a pair of platforms and a parking lot, but perhaps even eventually providing space that could be used for satellite classes offered by the namesake school.

It’s disappointing to see that RCTC continues to feel that even in the heated SoCal housing market, the best use for prime land near transit with service directly to LAUS, Oceanside, Riverside, and San Bernardino is to let people store their cars to ride said trains. The biggest upside to a parking lot is that it is relatively easy to replace them with something better in the future. But still, even at present, if RCTC thinks having that much (free!) parking there is really necessary, it should be consolidated into a parking structure on the site to enable other development on the remaining parcels. The station area could easily support a vibrant community around it if only some forethought and creativity were used. Hopefully, this is a wake-up call to that end as RCTC still has several other parking lots throughout the county.

More photos of the site and project are available here.

Parking: Not Just an American Concern

While looking for background information to bolster the post about riding between Utrecht Centraal and Vleuten stations, I came across the documents pertaining to the conversion of Zandweg into a fietsstraat. Included were the written comments and responses [PDF, Dutch] provided during the consultation period for that project. While every other topic addressed in the process had three, maybe five comments total, the comments about parking took up five whole pages, comprising the decided majority of the concerns raised. What gives? Don’t the Dutch like biking?

In truth, it should ultimately not be such a surprise. Though they’re known as the country of biking, there is also quite a lot of driving done in the The Netherlands and their road network is arguably more efficient than ours. Additionally, they do continue to spend a lot of money on road projects such as the Leeuwarden Vrijbaan initiative or the ongoing massive project to widen the freeways between Schipol, Amsterdam, and Almere. The majority of these projects are directly intended to make driving easier, with familiar phrases like “relieve congestion” and “provide economic stability” showing up as the reasons for the improvements. The only difference is that they think of bikes when making those improvements.

Back to Zandweg itself. The fietsstraat has since been completed, as can be seen in the earlier video (or on Google Maps). Also visible are the numerous parking bays, some with parked vehicles, some without. But what’s striking is that many of the homes and businesses along the route have driveways with plenty of space available for parking onsite. Parking along Zandweg is additional and as near as I could tell, free. That should be a familiar concept to many Americans and one which clearly crosses borders. That’s further evidence that many concerns are basic human concerns, not just limited to certain people. What works there can work here too. All we have to do is stop insisting that “we’re different” and start emulating the best examples.

Almere’s BOD

One enduring topic that often permeates planning and transit circles is whether bus or rail is a better solution to mobility. Generally speaking, rail does make sense after a certain point, but where exactly that point is remains a bit of a mystery and up for interpretation. However, people tend to agree that if separate right-of-ways and especially grade separations are employed, it might be better to consider rail over buses.

In that regard, the Dutch are somewhat of heretics, building dedicated bus lanes on many major streets and dedicated busways all over the country in areas that most people would assert are better suited for rail. In the city of Almere, the busways are unique, even by Dutch standards, because it was master planned from the very beginning with a functional bus network that connects the town and feeds the half dozen rail stations that connect the city to the rest of the country in what one writer has called “bus-oriented development”.

In the (now closed) comment section of that piece, a fierce debate quickly broke out questioning whether Almere’s bus network would be better as trams light rail. (Even with tram vehicles, the operation would be far closer to the average light rail provision here in America due to the dedicated right-of-ways.) The reasoning varied, ranging from the fact that the right-of-ways already exist to the size of the city itself, with several examples of smaller cities with functional tram networks being presented as evidence that it could (should?) be done.

However, one factor seems to have completely eluded all but one of the debaters: Almere is a Dutch city. Being Dutch, that means that bicycles can probably be considered viable options and Almere does not disappoint. As documented by BicycleDutch, biking is easily accessible to everyone everywhere in the community and bike parking is integral at major destinations and transit stations. As such, many people undoubtedly bike to the city center or train instead of taking the bus as even with good transit provisions in town, shorter journeys still end up taking a similar amount of time.

That most people are choosing to bike instead of use local transit isn’t just speculation. A look at the stats show that on a national level, biking absolutely crushes local transit [BTM = bus/tram/metro], with the latter never accounting for more than 10% of all journeys and the two modes not even reaching parity until the 15-20 km trip distance range. Meanwhile, all residential developments in the city are within 3 miles (5 km) of one of the six (yes, six) train stations and city-level stats show that biking accounts for 31% of all journeys of 7.5 km or less. As such, the likelihood that the busways will be upgraded to trams/LRT is rather low as there just isn’t much need for such a conversion, at least not at present.

Almere is a great example of how bikes (all, not just colorful ones from kiosks) can vastly extend the reach of transit as well as the success of the Dutch campaign to get people biking more for short trips. Whether designed for from the beginning or as a repurposing of space from cars to people, bikes fill an important part of the transportation puzzle and dedicating space for bikes in a community is one of the most cost-effective things a transit agency can and/or push for to improve its operations. The benefits realized by Almere are well within reach of American communities too, it just requires adjusting priorities for people over cars.

SANBAG Releases I-10 HOV/HOT Lanes Draft EIR for Public Comment

The clock is now ticking after San Bernardino Associated Governments (SANBAG) finally released the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the proposed I-10 HOV/HOT lanes this past Monday, April 25. With the comment period closing June 8, interested parties have just a little over a month to review and weigh in on several gigabytes worth of information. SANBAG really should’ve taken the proactive step and opened up for a 60-day comment period, but that ship is likely sailed. In either case, there will be a more in-depth review of the proposed projects at a later date, but it’s important to get the word out about the comment period.

A quick glance through the Executive Summary shows a project steeped in the height car-centric planning and design that has led to a region consistently ranked as highly sprawled and that is completely out-of-line with state goals and the economy of the 21st Century. Though the No Build is provided by way of comparison, the report focuses on the two build alternatives: extending the existing HOV lane from Haven Ave. in Ontario to Ford St. in Redlands or constructing HOT lanes from the LA/SBD county line through to Yucaipa. Those options come with a price tag of around $660mn or $1.7bn respectively, but either figure is almost certain to increase after more involved design and construction activities are undertaken.

Those price tags might ultimately be this project’s undoing. Although San Bernardino County’s Measure I allocates funding specifically for a HOV lane on I-10, it will likely not be anywhere near enough to cover the full cost of that alternative. Additionally, as the State continues to cut funding from transportation projects due to the volatility with gas tax income (which is set to enter free fall soon) as well as an increasing focus on moving the transportation paradigm away from its car-centric focus, it seems increasingly unlikely that SANBAG would be able to procure many State funds for a project so diametrically at odds with the State’s goals. Perhaps they will be able to get more luck out of the Feds, but even the USDOT has realized that we can’t build roads indefinitely.

This Draft EIR also provides some insight into recent reports that SCAG* is frantically fighting to delay the implementation of SB 743, which will replace LOS with VMT as a significant impact under CEQA, and is another prime example how other agencies are hampering Caltrans’ efforts to modernize. SCAG’s Transportation Committee is chaired by a representative from Ontario (by way of SANBAG), a city right at the literal crossroads of this project and a similar proposal for I-15 and where a sprawling new community of over 46,000 homes is currently under construction. The Executive Summary casually mentions that the two build options are forecast to result in a 3% (HOV) or 10% (HOT) increase in VMT, something which the forthcoming CEQA thresholds would certainly consider a rather significant impact in need of mitigation since they aim to set a threshold of significance at 15% below baseline. Needless to say, SANBAG and its member jurisdictions are not interested in being told that they need to reign in the parade of building more freeways and overbuilt stroads that dice up the region, even as they struggle to maintain what already exists.

Of course, a project this large has not gone ahead completely unnoticed. While the HOV option was expressly included in the Measure I extension that was passed way back in 2004 with around 80% support, the HOT option was not. Not surprisingly, SANBAG is seeking to get more bang for the buck by leveraging that money with private investment to build and operate the HOT option. However, the prospect of including tolls has piqued the interest of the Tea Party in the area, who have continued to turn out in force to protest this “Agenda 21 plan to force us out of our cars”. Considering that SANBAG and its member jurisdictions continue to build and widen roads with reckless abandon [PDF], that claim couldn’t be further from the truth. At the same time, they are attracting some public interest against the project, which may ultimately prove to be a blessing in disguise if it delays or stops the project.

As mentioned above, a far more in-depth (and boring) look at the project will be undertaken at some point in the future. But for now, it’s imperative that everyone head over to the project website, http://www.1015projects.com, access the Draft EIR documents, and comment on it. Though considering the size and magnitude of the document and project, it would be nice if SANBAG would extend the comment period, that doesn’t seem likely, so look and comment early. Comments can be sent to the following address:
Aaron Burton, Branch Chief, Caltrans District 8
Attn: I-10 CP Draft EIR/EIS Comment Period
464 W. 4th Street
San Bernardino, CA 9240

*Though SANBAG is large enough to be an MPO itself, the regional MPO is SCAG.

Is San Bernardino Ready to Modernize E Street?

Opportunities to completely change a street for the better for free (or close to it) don’t come along very often, but the City of San Bernardino currently has the option on their plate as a portion of E Street is reconstructed. Running north-south through the heart of the city and downtown, E St. is home to the bronze-rated sbX Green Line and connects the two of the most vibrant corridors in the city, Baseline St. and Highland Ave., with downtown, uptown, and CSUSB in the northern part of the city and is part of the historical business loop for the legendary Route 66. However, even though E St. previously won a Streetsie in 2014, some of the benefits of BRT seen in other cities have not yet reached the entire corridor, with this segment continuing to support a plethora of empty lots and boarded-up buildings.

The current configuration of “E” Street is vastly overbuilt and encourages dangerous behavior among road users. Image via Streetmix.

At present, this portion of the street still looks very much like a Death Road, with four lanes for traffic and on-street parking. That has led to conditions that encourage unsafe driving and crash data SWITRS shows a string of incidents stretching through the entire project area to lend support to that idea, including some bike and pedestrian casualties. This is particularly troubling since the route is heavily used by children who attend San Bernardino High School and Arrowview Middle School, with the students themselves providing anecdotal reports of rampant disrespect from motorists. Additionally, E St. is unfortunately also at the epicenter of the resurging epidemic of violence that has wracked the city this year, with the owner of one of the small businesses in this stretch losing his life earlier this year during an armed robbery.

Currently, the overbuilt four-lane design moves less than 10k vehicles per day, a figure that despite being nearly 20 years old, is apparently still pretty valid as confirmed by looking at more recent counts obtained at the intersections of E St. with Baseline and Highland. These numbers are well within the bounds of the volume of traffic that just two lanes can handle quite well, which makes this an ideal road diet candidate. That means that this is the perfect opportunity to make sure the rebuild is a complete street that functions better for all users.

Put “E” Street on a diet. Image/Streetmix.

But what would a road diet look like on E Street? Since they’re not moving curbs, two general travel lanes would be swapped for a center two-way left turn lane and a pair of bike lanes. While some might think it appears like a “loss” for the street because there are fewer general travel lanes, such a proposal is likely to improve operations for several reasons. First, the current configuration encourages speeding and there are several cross streets that have significant left turn traffic, particularly around San Bernardino High School during the morning/afternoon. These left turners frequently hold back the left-hand lanes as they wait for a gap in oncoming traffic, so a road diet allows them to wait out of the stream going straight, a stream that is often exceeding the 35 MPH speed limit. Meanwhile, the single lane of traffic reduces the ability for people to speed.

Jeff Speck explains road diets.

Also, despite the elements on the street that some might consider to be unsavory, quite a lot of people actually do already travel up and down E St. by foot and by bike, including as mentioned above, many students. This design moves the traffic a little farther from the sidewalks, making it a little calmer and more appealing for pedestrians. Additionally, the bike lanes provide a better designation of where bicyclists can be expected and possibly in conjunction with signage, could be an effective strategy to combat the frequent ‘salmon‘ riders in the area.

This section of E Street is also home to the original McDonald’s. Image by author.

The effect of these changes will provide a vastly improved street environment that is likely the missing link in years of efforts to revitalize this area of the city. The slower, more even speed of the motorists allow them to notice businesses that they had never seen before when blasting by at 50 MPH while the bike lanes and improved pedestrian experience lead more people to walk or bike through the corridor, both of which are groups that can easily stop in stores along the way and in the process, end up spending more over the course a month than the typical motorist. As has been seen elsewhere around the country, road diets do not have negative impacts on business, but do the opposite and increase business. With a high number of vacant storefronts in the stretch, using this project as opportunity to right-size the street is a great way to get the boards to come down and breathe some new life into the area. It would also provide a good connection to the new park coming to the corner of 9th and E, which will include a new skatepark that BMX riders will certainly frequent.

The location of E St. in relation to alternatives to reach downtown from this area, including a freway. Image/Google Maps, edited by author.

Undoubtedly, there will be some naysayers and people will be concerned that it would increase trip times. However, it’s worth looking at the area view. Since San Bernardino was built on a grid, there are numerous options for those who may feel hampered. Additionally, given the impressive level of decay and decline that currently permeates this segment of the street, the built environment cannot get exponentially worse. But given the existing traffic safety issues, repeating last century’s mistakes on a blank slate is a step backwards. We shouldn’t have to wait for someone to die before trying to address the issue. If it doesn’t work out or the capacity is eventually needed, it’s easy enough to go back and restripe it to the old setup. But with the opportunity to do for minimal cost what other cities around the country are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to do, San Bernardino owes it to itself and to the residents to go ahead and join the 21st Century by giving it a go. The only question is if San Bernardino is ready to do what it takes to be an All-American City again.


Evaluating RCTC’s Coachella Valley Rail Proposals

For a little over a year, the Riverside County Transportation Commission has been undertaking a study to explore the possibility of providing daily passenger rail service to the Coachella Valley. This is at least the seventh time in nearly 30 years that the concept has been explored. (Previous studies of all or parts of the potential route were the focus of or included in other efforts previously completed in 1991, 199319992005, 2010, and 2013.) But with this being take seven on the project, perhaps it’s time to figure out exactly what needs to be done to get this plan off the shelves and to see trains rolling.

The elephant in the room continues to be that the only truly viable alternative to reach the area is by routing passenger traffic through the Union Pacific Yuma Subdivision that heads east from the Colton Crossing. As one of the two principal freight rail arteries in and out of SoCal heading east, Union Pacific understandably has concerns about the proposition of running an increased number of passenger trains over their rails. Currently, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited operates through the corridor, but it is only thrice-weekly service with late night/early morning stops in the area–hardly usable by the majority of potential travelers.

The latest report provides five Alternatives along with reasons for/against them. As the Yuma Subdivision is the only existing route to the Coachella Valley, all the differences occur from the Colton Crossing to LAUS. The five Alternatives (resulting in six total possibilities) are to use the BNSF San Bernardino Sub (Alternative 1), use the UP LA Sub (Alternative 2); use the UP Alhambra Sub (Alternative 3), use two variations of the Metrolink San Gabriel Sub (Alternative 4), or use a hybrid option blending Alternative 4B and 3 (Alternative 4). Four of those options made it through the course level screening to a more detailed analysis and will be expounded upon: 1, 4A/B, and 5.

Alternative 1

As mentioned above, west of Colton is where the differences lie. Of the four potential routes advanced to fine-level screening, Alternative 1 was the only one looked on favorably and advanced to the level of further planning/EIS. Several factors in its favor exist including most principally, a corridor population that is around 25% higher than the others have or would provide in the near-term. Though all study is being done using the assumption of Amtrak service similar to the existing Pacific Surfliner, this proposed route would be the functional equivalent of extending the Metrolink 91 Line out to the Coachella Valley and would in effect, be adding a limited stop train from LAUS to Riverside. Ideally, the Rail2Rail program should be implemented over that portion of the route to allow people to take advantage of that option. From Riverside, the train would then continue north to the Colton Crossing, where it would turn east to reach Indio as outlined above. RCTC currently still has quite a few unused daily allotments for the route, so implementing service via Alternative 1 would only require buying (or leasing) the trainsets and building a few stations. This route also has the second-fastest projected travel time and high ridership.

Alternative 4A

The second Alternative considered at the fine level is branded 4A. This option would be routed primarily over the San Gabriel Subdivision, which is owned by LA Metro and SANBAG for operating Metrolink’s San Bernardino Line. However, the San Gabriel Sub is at present, not directly connected with the Yuma, so this option requires several things be done to make that connection. The proposal calls for squeezing a track to connect to the northbound BNSF line between I-10 and the Colton Crossing and also just continue it through Colton to connect to the Metrolink Short Way Subdivision that is used by the IEOC Line to reach San Bernardino and Metrolink to access their Colton yard. A flyover would then be built to connect that track with the San Gabriel Subdivision and the report also calls for the two segments of double-tracking already underway to be built. This Alternative would have Inland Empire stops at Rialto and Montclair before heading to LA over the same route used by Metrolink. According to the analysis, this option would produce the fastest travel time of 3:06 as well as the second-highest ridership.

However, it was ultimately, it was not selected for further study due to requiring a minimum investment of $141mn more than Alternative 1 and potential ROW issues, including relocating a trucking facility at the BNSF San Bernardino yard. But looking at the reality of the area, a connection could probably be built to connect to the existing flyover and thus avoid relocating the majority of the trucking yard. Presumably, some of the money would also go into the double-tracking projects mentioned above, but it’s primarily slated for providing the connection to the BNSF tracks and Short Way in Colton as well as the flyover to connect with the San Gabriel Subdivision. Additionally, at least two actual bridges would be required (one over La Cadena, one over Lytle Creek) and though there is a little room for it, adding a fourth track through Colton will require a couple things to be moved and at least two more grade crossings be expanded. Though not studied in the report, the Colton track does provides an opportunity for a Colton stop to be added to the IEOC Line and potentially the CV train as well.

Alternative 4B/5

The last two Alternatives, 4B and 5, are functionally the same, so they’ll be looked at in tandem. Both would use the same connection in Colton as presented by 4A to reach the Short Way, but would instead utilize the San Bernardino Downtown Passenger Rail extension to continue all the way into the recently completed San Bernardino Transit Center located downtown. Going to the SBTC would provide connections with numerous transit services serving the San Bernardino Valley, Mountain communities, and Victor Valley areas. This option also avoids the need for a flyover in the BNSF yard, but leaves the recommendation for the double-tracking along the San Gabriel Sub. However, the train would have to switch ends in San Bernardino before being able to continue to LAUS. According to the report, this maneuver can take up to half an hour, so accommodating it is projected to likely necessitate another layover track be added to the site. The layover also effectively cuts the journey into two separate trips. That could be great for station-area businesses in San Bernardino, but results in a major hits on ridership and travel times. Unsurprisingly, these two options have the longest scheduled travel times but lowest ridership.

The rest of the route is for Alternative 4B, identical to Alternative 4A. Alternative 5 instead uses the UP Alhambra Subdivision into LAUS from near the El Monte station which provides a potential bypass of the single track line on I-10. Both 4A and 5 would differ from 4A in that they would not stop at Rialto, only at Montclair. Additionally, 5 require second flyover in El Monte to provide access to the Alhambra Sub without running into freight congestion. Course-level screening indicated that Alternative 5 would require double-tracking of the Alhambra, but the ongoing Alameda Corridor East San Gabriel Trench appears to be taking care of that. Still, in comparison to Alternative 1, these two options have a potential cost of $130mn more for 4B or $162mn more for Alternative 5. Due to both the cost but especially the turn time depressing ridership, these two Alternatives were also nixed from further configuration.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alternative 1 has been selected for further study and advancement to the EIR/EIS stage. This is the only Alternative that would actually serve the City of Riverside, which, notwithstanding the relative lack of necessary investment compared to the others, likely was a part of the deciding factor for its favorable consideration in a study commissioned by RCTC. Progress toward those environmental documents is undoubtedly being worked on now. Additionally, though Measure A doesn’t put much money toward rail, cap and trade money might provide the ability to acquire equipment and start the service. With new locomotives on the way for the Surfliner and Metrolink, there will probably be some surplus power available in the LA area soon that, pending funding, can be leased for a decent price to get things rolling within a few months of final approval of the environmental documents. Hopefully, that can happen before the 40th anniversary of the first study.

Progress Report: Perris Valley Line

Things are ever so slowly coming together on SoCal’s biggest rail expansion of the year: Metrolink’s Perris Valley Line. The Riverside County Transportation Commission is leading the project that will add a hair over 24 miles and four more stations to the Metrolink system, an undertaking that has been in the works for decades. RCTC originally purchased the San Jacinto Branch Line being used for the extension back in 1993. They’ve sat on it since then, largely content with limiting their rail ambitions to numerous studies of all the options. However, BNSF does still service some customers along the subdivision and the portion through Moreno Valley is where some freight cars got blown over a couple years back.

Trains were originally supposed to be rolling by the end of 2015. And they were, with RCTC holding an opening ceremony back in December. Unfortunately, nearly a quarter of the way into 2016, those rolling trains still are not carrying passengers. Though trains have been running tests since October, there are still varying levels of construction continuing at all the stations; the Downtown Perris station is probably the most put together of the lot. This presents another setback for a project that has already seen it’s share of delays from studies and a NIMBY lawsuit.

In traditional suburban commuter rail fashion, all four stations are surrounded by a moat of parking, with probably at least 1,100 spaces spread among them. This is ultimately not surprising, especially since RCTC is currently embarking on a parking lot expansion at the La Sierra station, but it remains to be seen if this is really the best plan in the long term. The good part about parking is that it can be easily converted to something else and since it is already provided, perhaps the communities where they’re located will be able to leverage them to meet minimum requirements. Nevertheless, let’s have a quick glance at what has been built thus far.

South Perris

The South Perris Station is the end-of-the-line for the current extension, but the rail corridor is the one that would eventually continue on to San Jacinto if RCTC doesn’t kill it first. But since it is the current end, this site consists of not just a platform and parking lot, but several tracks for layovers and overnight storage of the trainsets. Everything at this site is still under construction including the layover yard, the parking lot, and the boarding platform. It’s probably not an understatement to say that this is the least complete of the bunch. Totally surrounded by farmland, this station is (obviously) largely designed to capture park-n-riders from places like Menifee, French Valley, and even Hemet. However, the literal absence of anything built immediately adjacent to it does provide a great opportunity for the City of Perris to leverage the transit connection to direct development there in the future. But with both an airport and sewage treatment plant nearby, there is certainly room to discuss whether residential would be the best type of development for the location.

Downtown Perris

In a direct contrast to the So. Perris station, the Downtown Perris station is probably the most complete of the four. It’s not just a stop for Metrolink, but also the hub for RTA’s operations in the area and the bus bays are already seeing use. It is located in the center of Perris directly adjacent the historic Sante Fe depot in the city and the tracks from the Orange Empire Railway Museum are being extended to provide access directly from the train station and the station itself has several very prominently featured memorials to the late Disney animator Ward Kimball.

Though this station is also surrounded by a moat of parking directly adjacent the station, there is one mixed-use development across from the station with several dozen apartments as well as some City offices occupying some of the retail spaces. Other spaces are still vacant, but that will probably change soon, especially once trains are running. There are also quite a few vacant lots in close proximity to the station and with UCR just two stops away, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some renewed interest from developers. Already, some affordable units within a half mile of the station have recently been completed and more are probably going to be on the way.

At the station itself, the pedestrian accommodations are a refreshing to see in a region that critically lacks any such provisions. However, the ped and bike connections to access the site could do with some improvement. Most egregious is likely the intersection directly adjacent the station block, where pedestrian crossing is prohibited on the leg of the intersection closest the station. Predictably, that manifested itself by way of an elderly gentleman crossing CA-74 at the rail crossing. Additionally, RCTC has unfortunately not gotten the memo on good bike parking and installed ‘wave’ racks at the station itself.


The Alessandro station is another primarily commuter-focused station. Since the likely ridership will come from Moreno Valley and the eastern side of Riverside, its major component is also a couple acres of blacktop to allow people to store their cars. It’s surrounded not by farmland, but by warehouses and there are a couple of vacant lots nearby too. There is also an office building or two directly adjacent the station, but it remains to be seen if the reverse commute will actually go all the way to Perris and thus be useful enough to draw ridership to use it. Additionally, there are several pads on the station site itself with signs stating their availability for building as well as empty lots across the street. Similar to South Perris, it also presents a great opportunity to take advantage of the budding transit potential with some smart development, especially given the relative proximity to the Alessandro BRT project currently being planned.

Hunter Park/UCR

At the time of stop by, the Hunter Park/UCR station was probably the second most ready for use. This station is also primarily a park-and-ride lot located in the midst of warehouses. Unfortunately, the same NIMBYs who delayed the train were also successful in stopping plans for a station that was to be more proximate to UCR itself and which could’ve provided a great anchor point for the Riverside Reconnects streetcar. It has been rumored that the station might still be built in the future, but that is a long way off from reality at the moment. The station that did get built is directly adjacent the UCR Bourne School of Engineering Annex, about a mile and a half from the main campus. Fortunately, RCTC took the forward-thinking step of ensuring that the sidewalk from the platform extended to both sides of the block where the station is located, providing a convenient cut-through of what is otherwise a half-mile long block.

This is also the most northern station and the last of the four new ones when heading west on the line. Much like the Downtown Perris station, it will be a hub for buses in the area and includes a bus-only loading zone. Since the station isn’t actually on the campus, hopefully UCR will run a shuttle to meet the trains and provide students that connection. There are also some vacant lot opportunities directly across the street that are available, hopefully the City of Riverside can guide development to those areas. Given the proximity to the school, student housing probably would be best, especially since the population generally owns fewer cars anyway. But other types of housing shouldn’t be shunned, especially since it will be one station away from downtown Riverside.

A handy feature of both the HP/UCR and Alessandro stations is their use of bioswales for onsite water management. That’s a refreshing change from the status quo in the vast majority of parking lots that rely on funneling water into gutters and drainage systems. Every bit of water that we can not send down the river soon as it hits the ground is beneficial to a region that is still in a drought. Such seemingly little things can have a big impact and hopefully this is indicative of a new approach to water management.

That’s it for now. At a future date (likely after service begins), I’ll take the time to delve into each station individually. Meanwhile, many pictures of the current state are available here.

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