Earlier this year, the Riverside County Transportation Commission joined several transportation agencies around the state to gripe about the uncertainty of revenue projections due to the recent gas tax swap formula that has resulted in a lower gas tax this fiscal year. This should come as no surprise, as the vast majority of Riverside County’s Measure A funds are being poured into building wider roads throughout the region. With only 15% of the money dedicated to transit, it should be imperative that they do everything possible to stretch those dollars.
Although Measure A sends the vast majority of revenue raised toward building wider roads, Riverside County voters also expected some increase in rail service when they voted to reauthorize it in 2002. In 2005, RCTC delivered a report on some options for increasing rail connectivity in the county. Out of that report, a further (peak commuter-focused) extension of the currently ongoing Perris Valley Line extension an additional seven miles east to Hemet/San Jacinto* was rated very favorably. That extension would also serve an area similar to that of the planned Mid County Parkway, potentially reducing the need for RCTC to build another freeway through the center of a disadvantaged community.
However, buried deep in the Environmental Impact Report/Statement for the SR-79 realignment is a ticking time bomb against the prospect of rail service ever reaching San Jacinto. In 2013 [PDF, page vi (12)], the report had this to say:
The design options would include a near-grade crossing over the San Jacinto Branch Line with embankment and structural section for SR 79. The near-grade crossing over the existing railroad would be approximately 0.9 to 2.4 m (3 to 8 ft) above grade. (Emphasis added.)
In other words, at the point where the realigned highway would cross the railroad, it would be at a height of less than ten feet above the rails. This dismal synopsis was repeated in the Recirculated EIR/EIS [PDF, page 3-167 (243)] that went out earlier this year. For those of you keeping track at home, no trains can fit under bridges that low (not even a manned rail rider on the shorter side). Section 9.1 of CPUC General Order 26-D says that it’ll be at least six feet too low and based on Metrolink’s dimensions (PDF, page 3), their equipment needs a minimum of 16 feet of clearance above the rails. (Metrolink is the logical service provider for this extension as they would already be operating to Perris.)
So in short, despite the fact that RCTC already identified the San Jacinto extension as being one of the most viable and cost-effective options for rail service expansions in Riverside County, RCTC already owning the line, and RCTC leading on the SR-79 realignment project, RCTC did not stipulate that their own freeway construction would need to provide adequate clearance for any future trains that they would plan on their own tracks. That is a breakdown of colossal proportions.
Further on, the report does acknowledge that rail transit has been considered on the corridor. However, they consider constructing overpasses to make sure that train service on an existing line remains viable to be the responsibility of the rail project, not the responsibility of freeway that is severing the rail access:
In the future, if a separate project is developed that adds passenger rail service, a grade-separation project would need to be considered.
In short, RCTC is shooting a worthy project in the foot. The only question is are they doing it on purpose or is this merely a (massive) oversight? Unfortunately, we may never know. However, Caltrans does still have to issue final approval and building a(nother!) freeway runs counter their recent admission that building freeways doesn’t help traffic at all. Instead, Caltrans needs to be more proactive about alternatives, in this case by putting their foot down and not allowing a viable rail transit line to be severed by a freeway. (They really should go a step further and require that the rail extension to Temecula via the SR-79 alignment that was also identified in the RCTC rail study to be built concurrent with the freeway.)
Failure to do so makes it much harder for the all levels of government to meet legislative goals focused on reducing GHGs, VMT, and disparate impacts of transportation dollar allocations, especially in the Inland Empire. Cities along the route of both freeways (realigned SR-79 and the Mid County Parkway) are already looking forward to the freeways “spurring development”, but injecting two new freeways into the San Jacinto Valley without also upgrading transit is all but guaranteed to ensure that no TOD will be built. Instead, there would be more sprawling development in what is already one of the most sprawled regions of the country [PDF]. That doesn’t have to happen, but it requires Caltrans and RCTC officials doing the right thing and lead.
*For those who may feel tempted to call the area rural, including its own residents, remember that were it not for RCTC and SCAG, Hemet alone is populated enough to require its own metropolitan planning organization under federal law and San Jacinto is really close.