Moment Of Truth Fast Approaching For sbX Line

(February 5)  In April, the much ballyhooed and equally maligned sbX line will debut, giving its champions and critics alike the opportunity to determine if the $191.7 million gamble to establish a rapid-transit bus line through San Bernardino is the economic and transportational boon that has been promised or the squandering of local and federal money that could have been better used otherwise.
Running 15.7 miles from near the Veterans Administration Hospital in Loma Linda to just north of Cal State San Bernardino, the sbX line will feature 60-foot long articulated buses that use clean-burning compressed natural gas as fuel. From three to six busses will cover the route each hour during daylight.
Like the unconventional capitalization and spelling used in its acronym – sbX stands for San Bernardino Express – the route will embody unusual features such as a dedicated lane for more than a third of the route that has been fashioned from what were once street medians. And each sbX bus driver will be given virtual command of the traffic lights encountered along the route so that the busses will never encounter a red light.
Indeed, from its inception, the sbX concept was sold on the speed of travel it would offer. Initially, planners said, the busses would make the entire trip from Loma Linda to San Bernardino State University or vice versa with five stops in between in just under 25 minutes, rivaling or actually bettering what a commuter utilizing a car might encounter over the same span utilizing the freeway during morning or evening rush hour.
In 2012, however, the city of San Bernardino  approved a transit overlay district entailing 13 stations/bus stops. And while Omnitrans officials represented to Federal Transit Administration officials that dedicated center lanes for the busses would run for nearly the entirety of the route, only about six miles of the stretch, along Hospitality Lane and in the downtown area, have been established. Those dedicated lanes were intended to speed the busses along the route by eliminating interaction and merging with traffic.
Planners concede that a terminus-to-terminus trip will now last 39 minutes. That still compares favorably with the 65 minutes it currently takes to cover the same 15.7 mile stretch using available public transportation. Nevertheless, questions remain as to whether the system will be used at anywhere near the levels that would justify its expense and imposition on the community.
The bus route entails a departure from a station near the Veterans Hospital and other medical facilities just off Barton Road in Loma Linda, a turn north on Anderson/Tippecanoe Street, a turn left on Hospitality Lane and then a right turn  north on E Street before terminating at San Bernardino State College. The return route covers the same span in reverse. Critics point out that a similar bus route already exists.
In 2011, a group of business owners and other citizens concerned about the project banded together under the sobriquet Taxpayers Against Wasteful Government Spending. They were joined in their protest the following year by newly-elected city councilman John Valdivia, who said San Bernardino was not an intensive enough urban environment to support the sbX  rapid-transit system, which he said was a “boondoggle” diverting funds from other worthy civic undertakings.
Taxpayers Against Wasteful Government Spending was led by Jim Ott, a former Colton planning commissioner.
Ott said he drove the route the bus will take on the existing streets between the VA Hospital and San Bernardino State University, and timed the trip. “All the way up, it took 27 minutes and four seconds. I saw three busses on that same route. This is proposing to put three more busses on the same route.”
Ott said current or projected ridership of the bus system in no way justifies the $192 million outlay.  He said he counted the number of passengers in the busses operating on the current routes. “The first had four, the second had three and the last had two. Why do we want to put three more busses on that same route?” he asked. “We are throwing $192 million to this project. They talk about wasteful government spending. What is a more wasteful government spending than this project, which is supposed to connect with the California High Speed Rail and tram in Redlands when they are built? Then build it when they are built. $192 million dollars is a stack of one dollar bills thirteen miles high. That is a lot of money for a project that doesn’t have a need. Transportation funds are precious and should get spent cautiously. I don’t see a need for a bus project going down E Street.”
Another issue is the impact the dedicated route is having on businesses along the streets it traces. Merchants along the route have told the Sentinel they are concerned that the elimination of the center lane on the streets along the route for the creation of the dedicated lanes for the buses are preventing  drivers from being able to make left turns. Many motorists, these business owners fear, will not go to the bother of continuing further down the street to make a U-turn where that is possible and then retrack back to their businesses.
The owners of several businesses located along the route, including Ammons Diamond & Coin Gallery, Burger Mania, Pride Envelopes and Barber Shop 215, claim that their operations have already been negatively impacted by the street alterations though the busses have not started to run yet.
Property owners and business operators along the bus route in San Bernardino cited four issues in their opposition – impact on existing business, low demand for the service, expense, and the use of eminent domain as a property acquisition tool for portions of the route’s right of way.
There were 99 protests lodged against specific features of the project by land and business owners along the route. All were overridden in the SANBAG board’s vote on March 2, 2011 to approve the project. Part of the rationale given for approving the project was that the transportation agency had to make a commitment to move ahead with the project by July 1, 2011 or lose $75 million in federal funding.
While SANBAG – an acronym for San Bernardino Associated Governments – is the lead agency on the project, it is Omnitrans – the bus system for south-central San Bernardino County – that will operate the line.  SANBAG is the county transportation agency and the SANBAG board is composed of mayors or city council members from the county’s 24 cities and all five of the members of the county board of supervisors.
SANBAG used its authority of eminent domain to carry out condemnations of properties to move forward with the project. SANBAG needed to secure 151 properties, some of which SANBAG staff and board members referred to as “slivers,” to make way for the bus route. Of those 151 properties, four were entire parcels.
SANBAG and Omnitrans were encouraged to pursue the project by Loma Linda, San Bernardino and Colton municipal officials as well as Cal State San Bernardino and Loma Linda University Medical Center administrators. In 2011, SANBAG and Omnitrans said they wanted to seize the opportunity to proceed with the project while construction prices were down and many businesses along the route were closed, allowing the construction to proceed with less relative disruption to nearby entities. Those agencies insisted rapid transit bus systems, such as those in Los Angeles and Cleveland, improve rather than harm local business conditions.
The Metro Orange Line in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley was originally slated to cover 14 miles. By 2006, a year after it first began operation, the line was expanded to 18 miles and was being used by three times as many weekday passengers as had been projected for it. It now routinely transports 30,000 passengers daily.
In Cleveland, which had traditionally operated a public transportation system,  a bus-based rapid-transit system was inaugurated in 2008, triggering what officials there say was  $5.8 billion in economic investment in the once-thriving industrial powerhouse that had been stagnating for decades.
According to the Rand Corporation, rapid transit can spur development because it provides a way for residents near stations to quickly travel to work, retail shops, restaurants and cultural amenities.
San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris, who will leave office next month after eight years in office, was one of the prime movers in the effort to get sbX established. He said the project will serve as an incentive for people to bypass the use of their cars and bring more and more people into the heart of the city and its marketplaces. He said he does not expect the busses to be packed to capacity initially, but that he believes their use will grow with time and as other rapid transit projects intended to coordinate with it come on line, such as the extension of Metrolink service eastward in San Bernardino to an sbX station at Rialto Avenue and E Street and the eventual completion of a 9-mile rail line east from the new San Bernardino transit center to the University of Redlands.
Omnitrans projects an sbX ridership of 5,600 in the first year. Planners say the real test of the routes success will come in twenty to thirty years, at which time it will have grown into an intrinsic element of San Bernardino inner city life.
In an effort to attract ridership, wi-fi will be available on the busses.
The transit overlay approved by the San Bernardino City Council calls for residential and retail development along the route but prohibits car washes, auto sales, service stations and other uses that would encourage car use. Four of the 16 stations will have free park-and-ride spaces. Parking at Cal State San Bernardino is expensive, with annual parking passes for students costing $306. Students will be able to ride sbX for free.

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