SBC Transit Committee’s Gold Line Extension Kibosh Provokes Maelstrom

Altering the basis of what for more than a decade has existed as a key component of the regional transportation strategy envisioned for implementation in the last three-fourths of the 21st Century, the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority’s Transit Committee yesterday dispensed with its resolve to build a second commuter rail line linking Los Angeles and the Inland Empire.
The move, supported by eight of the eleven members on the transit committee, signaled a rare and very serious break in the cooperative’s approach in forming a physical solution to reducing the gridlock that grips Southern California’s transportation system on weekdays, bringing westbound traffic on the 210, 10 and 60 freeways to a crawl during the critical three-hour duration in the morning from roughly 6 a.m. until 9 a.m. and then replicates itself with eastbound traffic each late weekday afternoon into the early evening as approaching three million motorists engage in their workday commutes.
Already in place is the MetroLink rail system that runs between Union Station in Los Angeles and the City of San Bernardino on a long existing track originally designed for heavy engines pulling freight cars. MetrolLink utilizes diesel engines to pull its passenger cars and features departures every half hour. Los Angles Metro has completed more than a dozen links of a secondary rail system with its western terminus in Los Angeles, the Gold Line, which reaches northward before reaching the San Gabriel Foothill communities and then heads eastward. The Gold Line at present stretches to Glendora, and work on its extension to Pomona is ongoing. Previously, cooperation between Los Angeles County’s Metro transit system and the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority had created a commitment that work on the Gold Line would continue immediately toward the goal of reaching first Claremont, as the furthest east-lying Los Angeles County community and then continue across the Los Angeles County/San Bernardino County Line to the already existing Montclair Transcenter, a multi-modal transit hub roughly two blocks north of the 10 Freeway where a multiplicity of bus lines converge with Montclair’s MetroLink station. The Gold Line, which is defined as a light rail system, runs with significantly greater frequency than does MetroLink, with departures and arrivals every five to seven minutes during peak commuting hours and every 12 to 15 minutes during off-peak hours.
While MetroLink has alleviated to a very limited degree the number of commuters traveling at peak hours on the freeway system, it has not proven wildly popular, two reasons being the long waits between departures and its expense, entailing at present a $14 price for a round trip ticket. With its more frequent departures and $1.50 one-way fare, the Gold Line has proven far more popular, as the ridership level has exceeded projections at each eastward extension of the line so far.
Formerly known as San Bernardino Association of Governments or SANBAG, the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority functions as the steward of Measure I funds. Measure I was a San Bernardino County funding initiative that imposed a half-cent sales tax collected throughout San Bernardino County for transportation improvements. Measure I was first approved by San Bernardino County voters in 1989 and was extended by a second vote in 2004 to remain in place through 2040. The San Bernardino County Transportation Authority has a governing board consisting of a council member or mayor from each of the county’s 24 incorporated cities as well as all five of the members of the county board of supervisors.
Previously, the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority dedicated $39 million in Measure I dollars toward the Gold Line project and did a joint application with the Los Angles Metro Transit Agency for a State of California Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program grant. That application was successful and it brought in $250 million on the Los Angeles County side, which made a significant but not complete inroad on the $850 funding deficit that jurisdiction had, and provided another $41 million of the then-projected $80 million cost for the San Bernardino County portion of the projected expense on the eastern side of the Los Angeles County/San Bernardino County border in terms of getting the line to Montclair.
Subsequently, however, when the project went out to bid, it turned out the cost of building the line from Claremont to Montclair would not contain itself to an earlier $73 million projection or the later $80 million estimate, but had escalated to $96 million.
In reaction to that projected cost overrun, San Bernardino County Transportation Authority Executive Director Ray Wolfe said toward the close of the September 4, 2019 meeting of the authority’s board. “I’m going to come back to you through committee next month and hopefully to the board in November with a recommendation that we throw in the towel.”
Wolfe made good on that at yesterday’s transit committee meeting, which is composed of representatives from the cities of Big Bear Lake, Chino Hills, Colton  Fontana, Highland, Montclair, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Rialto, Yucaipa and the Third Supervisorial District.
Wolfe’s proposal is to dispense with constructing the new Gold Line Track into San Bernardino County altogether and to instead have Gold Line passengers heading eastward from Los Angeles or the San Gabriel Valley load onto another train at the Claremont Station which will run on the existing MetroLink track. That system will use so-called diesel multiple unit trains in a what he said was a “hybrid” plan which he dubbed the “Gold Link.” Wolfe said San Bernardino County would return the $41 million State of California Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program grant that had been freed up to allow the county to overcome the gap between the $39 million in Measure I money put up to complete the Gold Line extension from Claremont to Montclair and the earlier projected cost of 1.2-mile extension
According to Wolfe, the hybrid Gold Link concept combined the advantage of not entailing the cost of building another track and could be extended with relative ease eastward from Montclair to Upland, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana and beyond. The converse holds true, Wolfe suggested, as westbound  commuters could use the Gold Link all the way to Claremont, disembark there and then board MetroLink to Los Angeles or the Gold Line to the San Gabriel Foothill communities.
For advocates of the Gold Line and its extension, however, Wolfe’s formula is lacking with regard to several crucial considerations.
On an immediate level, the low cost of the Gold Line fare and its continuity offers the best draw of commuters, its advocates maintain. Moreover, the frequency of arrivals and departures on the existing track now used by MetroLink cannot match that which the Gold Line will provide. Thus, in the relative short term traffic will be diverted in greater numbers away from the freeway system if the Gold Line is extended than if the only option given to commuters is using a passenger service on the existing track used for MetroLink and freight hauling.
From a longer term perspective, according to the Gold Line’s promoters, Wolfe’s solution lacks a wider regional perspective. Inevitably, over the next several decades, they say, greater and greater gridlock will force commuters, whether they are favorably inclined to using rail service or not, to use passenger trains to get to and from Los Angeles. At that point, the ridership volume will outrun the capacity of the existing rail line used by MetroLink. Despite whatever cost inflation there has been on building the Gold Line extension so far, it is better to commit to making that extension now than postponing it, as the cost will continue to escalate, those recommending that San Bernardino County stand by its earlier commitment to the Gold Line say. In this way, they assert, Wolfe’s move to cut costs now will entail far greater future cost.
Ultimately, the transit committee backed Wolfe, with Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe and the representatives of the cities of Yucaipa, Highland, Rialto, Big Bear Lake Colton, Fontana and Rancho Cucamonga supporting him. Only Montclair, Ontario and Chino Hills opposed his plan to scrub the county’s support of the Gold Line.
Evinced in the vote was an east/west split, with the cities nearest Los Angeles in favor of the Gold Line extension and the others more distant from the megalopolis opting out. There was some question, however, as to whether the attitudes of the voting members of the transit committee fully match those in the communities they represent. Rancho Cucamonga Mayor LLoyd Dennis Michael, for example, voted in support of Wolfe’s plan. Some elements of the Rancho Cucamonga community, nonetheless, are passionately in favor of the Gold Line.
It has been pointed out that 65 percent of the county’s Measure I revenue is generated within the seven cities at the west end of San Bernardino County, and that the Gold Line is a major component of the strategy for alleviating traffic gridlock in that region. With the extension of the Gold Line into western San Bernardino County on the drawing boards for over a decade with vaguer plans for it to extend as far east as San Bernardino, Redlands or Yucaipa by the middle of the current century, the cities on the west side of San Bernardino County have in part shaped their planning to provide for transit districts – consisting of higher density residential units surrounding the rail corridor – in their jurisdictions. This is particularly true in Montclair and Upland. There are urban planners in Western San Bernardino County who consider the Gold Line to be an intrinsic element of the character of their respective cities’ futures, and they were miffed with what they considered to be Wolfe’s cavalier reversal with regard to a planning process that has been years in the making and refining.
Thus, Wolfe’s proposal to back out of the Gold Line extension has the potential for an even wider, indeed deeply significant, regional political impact. Talk has already begun about an historic jurisdictional realignment by which Montclair would secede from San Bernardino County and annex to Los Angeles County, with which it is contiguous. While such jurisdictional shifts are highly uncommon, there has been precedent for such in California history. Though at a mere 5.52 square miles, making it the second smallest city in San Bernardino County geographically, Montclair packs a relatively potent commercial punch, as it is home to Montclair Place, formerly known as the Montclair Plaza, which from its opening in 1968 was one of the county’s premier mercantile venues. While it has since slipped to being the fourth most popular shopping mall in the county, it is still a major generator of sales tax revenue, and thus of Measure I transportation funding for the county. Were Montclair to withdraw from beneath the San Bernardino County umbrella and append to Los Angeles County, Ontario would find itself with a common border with Los Angeles County. Ontario, which likewise has an interest in seeing the Gold Line extended to its major transportation venue, Ontario International Airport, at that point could likewise merge with Los Angeles County. Such a change would be far more significant than the loss of Montclair. Ontario is, hands down, the most prolific of San Bernardino County’s 24 cities in terms of the size of its economic engine. A reflection of that is the consideration that Ontario’s municipal budget dwarfs that of every other city in the county, as the more than $500 million – half of a billion dollars – which course through all of the city’s funds exceed the combined revenue/expenditure ledgers of the next two most generously financially endowed cities in the county. The loss of Ontario and its contribution to the county’s transportation improvement efforts in terms of Measure I money would be devastating to the county.
The transit committee’s vote yesterday is not binding, but represents a recommendation that is likely to be followed by the full San Bernardino County Transportation Agency Board when Wolfe agendizes the issue at a future meeting, perhaps as early as next month.
-Mark Gutglueck

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