County Transportation Agency Rethinking Rejection Of Gold Line To Airport

Less than a month after an assemblyman whose district straddles Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties drafted legislation to to create a new governmental financing entity to counteract a move by San Bernardino County transportation officials to abandon the extension of Los Angeles County’s light rail Gold Line to Ontario International Airport, the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency moved to reexamine the public mass transit options for access to the aerodrome.
The San Bernardino County Transportation Agency, formerly known as San Bernardino Associated Governments (SANBAG) is, as its name implies, San Bernardino County’s regional transportation agency. With a board composed of representatives from all 24 of the county’s cities as well as its five county supervisors, the agency, known by its acronym SBCTA, is charged with managing the expenditure of Measure I money. Measure I was first passed by San Bernardino County’s voters in 1989, providing for a half-cent sales tax override countywide, with the proceeds dedicated to paying for road improvements.
In 1992, the MetroLink commuter rail system was established 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. MetroLink utilizes diesel engines to pull its passenger cars and must share its track with at least four freight trains on a daily basis, such that it features departures no more frequently than every half hour.
In 2003, the first link of the light passenger rail Gold Line was established between Union Station and Sierra Madre Villa in Los Angeles County. Over $1 billion has been expended extending the Gold Line, consisting of a light rail train on two separate tracks running generally east west, currently to Azusa. The Gold Line 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.
The Gold Line Construction Authority right now is in the first stages toward a nine-mile, $806 million extension of the light rail line from Azusa to northern Pomona.  The track will reach Pomona by late 2025. Thereafter, the line was previously slated to be extended another 3.3 miles from Pomona through Claremont to Montclair at that city’s existing Montclair Transit Center. From there, the future intention was to extend it from Montclair to Ontario Airport. According to the Gold Line Construction Authority, the extension of the line from north Pomona to Claremont will entail a cost of $450 million. Previously, the Gold Line Construction Authority in conjunction with the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency, when it was previously known as San Bernardino Associated Governments (SANBAG), intended to continue the line from Claremont to Montclair, and then from Montclair to Ontario Airport.
Accordingly, 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 Angeles 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 the October 10, 2019 San Bernardino County Transportation Agency’s transit subcommittee meeting. That subcommittee 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 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 the 1.2-mile extension.
Dismayed at what he perceives to be wrongheaded intransigence to regional cooperation intended to provide the foundation of what is to become the commuting methodology of the future,  Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-41st District) last month introduced Assembly Bill 2011, which would create the West San Bernardino County Rail Construction Authority, an entity to be dedicated to designing and building the six-mile span of track linking Montclair to Ontario.
In response, SBCTA’s transit committee recently recommended that the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority commit $3 million to undertake a formal and comprehensive study of transit alternatives to and from Ontario International Airport.
According to county transportation officials, the intent behind the study would be to ascertain the most cost-effective and efficient options for providing transit access to the  airport, which is being celebrated by Ontario as a major economic engine for the region. The options the authority said were on the drawing board included the building of a connector from Metrolink’s Rancho Cucamonga station using zero-emission passenger trains; the use of existing freight lines adjacent to the airport property; allowing the extension of the Gold Line from the Los Angeles County line to the airport; and some order of public-private partnership with emerging technology companies.
Including the Gold Line as an option represents a significant change in attitude on the part of SBCTA. In the immediate aftermath of Holden’s introduction of  Assembly Bill 2011, San Bernardino County Transportation Agency President Darcy McNaboe exhibited a strong negative reaction, insisting that the authority she heads remained opposed to the Gold Line extension into San Bernardino County as “unnecessary and too costly” and that it was a commuting methodology that would take too much time to complete.
Last week she had toned down her rejection of the Gold Line extension, going on record as saying, “We appreciate the assemblymember’s desire to bring the Gold Line to San Bernardino County, and would welcome connectivity from L.A. County as part of a comprehensive package of enhanced transit opportunities not just to and from Ontario Airport but our county as a whole.”
She nonetheless enunciated her reluctance to have the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority surrender its bureaucratic turf to an upstart entity.
“However, we continue to emphasize that the establishment of another agency to develop and deliver the appropriate transit enhancements in our county is duplicative and unnecessary,” McNaboe said. “Rather, it would be more prudent to coordinate with the existing transportation authority that has a long history of meeting its obligation to its residents and businesses.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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