Riverside Officials Promoting Greenfield Site for HSR Station
The following post is a guest post from UC Riverside PhD student and blogger Justin Nelson. It appears that planning for HSR stations along the Los Angeles to San Diego Section is moving away from the Authority’s commitment to downtown stations in favor of greenfield sites (described below), or in the case of San Diego, at the airport (rather than their vibrant downtown). This does not bode well for ridership along this portion of the system and indicates that the Inland Empire and San Diego still have not fully embraced a more transit-oriented future and continue to see HSR stations like airports, places where people drive and park, rather than places that great urbanism is built upon.
Guest Post by Justin Nelson:
As followers of this blog are well aware, the California High Speed Rail project offers us the best chance to change Californians’ transportation habits in probably all of our lifetimes. When I say this, keep in mind that I’m 23. However, out in the Inland Empire, already one of the worst offenders in the area of suburban sprawl, planning efforts are underway to ensure that – instead of transformative change – we get more of the same.
This article in Riverside’s local paper, the Press-Enterprise, shows that City officials are making an “aggressive push” to put an HSR station near March Air Reserve Base (what I’ll call “March Field”). The site would be at the intersection of Alessandro Ave. and Sycamore Canyon Blvd. on the fringes of the city and nearly 8 miles from its rapidly re-developing downtown.
I’ll launch into why this is a terrible idea in a second, but first, a little background. When CHSRA first proposed their project-level alignment for the LA-SD segment, they planned on placing a station next to UC Riverside, alongside the then-planned Metrolink Perris Valley Line station that was to be located there. While UCR is still around 4 miles from downtown, the area around the University is the second-densest in the city, housing thousands of students, faculty and staff within walking distance of both the campus and nearby amenities, so it was a fair compromise. However, the residents of the neighbourhood complained bitterly about the siting of a Metrolink station there. First, they expressed concern about parking and traffic impacts, and when the local transportation commission agreed to remove all on-site parking, they complained about noise until the station was removed from the project altogether.
In what must be an attempt to placate these residents, local officials have simply moved the HSR station to the next station down the proposed Metrolink Perris Valley Line, the station at Alessandro. Unlike the station at UCR, the Alessandro site is on greenfield land, with nearly nothing within walking distance, and nothing but suburban sprawl surrounding it on all sides.
The proper and obvious location for a station here in Riverside should be downtown, at the existing Riverside-Downtown Metrolink. Like both UCR and Alessandro, downtown will be a station on the Perris Valley Line (an extension of Metrolink’s 91 Line), but it is also a station on the IE-OC Line, the Riverside Line, and the San Bernardino Line on weekends. With 4 Metrolink lines, Riverside-Downtown is the most connected station in the Metrolink system after Los Angeles Union Station. It’s also a stop on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief to Chicago and for Amtrak California buses that connect to the San Joaquins trains in Bakersfield.
City officials are also currently working on the design of a brand new multi-modal transit centre that will be located adjacent to the downtown station. This centre will be the primary hub for local and express buses serving the region, of which the Riverside Transit Agency has several. (There’s even an attractive “system map” of express buses throughout western Riverside County here, although that map misses the Omnitrans 215 express which links downtown Riverside and downtown San Bernardino.) Greyhound and other intercity buses will also serve the station, which will allow direct connections to places like the Coachella Valley, the Victor Valley, Barstow and Las Vegas.
Downtown Riverside is undergoing a rapid re-development process at the moment, and the City is a major investor in that process. We just spent a considerable amount of money renovating the Fox Theatre, an early 20th century movie theatre that is now a state-of-the-art performing arts centre hosting everything from films to professional theatre to major performing artists. A new hotel and condo-centred mixed-use development, with restaurants and shopping at ground level, is going to be built soon, and construction has already begun on a new office tower. And despite the use of the word “re-development”, downtown is already a pleasant place to be right now, with a hearty helping of restaurants, bars, clubs, the requisite cozy coffee shop and speciality retailers. Of course, all of this development is walkable and transit-adjacent (if not transit-oriented), unlike anything being built nearly anywhere else in the city. It seems like a natural fit for high-speed rail.
City officials have said that March Field is an ideal fit for HSR because there is room for “development.” The unstated assumption here is that the sort of development that will surround HSR will look precisely like the sort of development that most of suburbia has seen for most of the last century- auto-dependent, low-density, and poorly served by transit. Proponents of this site seem to think that high-speed rail stations of the future will necessarily look like airports of today: easy freeway access and plenty of long-term parking. Some proponents of the March location say that access to Metrolink will provide convenient car-free connections to downtown, or that RTA will provide ample transit service to the station once it is built. If Metrolink connections are indeed desirable, then the downtown site (with 4 lines) is much better than March (with 1). As far as transit provided to the March site, I have no doubt there will be – right now, RTA runs the #20, an hourly bus route, along Alessandro – but while this may serve to get transit-dependent riders to the train, the surrounding area will never allow for the kind of transit service that would influence development outcomes: frequent, all-day transit.
As of right now, it seems that CHSRA is not pursuing a downtown Riverside station – the current alignments being debated are either via I-15 and Corona, with a stop at the Dos Lagos area (more miserable sprawl) or via I-10 and I-215 and northern Riverside, with a stop at March. There is an alternative – the UP railway alignment travels nearly directly from the Ontario Airport to downtown Riverside, with straight, nearly-flat tracks and ample room along most of the corridor for expansion. (HSR will probably have to move to elevated tracks as it enters Riverside, but that was the Authority’s original plan anyway.) The downtown station could easily be re-developed to include the necessary parking and station facilities for HSR, putting it within walking distance of the most vibrant neighbourhood in the Inland Empire and connecting it to nearly everywhere else in Riverside and the eastern San Bernardino valley via transit. However, this alternative is not being considered, and unless we make an issue out of it now, it won’t be.
If any of you have any opportunities to comment on the LA-SD leg of the HSR project, please tell CHSRA and any applicable politicians that you want a station in a vibrant downtown, not a sprawl-surrounded parking lot.