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Redlands on the wrong track with rail project

Redlands on the wrong track with rail project Guest commentary

By Collin Callahan
The Redlands Passenger Rail Project would connect downtown Redlands to San Bernardino by way of a 9-mile railroad. (John Valenzuela/Staff Photographer)
The Redlands City Council recently selected John James to fill a vacant seat left by Pete Aguilar, former mayor and newly elected representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. The council questioned James and the other applicants on matters of economic development, city planning and, of particular interest to the council, the Redlands Passenger Rail Project.

The Redlands Passenger Rail Project is a project championed by Aguilar and other council members that would connect the downtown area of Redlands to San Bernardino by way of a 9-mile railroad. The initial cost of the project was estimated to be just north of $130 million and was estimated to take three years to complete.

Those who support the project have hailed it as a massive improvement to our transportation infrastructure, a key to lowering the greenhouse gas emissions in the Inland Empire, and an essential piece of the economic development of Redlands. It will create new opportunities for business and residency development along the rail corridor, and it has the potential to bring Metrolink service to Redlands, they say.

However, the public shouldn’t get too excited about this. The cost of the project has jumped from $130 million to almost $250 million, and construction will take longer than previously anticipated. How many riders are estimated to use a passenger rail line connecting Redlands and San Bernardino? A measly 820 daily riders are estimated in the first year of service. The cost of that service: $8 million. In order for the rail service to break even in its first year, round-trip ticket prices would need to be set at more than $25. Ridership will increase by an estimated 500 daily riders come 2038. To break even in 2038, prices would still need to be over $15. The cost to travel to San Bernardino from Redlands by bus today, without a $242 million project: $1.75.

And by car, with today’s gas prices, it would be even cheaper — and more convenient.

Furthermore, trains are expected to service the five stations between Redlands and San Bernardino every 15 minutes. As these trains cross streets in the downtown Redlands area, they will be required to sound their horns with three blasts to ensure safety. The rail service would have 150 street crossings per day in Redlands with 450 horn blasts. This will impede business development and become a nuisance to pedestrians in the area. The alternative? Make the downtown area a quiet zone. This, however, raises significant safety concerns. If the project brings more vehicle and pedestrian traffic to the area, the risk of a collision between trains and vehicles or pedestrians will only increase.

What about the locomotive itself? Surely a $242 million project would include electric-powered, clean-energy light rail. Sadly, it doesn’t. The proposed method of transportation would be a hand-me-down diesel locomotive with a single passenger car behind it. Many question whether or not diesel locomotives are actually better for the environment than vehicle traffic, especially with older locomotives and low ridership numbers.
Adding to the gargantuan cost, the $242 million price tag doesn’t include the construction of the rail’s stations. The city of Redlands would be on the hook for providing three stations, the first of which will be built downtown and cost an estimated $10 million. Subsequent costs for maintenance, ticket machines and other services would only send that number higher. Esri has agreed to build and maintain a station near its facility on New York Street. The final stop will be built at the University of Redlands, but it is unclear if the university or the city will build and maintain it.

It seems to me that a more environmentally friendly and extremely more cost-efficient alternative to the Redlands Passenger Rail Service would be commuter buses to and from the San Bernardino Metrolink station during peak transportation hours.
Another way to increase mass transit for the 820 riders would be better-designed bus routes. If mass transit from downtown Redlands to San Bernardino is in such high demand — and I don’t believe it is — surely we can find the means to put buses online to accommodate it.
In short, the Redlands Passenger Rail Project is deeply misguided. There are concerns over cost, the effect that it will have on the fiscal well-being of Redlands, as well as the environmental impact it will carry given its noise and air pollution. As of yet there has been no study on the potential economic impacts of the rail. Serious consideration should be given to analyze the costs versus the benefits.

After all, as part of its strategic plan, the city of Redlands has called for “[enhanced] fiscal and operational practices to support fiscal stability, transparency and data driven decisions.”
I would certainly like to see the data to support this decision.

Collin Callahan lives in Redlands.

Reposted from SB Sun