Travelers from the Antelope Valley have for years been popularly referred to as “extreme commuters.” In fact, the commute from Palmdale into Los Angeles may be considered among the worst nationwide in relation to time spent, route efficiency, road quality and, most of all, money.

Gas prices are relatively similar across Los Angeles County suburbs; there’s only a four-cent difference per gallon between the most expensive and the least expensive enclave. But since drivers in Los Angeles County spend so much time on the road, even the smallest price differences can result in a big hit on the pocketbook. The proof is on the roadway, particularly Highway 14, which for years has provided the only access to Los Angeles from the Antelope Valley. The average commute time for Palmdale residents to most other parts of the county is almost twice as long (about 80 minutes), not allowing for traffic jams. Taking insurance into account (roughly $1,100 per motorist) and gas (holding steady at around $3.96 per gallon), wear and tear on the vehicle traversing aging roadways, and you can see why it is so important for cities in the Antelope Valley to curtail commuter costs as much as possible.

Palmdale has been addressing this dilemma for several years. The city is working on projects that will help determine its future transportation, housing and livability options. Last month, Metro awarded a $400,000 grant for the city’s vaunted Transportation Oriented Development project (TOD3) which will augment the design plans in the vicinity of the Palmdale Transportation Center. And it finally passes political muster, the much-anticipated California High Speed Rail project will be designed to have a depot in Palmdale.

“We are very excited to begin work on projects that will help pave the way for Palmdale to become an innovative leader for TOD within the Antelope Valley, Los Angeles County and Southern California,” said Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford. “These studies will help us make the decisions that will assist us in the development of our intermodal transportation hub, which will consist of two high speed rail systems, Metrolink, two freeways, an airport, Amtrak, and Antelope Valley Transit Authority (AVTA) bus service, as well as housing and amenities that will be part of the surrounding areas.”

Grants address transportation needs

Recently, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) awarded a $100,000 grant for Palmdale’s Avenue Q Feasibility Study which will determine the practicality of developing the Avenue Q Corridor. All of the studies, grants etc. are geared toward helping Palmdale take the next step toward implementing the approved 2012-2035 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy. Both the TOD and the Avenue Q Corridor projects are expected to be completed by 2017.

There is minimal access to public transportation in the Antelope Valley, particularly for the roughly 71,000 residents who commute daily into greater L.A. Some 38,000 or so motorists may spend up to two hours attempting to travel just 78 or so miles, a daily feat which local officials declare has a dreadful impact on the economy. City officials say there are too many people stuck on the roadways long after the workday is complete; this is the typical “downtime” when these residents could be shopping, interacting with the community, spending time with family or, most vital to today’s household budget, saving gasoline.

“TOD is about creating walkable, pedestrian/bicycle/public transit communities for people of all ages and incomes,” said Carlos Contreras, an assistant city planner in Palmdale. He said the “vision” of the TOD plan is to provide neighborhoods with increased transportation and housing options where townfolk can “live, work and play” while maintaining a lifestyle that is “convenient, affordable and active.”

Ledford added that the project will begin an ongoing process to provide residents of Palmdale and the Antelope Valley with an option to live in neighborhoods with increased housing choices, more entertainment venues, better access to mass transit and, ultimately, heighten the quality of life. The commuter delays, Ledford said, have a negative impact on the “social, health and economic” issues which are related directly to the excessive commute times.

With both projects in the early stages of development, Palmdale officials have interviewed various stakeholders—including students—and had them participate in what is called a “livability audit” that included a field survey of the focus area.

“[Staff] interviewed several people who live and work within the project to gain insights from their experiences, thoughts and suggestions as they relate to both projects,” said Juan Carrillo, also an assistant city planner in Palmdale. “A strong, collaborative effort between stakeholders, community members and decision-makers is essential to this planning process.”

AVTA adds new routes

Commuter service via the AVTA to Los Angeles has been increased with the addition of another roundtrip on two of three commuter routes. The expansion will effect Route 787 which travels into the San Fernando Valley and Route 785 which travels into Downtown Los Angeles. The new commuter service was funded through a $1.8 million Job Access Reverse Commute grant from the Federal Transit Administration. The grant will also be used to purchase two new commuter coaches and to absorb the cost of operating expenses for two years. The addition of two runs brings AVTA’s total number of commuter roundtrips to 22, operating Monday through Friday.

The AVTA offers service on its commuter route 786 to serve West Los Angeles with several busses on weekdays. Drop-off locations are at the Palmdale Transportation Center as well as at Lancaster City Park. The AVTA busses are unique commuter express vehicles with fold-down laptop trays and even restrooms. They also stop in Westwood/UCLA, Century City, Beverly Hills, Miracle Mile and in Hollywood. One-way trips (with a TAP card) range from $7.10 to $8.85.

Antelope Valley residents may have, arguably, the most unique commute in the nation. They start from the edge of the Mojave Desert and wind their way “down the hill” over the San Gabriel Mountains and sometimes end their drive at the Pacific Ocean. On winter days, commuters will frequently brave snowy mountain passes to arrive at jobs in the balmy city. Frost-bitten mornings in the winter, wild wind storms in the spring, and blistering hot days in the summer can all add up to one of the most frustrating and time-consuming daily commutes any driver may encounter. On occasion, the route along Highway 14 may be completely closed as was the case with the Sylmar earthquake in 1971, and the Northridge earthquake in 1992 when the same overpass collapsed, cutting off tens of thousands of commuters for weeks.

Palmdale has become heavvily invested when it comes to improving transportation options. Even the ordinary town roads are getting a needed upgrade. Work began last week and is expected to continue through Nov. 20 on a road sealing project that will cover about 3.3 million square feet of pavement, or roughly 5 percent of the residential network throughout the city.

“People may notice an odor that smells like ‘burnt rubber’ which you might smell at a race track,” said Mike Livingston, an associate civil engineer and project manager. “It usually happens in the morning; the contractor begins to blend the recycled crumb rubber tires and tennis balls to 350 degrees, and then adds asphalt paving to make the emulsion that seals and binds the aggregate rock to the street’s surface.”

Livingston said the pavement procedure will ensure that the streets will “maintain performance” by utilizing the existing pavement asset for an additional 12 to 15 years before they may be called upon to resurface the roadways again. The old rubber scraps help to save money. “Conventional overlay practices average $3.50 per square foot,” Livingston explained. “This method of preservation costs $1.40 per square foot which allows the city to cover almost twice as many roads for the same money.”

‘Travel Training’ for residents

Palmdale is responsible for maintaining about 92 million square feet of pavement within its jurisdiction. There are 504 miles of maintained streets within the city’s network, including the arterial/collector networks which span 155.1 miles (31.8 million square feet) and the residential network consisting of 349.4 miles and measuring 60 million square feet.

Palmdale City Library on Wednesday hosted a “Travel Training” class in partnership with the AVTA. Attendees learned how to increase their mobility throughout the Antelope Valley by getting acquainted with the right busses and stops, obtaining information about the fare system, and they received personalized suggestions from transit professionals.

“The Travel Training program provides information and hands-on experience to Antelope Valley residents in an effort to improve their overall mobility,” said Palmdale Library Director Thomas Vose. “These sessions include educational seminars as well as trial rides with an instructor to walk individuals through the transit-riding experience. The Travel Training program is the perfect way to build confidence and comfort with AVTA’s services and keep Antelope Valley’s residents moving.”

The AVTA has received another accolade for its environmental efforts. It received this month the William “Pete” Knight AIRE Award for its efforts to reduce emissions in the Antelope Valley. The award was presented to AVTA Board Chairman Norm Hickling during a recent board meeting of the Antelope Valley Air Quality Management District.

“We are very pleased to be chosen as the recipient of this award, and to be recognized for not only providing safe and good-quality transit service in the Antelope Valley, but also for striving to be a supporter of the environment,” Hickling said. “We take our responsibility to the environment very seriously, and are proud to be a proponent of green technology in our community.”

The AVTA has instituted a number of projects aimed at “going green,” including the installation of solar panel carports at its Lancaster facility. The sustainable Photovoltaic Solar Carport system, completed last year, is now generating 100 percent of the facility’s electric needs, as well as providing shade to the AVTA’s busses. Solar light bulbs installed throughout the facility provide natural light and further reduce the company’s reliance on electricity.

The AVTA has also implemented water conservation strategies with the goal of reducing water consumption by 75 percent. The methods include washing busses weekly, instead of daily, and converting much of the facility’s landscaping to xeriscape (landscaping/gardening that reduces or eliminates the need for supplemental water from irrigation). As a result of these measures, AVTA’s water usage has dropped from 3.8 million gallons annually to about 900,000 gallons, far surpassing its conservation goals.