Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Dickensonian Christmas Tale with a Difference: Three Ghosts of Traffic Past, Present and Future

It was the night before Christmas in Kapolei, and all three of the family’s generations were in a happy mood after watching “A Christmas Carol” on TV. Mean old Scrooge turned out to be a great guy after all, and Tiny Tim was just fine.

Everybody was happy but dad, that is. He stormed in as the show’s credits rolled up the screen from another of his last-minute Christmas shopping sprees, and his mood was as grumpy as Scrooge’s had been two hours earlier.

“Merry Christmas!” the kids shouted. “Mom was just telling us how scary the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future were when she was little.”

“I’ve been stalled on H-1 for the last hour,” dad growled, “and I know something a lot scarier than anything Charles Dickens dreamed up – the Ghost of Traffic Present!

“Tell us more! Tell us more!” cried the kids as they egged him on. Rush-hour traffic always made dad’s face red and eyes bulge. It’s a pretty good show, and the kids are always up for it.

“Come to think of it,” dad obliged with a twinkle in his eye, “I have a story with three ghosts -- the ghosts of Traffic Past, Traffic Present and Traffic Future.”

And so began another of dad’s “good old days” tales about driving to town in half the time it takes today. Just like Dickens’ ghost of Christmas Past, dad’s ghost of Traffic Past has fond memories – of free-and-easy driving, open highways, low-cost gasoline and reasonable parking fees.

But then the story takes a turn. Traffic congestion grew along with the population, and the city tried to build an elevated transit system so commuters could ride a train and avoid traffic altogether – just like they do in cities around the world.

“We…came…THIS…close!” the kids sang along with dad. They’d heard it before, so all three held their fingers barely apart as dad recalled the City Council vote that killed those plans in 1992. “It would have been running for six years now,” dad sighed.

“But that’s the ghost of Traffic Past,” he grimaced as he warmed to the juiciest part of his tale. “Here’s where my three-ghost story departs from Dickens. His scariest vision was the Ghost of Christmas Future. Mine is the Ghost of Traffic Present!

And off dad went on his rant – about getting up way too early to beat H-1 congestion, about arriving late for work nearly every time there’s an accident, and on and on.

“The Ghost of Traffic Present toys with us,” he said as the kids giggled in anticipation. “This ghost sometimes gives you a wide-open road when you first hit the freeway, lets you think today will be different, that maybe you’ll breeze through the merge. But nine times out of ten, it’s all wishful thinking and you crawl the rest of the way to town. When there’s a major accident, forget about it! And when you finally get off the freeway, you’re caught in street traffic.”

Mom had escaped to the kitchen by now, and the kids sat crowded around dad’s feet, because their favorite part was coming. The Ghost of Traffic Future would be the one they’ll live with for the rest of their lives.

Dad did a quick circle around the kids to stretch his legs, then settled in again to pick up the story. “The Ghost of Traffic Future is the best ghost of all, because the future is when your generation will triumph over traffic! You won’t even have to worry about it.”

The kids knew all about the plan to bypass traffic in the future. Dad read every newspaper story out loud to the family about the city’s elevated rail project. They all had tracked the project as it moved from the early planning days when the kids were in pre-school, through the City Council votes, into the environmental process. And on Christmas Eve 2009, the Final EIS was expected any day now.

“When the FEIS is accepted by the Governor, it’ll be clear sailing for the project’s groundbreaking! dad exclaimed as the kids clapped their hands in unison. “Your uncle and cousins will have years of construction work ahead of them.”

Again in unison and on cue, the kids put on worried faces and cried, “She will accept the FEIS, won’t she, dad…won’t she!? Dad waited until everyone had grabbed hands so they could shout it together: “She’d better!!” Even mom and the grandparents laughingly joined in – as always.

“You see, kids,” dad said in his serious voice, “this entire project would come to a halt if she doesn’t accept the FEIS, and that would be a bad thing – for you, for your cousins, for the entire community, and especially those who don’t want to sit in traffic.

“Actually, I think what she said in that story I read to you a few weeks ago about not rubber-stamping the rail project was just her way of saying she’s doing her job, being a prudent elected official.”

Granddad chimed in: “The Governor knows we need this train,” he said. “You kids will use it to get to jobs in town or to school in Manoa. Gas prices will be far higher in a few years, and so will parking costs. The train will be so convenient and cost-competitive, it would be terrible for anyone to block this project and toy with your future.” The kids nodded.

“Granddad’s right,” mom called from the hallway. “Once commuters see how easy it is to ride the train and connect with buses or walk from the stations, you kids might even have to fight for a seat!

And so this balmy Christmas Eve 2009 progressed in Kapolei as dad ended his tale of the three Ghosts of Traffic and the family’s three generations sat down around the Christmas tree to hear a much older story.

When the kids opened their presents on Christmas Day, the youngest said she dreamed all night about Santa arriving in Kapolei with a sleigh full of toys. Something was different this year, though.

Instead of eight tiny reindeer leading Santa’s sleigh, it was riding high up on an elevated guideway – pulled by a train.

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