Sunday, November 29, 2009

‘State Plans Further Review of Rail Issues’ and ‘Generalissimo Francisco Franco Is Still Dead!’

General Franco is still dead! That’s what we thought when we read the Advertiser’s front-page story today under the (print edition) headline “State plans further review of rail issues.”

The paper reported virtually the same thing just a few days ago. Here’s the online headline over the Advertiser’s November 24 story: “Lingle promises thorough review of Honolulu rail project.”

And Generalissimo Francisco Franco Is Still Dead!

OK, for those of you not around during Saturday Night Live’s amazing inaugural 1975 season, that headline was used for weeks by Chevy Chase in the show’s Weekend News Update. Franco had lingered near death for so long that on slow news days, the network newscasts would tell us that he was still hanging on.

Once he died, the SNL crew parodied the networks and their news divisions with the catch phrase about Franco’s ongoing death. Maybe you had to be there, but it became SNL’s first iconic catch phrase. Wikipedia has a thorough discussion on it.

The Advertiser’s repetitious coverage of the rail project is parody material, since the lead reporter’s approach rarely strays from its view-with-alarm angle. We half expect to read a major story in a week or so on the State's continuing promise of a thorough review.

And Generalissimo Francisco Franco Is Still Dead!

Friday, November 27, 2009

At-Grade Backers Stay Silent on Accident Issue

It’s been a few weeks since we spent any time on the issue of at-grade transit safety. Our earlier posts included some graphic visuals about the consequences when at-grade trains meet cars, trucks, buses or pedestrians.

So it’s time for an update from the nation’s newest major rail system – Phoenix’s 20-mile project that opened last December.

News Item, November 5:

A minivan collided with a light rail train Thursday afternoon, near Central and Indian School. Firefighters at last 5 people were injured, some with life threatening injuries. The accident shut down light rail while crews tried to help the injured and clear the accident. Central Avenue had to be shut down for a time while crews cleared the scene. It's unclear at this time who was at fault.

News Item, November 13:

An accident between a light-rail train and a truck Friday has caused a 10- to 25-minute delay in vehicle traffic on eastbound Washington Street, officials said. Three people on the train said they were injured but no one was taken to the hospital, said Sgt. Tommy Thompson, spokesman for the Phoenix Police Department. The crash happened around 10:30 a.m. near First Avenue and Jefferson Street, said Hillary Foose, spokeswoman for Metro Light Rail. The train will continue service, officials said.

Lost in the at-grade advocates’ concern for view planes and whatnot is the very real fact that at-grade trains are involved in accidents at an alarming rate. People are injured, schedules are quickly made invalid and at-grade systems continuously fail the reliability test, as well as the safety test.

So as we head deeper into the holiday season with its message of peace, goodwill and health to all people, let’s remember this central fact about grade-separated trains: They don’t run down pedestrians and aren’t targets for other vehicles.

The at-graders simply ignore this obvious advantage to Honolulu’s planned elevated rail system, and they really ought not do that – especially during the holidays.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Governor’s Stated Insistence on Preserving Road Lanes Seemingly Eliminates At-Grade Alternative

The beautiful thing about this age of modern communications we’re in is that years-old news is just a click away. Take this comment by Governor Linda Lingle reported in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in October 2003 about the proposal then to build a bus rapid transit system:

“I won’t support any project that takes existing lanes off the roadway,” the Governor said.

This on-the-record sentiment is pertinent to the current Honolulu rail transit project, which will involve an elevated 20-mile rail system between East Kapolei and Ala Moana Center.

Some rail opponents are saying the Governor should refuse to accept the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement when it’s completed because they allege alternatives such as at-grade transit were not studied.

Aside from the fact that they were thoroughly evaluated (see the Alternatives Analysis and all its accompanying documentation), at-grade transit most certainly does replace roadway lanes. You can’t drop parallel rail tracks into a street without replacing one or more lanes for vehicles unless – and this is a big “unless” – you’re prepared to condemn property to widen the roadway to preserve the same number of lanes.

At-Grade = Condemnation

This inevitable result of building at-grade transit also has been thoroughly evaluated and found unacceptable compared to the Locally Preferred Alternative of an elevated fixed guideway. As planned, the City’s rail project will require the taking of about 40 properties along its 20-mile length. The Phoenix, AZ, at-grade system that began operations last December took nearly 1,000 properties along the same length.

Rail’s opponents never talk about the need to condemn more property to build at-grade transit, of course, and they generally ignore at-grade’s inability to achieve the project’s goals – fast, frequent and reliable transit.

Public opinion clearly supports the City’s elevated plan, and we continue to refer readers to the results of the QMark survey, which asked for responses to this statement:

“The City & County of Honolulu with approval from the voters of Oahu is moving forward with the development of a 20-mile elevated rail transit line that will connect West Oahu with downtown Honolulu and Ala Moana Center."

Sixty percent of the respondents responded with support for that description, and 69 percent said they believe rail will be a good investment.

The poll's results cannot be mentioned too often and must be held up to the Governor as she is asked to accept the FEIS as evidence of the public’s attitudes. The public clearly favors an elevated rail system and, one must assume, now agrees with the City’s information that refutes the uniformly misleading assertions of rail’s opponents.

An elevated system will preserve existing roadways while speeding commuters to their destinations – on time, every time.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

While “No Rubber Stamp” Pledge is No Surprise, Lingle’s Long-Term Legacy Rides on OKing FEIS

Governor Linda Lingle made the unsurprising statement on a talk show yesterday that she’ll be no “rubber stamp” when it’s time for her to sign off on the rail project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement.

Here’s the pertinent passage from the Advertiser’s story today:

"I'm going to spend my life in Hawaii," Lingle said. "I'm not going to have people look back and say 'Why couldn't you see that this couldn't work? Why didn't you force them to review the alternatives?'
"So I will not rubber-stamp the document. It will not be a quick, couple days turnaround."

Of course, the other thing people may say to the Governor if she refuses to sign the FEIS is, “What were you thinking when you stopped this project after all the effort and study that’s been put into it? And how could you possibly conclude that the alternatives hadn’t been fully analyzed or that we couldn’t afford it?”

We leave the political analysis to the newspaper columnists, but isn't the Governor saying what she has to say? She can't sign off without making statements like this, so the no-rubber-stamp pledge raises no eyebrows.

Imagining a Legacy

The Governor says she plans to be around Hawaii for quite some time, and that future presumably will be in politics. The only way “up” for her is to the United States Senate, and it’s hard to see how blocking a project backed by a solid majority of Oahu residents (where most of the votes are) could do her any good.

She certainly doesn’t want to be remembered as this century’s Rene Mansho, the Honolulu City Council member who cast the deciding vote in 1992 against the proposed rail transit tax that would have provided the local contribution for Mayor Frank Fasi’s fixed guideway project.

So let’s see how this plays out. We have to believe the Governor will conclude that the alternatives to an elevated project – alternatives that were thoroughly vetted, notwithstanding the anti-rail crowd’s assertions – all are inferior to the City’s plan.

Grade-separated transit is the only travel mode that completely avoids traffic congestion, which is why it's the only way to achieve the project's goals of providing fast, frequent and reliable transportation. It therefore is the only mode that allows you to predict your time of arrival. As we like to say here, that’s why they call it a timetable!
Surely the Governor can appreciate that central fact about the City's rail transit plan.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Slow-News Season Prompts Old-News Story

Today’s front-page story in the Advertiser plows the same ground as so many similar stories in the paper that one can’t help but conclude the reporter and perhaps some editors are waging their own war in the news columns.

Start with the headline: “Honolulu officials faulted for rejecting ground-level trains” Who’s doing the faulting? The man who wrote a report supporting at-grade transit, that’s who. Is this surprising? Is this news?

His report has been thoroughly debated and dissected already, yet here comes another story of dubious value dredging up his discredited recommendation. The Advertiser splashed this one-man plan on its front page back on September 13, and shooting holes in it was like picking off ducks in a barrel.

Please refer to the map the paper published that day showing the six turns of close to 90 degrees or more the proposed at-grade route would make around the Civic Center. The very idea that this could possibly represent a rapid-transit alternative is ludicrous.

Where's the News?

All of which makes a reportorial agenda seem plausible. You just don’t manufacture stories based on a flimsy premise that at-grade transit hasn’t been studied since a Walmart and other buildings were constructed along the route. Building a medical school or high rises doesn’t do a thing to change the fundamental weakness of this plan: It’s slow!

Build any part of Honolulu rail at ground level and you don’t have rapid transit. Build it 30 above ground and you do. And when those many new high rises planned for Kakaako are up in the air 300 feet or so, you won’t even see the guideway.

This blogger once reported for the Advertiser when it was under the editorship of George Chaplin, who did not condone news-hole bias by his reporters. Unfortunately, this particular reporter seems determined to continue his style of covering rail, and supporters of the City's transit plan must be prepared for more of the same.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Photo Shows What Rail Commuters Will Avoid

The view heading east this morning on the H-1.
We’ve had a picture posted over in our right-hand margin showing the kind of traffic congestion that frustrates Honolulu commuters all too often. It’s been there for months, so it’s time we updated it....

...from this morning! A seven-car accident on the H-1 produced yet another huge traffic backup -- which prompts us to make the central point about Honolulu’s future rail system:

Rail commuters won’t have to deal with these jams!
Grade-separated transit is the only way to accurately predict your destination arrival time. Nobody driving in from the west side this morning could do that -- not unless they calculated a huge delay because of the accident.

Here’s television coverage of the Mayor’s press conference yesterday with three major announcements on rail. It includes an interview with the man who’s probably most responsible for frustrating Honolulu’s attempts to build a modern transit system over the past two decades -- Cliff Slater. We’re happy to give Mr. Slater some space/time here so visitors to this blog can see that he offers no solutions to traffic -- just more roadblocks.

Grade-separated transit isn’t a “solution” to traffic, because traffic is likely to always be a fact of life. But it is an alternative to the gridlock experienced by commuters this morning. Oahu residents know that central fact, and that’s one reason why a majority of them support the project.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mayor Says Transit Tax Can’t Be Raided by State; Labor Pact Secured, Another Rail Hurdle Cleared

The latest news about the Honolulu rail project is sure to fire up the opponents and prompt all sorts of vitriol. With Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s announcement today that a Project Labor Agreement with the trade unions has been sealed, the anti-rail crowd must sense that their opposition is being overtaken by events.

Nov. 18 Update: The Honolulu Star-Bulletin sees a more significant development in the Mayor's news conference -- that the signing of a construction contract with Kiewit Pacific for Phase 1 formally encumbers rail transit funds raised by the increased excise tax and protects them from a raid by the State. The Advertiser reporter either missed that critical angle entirely or simply chose to ignore it; either way, readers of his story aren't getting the whole picture.

The newspapers’ online comments sections will be their forum tonight and again tomorrow, and we recommend staying away unless you have time to waste and nothing better to do – in which case, we offer our sympathies. Our views on the Comments section were recorded here a few days ago.

Signing the PLA is significant because it eliminates the potential for strikes and other labor disputes that could interfere with the timely construction of rail. It’s only smart to have that in place, and we can imagine the enthusiasm among trades workers that this project is the way out of their personal economic straits.

The latest news on Hawaii’s tourism industry released just today shows that the stimulus to the economy rail will provide is needed more than ever. Visitor spending is off $1.4 billion in 2009, and the State forecasts a 12.6-percent reduction in visitor spending for the entire year.

All of which will trigger more stories in the Honolulu Advertiser’s news hole about the reduction in rail tax revenues – a fixation with the obvious that borders on strange. It would be refreshing to see stories about what the economic impact will be when rail construction starts early next year.

On the Move

The Mayor’s other announcement today keeps the focus on next steps. A Request for Proposals will be issued tomorrow seeking bids to build Phase 2 of the project from Pearl Highlands to Aloha Stadium. The expectation around City Hall is that the winning bid likely will be lower than originally forecast, which was the case when Kiewit Pacific won the contract to build Phase 1.

Rail is on the move, which has to please the solid majority of Oahu residents who support rail. The others will make their noise, but rail most definitely is on the move.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Searching for ‘News’ in the Rail Tax Stories

Comparing the two daily newspapers’ coverage of the Honolulu rail project is probably a consequence of our former life as a newspaper reporter here. Both editorial pages are solidly supportive, as seen in recent Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin editorials. It’s in the news hole that the coverage seems to differ.

The Advertiser today has a story in its website’s Top Breaking News section (and sure to be highlighted in tomorrow’s print edition) that transit tax collections in October were down from a year earlier. So far, the Bulletin has no similar story, but beyond the play of this particular story today, the Advertiser continues to display what some might call a fixation with rail tax revenues.

The fact that revenues are down year-to-year during the nation’s economic recession isn’t surprising in the least. Someone wrote in the Comments section below the Advertiser’s online story today that the paper’s monthly coverage of the tax revenues has the same predictability about it as the “Hawaiian Airlines Tops On-Time List” stories we see each month.

Viewing with Alarm

Until the economy turns around (which it will; it always has), can’t we safely predict that rail tax revenues any given month will be below those of a year earlier? Almost certainly there will be such an announcement in mid-December, and we’ll be treated to yet another view-with-alarm assessment in the Advertiser. Why “view with alarm?” Because the thrust of these stories suggests an implied concern about a tax “shortfall” that seems out of line with common sense.

As the City has pointed out repeatedly, the rail project’s financial plan is sound. The construction contract for Phase One came in $90 million under budget, and future contracts are just as likely to be favorably below original forecasts. That’s what happens in a recession, and that’s what’s happening elsewhere around the country.

Local economists are predicting a recovery beginning next year, and some anticipate rather robust economic times in the coming decade. The rail project itself will provide a stimulus by employing thousands of local residents and creating taxable profits by the companies involved with rail.

Tax revenues are lower in a recession and Hawaiian Air flies on time -- two rather unremarkable factoids that nevertheless still generate headlines. You be the judge of how newsworthy they are.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Got Time To Waste? Then Spend It in “Comments”

You have to believe self-survival convinced the newspapers to glom onto the idea of allowing readers to post comments below their online stories. Driving up their websites’ visitors count by opening up a free-flowing Comments forum must have seemed like a good idea at the time – prolonging readers’ involvement with the paper long after it had been delivered.

Nice theory, but from what we can tell, the Comments section is ripping at the fabric of society as a refuge for the bigoted, profane and abusive. Drop in and see what we mean. The same people are there each day, hiding behind pseudonyms, of course, hurling thunderbolts and insults at one another. Virtually all posters use a fake name for obvious reasons.

But not everyone there makes abusive comments in the rail debate; those generally come from the anti-rail faction – a minority, we hasten to add, since a majority of Oahu residents voted for rail last year and the recent opinion survey showed that support has increased in the past year.

Voice pro-rail sentiments there and be prepared for an avalanche of invective. And God forbid that you’ve ever been associated with the City administration in any way or identified as a supporter. That’s an automatic disqualification, according to the anti-rail crowd.

One Person, One Vote

If you’ve been visiting this blog, you’ll know we’ve been reporting recently on the public opinion survey conducted a few weeks ago by a respected local polling company. You can read the results below; they show what we call landslide support for the rail project.

Which brings us – finally – to the graphic at the top of this post. Ten thousand jobs per year is a major consequence of building rail. It’s not THE reason to build it; that is and always has been to create an alternative to sitting in traffic congestion – something every great city and urban environment the world over offers its citizens.

The anti-rail people actually see the employment issue as a negative and describe rail transit negatively as a “jobs project.” And so goes the thinking from that crowd.

Spend time in the Comments section if you must – and if you believe in rail as most of Oahu residents do, then drop in some respectful comments of your own to keep the pot stirring. Otherwise, it’s in danger of being one uninterrupted sewer.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Graphics Give Insightful Look at Opinions on Rail

Media silence continues on the City-sponsored public opinion survey on rail. As a former reporter, we don’t subscribe to the popular view that reporters let their personal whims color their reporting on this issue. Of course, that was back in the day, and we have to wonder about some of the coverage rail has received lately.

But enough with analysis of journalism and on with an analysis of the poll. A link to displays graphics that put the pro-rail sentiment into perspective and cast doubt about the depth of anti-rail sentiment in the community, notwithstanding what’s heard on some local media.

The first graphic is a map showing the percentage of residents in each City Council district who believe rail transit is a good investment for Honolulu:

That’s a remarkable result in light of the negativity that gets so much media attention. Another graphic makes a similar point regarding overall support for the project:

Every district shows majority support for rail, all of which underlies the wisdom of the adage that you can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers – or don’t read, for that matter.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Review: LYNX Is ‘Fast, Comfortable, Affordable’

The dean of Honolulu journalists has spoken. Wayne Harada, albeit technically retired, still writes for the Honolulu Advertiser – and writes and writes and writes. He must be going for the billion-word mark, and he sure does get around.

Today's column is datelined Charlotte, NC, where Wayne has found surprisingly good things – including the city’s light rail system called LYNX. Here’s Wayne’s mini-review:

• Light rail is limited — only 9.6 miles long now, with plans for expansion — but very evident here. I caught a ride the other day; LYNX, as it’s called, is fast, comfortable, affordable ( $1.50 one way), and — take note, Mayor Mufi Hannemann — is spurring development along the route, with condos and businesses in construction even in the soft economy. There are 15 stations, seven park-and-ride-locations — and LYNX serves a corridor from I-485 at South Boulevard to Uptown Charlotte, with Center City in the service zone.

Written like a fan, something Wayne Harada knows a lot about, having covered the Advertiser’s entertainment beat for 44 years. And he has lots of company there in Charlotte.

Chatham Olive, past president of the Sierra Club Charlotte chapter, was in Honolulu for June’s Transit Symposium and sat for an interview. He notes that rail in Charlotte has improved the environment by taking drivers out of their pollution-coughing cars.

That’s something Wayne Harada will appreciate about Honolulu’s rail system when it’s completed within a decade. Keep writing, Wayne.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Poll Parsing: Big Majority Sees Economic Benefit

It’s reassuring to know that the vast majority of our fellow island residents haven't been fooled by the anti-rail rhetoric encountered here and there. That’s one of our conclusions from the recently released public opinion poll conducted by QMark, a respected local survey firm.

The company polled 900 Oahu residents – 100 in each of the nine City Council districts. The sample was derived using QMark’s proprietary Random Digit Dialing software; the margin of error for a sample of 900 respondents is +/- 3.27 percentage points with a 95 percent confidence level.

Here’s why we think our fellow Oahu residents are right on the money: QMark asked respondents if they felt rail transit was a “good investment” in the future of Honolulu. Using a four-point rating scale (4 = very good investment, 1 = very poor), here are the totals:

Whenever a poll returns 69 percent agreement on anything, it’s a landslide, and that’s the percentage of respondents in this scientifically conducted public opinion survey who believe the rail project will be a good investment for Oahu.

The City’s been saying that all along – and it’s especially understandable as Hawaii and the rest of the nation look for ways to get through the economic downturn.

So if you agree with that sentiment, you might take some pleasure in knowing that 7 out of 10 people you see on the street, in the office and everywhere else on Oahu see it that way, too.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Behind Rail Opinion Poll Numbers – Solid Support

The public opinion survey conducted for the City on residents’ attitudes about the Honolulu rail project has received minimal media coverage from what we’ve been able to find – at the bottom of one story on the Mayor’s “State of the Rail” address last week.

Here are some of its highlights based on a scientific survey of 900 Oahu residents by QMark, a respected Honolulu firm; the survey has a margin of error of +/- 3.27 percentage points with a 95 percent confidence level:

A majority (77 percent) of Oahu residents believe the island has a serious traffic congestion problem. Nineteen percent describe traffic as “mild” and two percent say there’s no problem; one percent is unsure. This high level of agreement about the seriousness of the problem was seen in all nine City Council districts, ranging from 73 to 84 percent.

• A two-thirds majority (60 percent) support the Honolulu rail project as it was described to them: “The City & County of Honolulu with approval from the voters of Oahu is moving forward with the development of a 20-mile elevated rail transit line that will connect West Oahu with downtown Honolulu and Ala Moana Center."

A little more than one-third of the respondents – 34 percent – strongly support it and 26 percent somewhat support it. Among the 37 percent who oppose the project, 21 percent strongly oppose and 16 percent somewhat suppose it. Three percent don’t know.

Comparing those who have strong feelings one way or the other, the strongly supportive group is more than half again as large as the strongly opposed group. At least half of the respondents in each City Council district support the project.

Half of the poll’s respondents (49 percent) believe “rail transit is badly needed and is long overdue.” Another 27 percent believe “there is a need for transit but it is not immediate or pressing.” One in five Oahu residents (20 percent) believe “we do not need rail transit on Oahu.”

• Sixty-nine percent of the respondents believe rail transit is a good investment in the future of Honolulu – either very good (36 percent) or somewhat good (33 percent). Of the remainder, 12 percent say rail is a somewhat poor investment while 16 percent believe it is a very poor investment. Three percent are undecided. A solid majority of respondents in all nine City Council district respondents believe rail is a good investment; the lowest percentage among the districts is 60 percent.

• Nearly half (45 percent) of those polled say they expect to use the rail transit system at some point. Among current car commuters during peak morning or afternoon drive times, 42 percent say they’ll use rail once it is completed. Fifty-eight percent of bus riders who commute during those times say they’ll use rail. Combining car and bus commuters, 45 percent believe they’ll use rail at some point.

The Bottom Line: The poll has revealed strong support among Oahu residents for the Honolulu rail project – support that appears to have increased since 53 percent voted in favor of rail in last November’s election.

And Furthermore....
Here's one person's "poll" on Honolulu's plan to build its system elevated and above street which we say, amen.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Editorial: Rail's Construction Is Closer than Ever

October has given way to November as seamlessly as ever, and it’s somewhat surprising to see how close we are to Thanksgiving and the holiday season. The best time of the year for many is right around the corner, and for rail enthusiasts, the best of times also are near.

The editorial in today’s Honolulu Advertiser makes somewhat the same point. Assessing where Honolulu’s rail project now stands, the editorial says “the project is closer than ever to becoming a reality” and that the Final Environmental Impact Statement will be issued soon:

“The good news is that by the time the final EIS finds its way to Gov. Linda Lingle's desk, a multitude of state and federal agencies — including the military, the National Park Service and state and federal historic preservation offices — would have already signed off on various components of the document. So there should be no surprises. The governor should be able to promptly accept the document, keeping the project's momentum.”

Completing all required regulatory and administrative steps would please a solid majority of Oahu residents, according to a public opinion poll released last week. Conducted in September by QMark Research, a respected local firm based in Honolulu, the scientific poll found that 60 percent of the 900 respondents either "strongly support" (34 percent) or "somewhat support" (26 percent) the Honolulu rail option as described to them – “a 20-mile elevated rail transit line that will connect West Oahu with downtown Honolulu and Ala Moana Center.”

As QMark notes, support for the project stands at near a two-to-one margin over opposition (37 percent). (The margin of error for a sample of this size is =/- 3.27 percentage points with a 90 percent confidence level.)

After all has been said and done, after the contentious fight over last year's rail vote and after all the debate over elevated and at-grade transit, the public clearly wants this project built as it's current planned.