Thursday, January 21, 2010

National Transit Leader Calls Honolulu Rail Plan 'Gold Standard' of Transit, Says Elevated Rail Is Safer, More Reliable and More Attractive to Ride

Wayne Yoshioka, Kirk Caldwell and William Millar (L-R)
A City Hall press conference today managed to refute much of the AIA Chapter’s presentation at its Monday “hearing” in the Capitol, but beyond that, it was a veritable smorgasbord of quotes on why Honolulu’s proposed elevated rail system is right for our community.

American Public Transit Association President William Millar was the primary speaker and was joined by Honolulu Managing Director Kirk Caldwell and Wayne Yoshioka, director of the Department of Transportation Services. Millar is in town for the APTA group’s annual Business Member Board of Governor’s meeting.

I’m not sure how much of the three speakers’ comments will get through the media filter. The Star-Bulletin didn’t seem to be represented, and the Advertiser sent its usual super-rail-skeptic reporter. It's two hours after the 6 pm news as I write this, and the three TV outlets who were present have yet to post a story on their websites. Maybe there was TOO MUCH information for them to absorb, and there was plenty.

We’ll wait a day or so to post Wayne Yoshioka’s main thrust, which was a refutation of the AIA’s Monday presentation. Our focus here is on Mr. Millar’s extensive comments on elevated vs at-grade transit, safety, cost and the environmental process. The following statements are exact quotes in nearly all cases, with a few non-essential phrases deleted.

Going Elevated

“Can you build public transit on the surface? Of course, you can, but it becomes a completely different project and will serve a different purpose than what you have proposed here. Instead of it being a relatively high-speed safe system for commuters, (an at-grade system) will take on more of a local circulator characteristic. It’s not a bad idea, but as we’ve learned from Phoenix and a number of other cities, instead of carrying a large number of people, it will carry a much lower number of passengers.
Safety and Speed
“Street running will also bring with it its own set of complications by being mixed with other traffic and cross streets. One need only look at some of the experience in Phoenix, but probably the classic case is Houston, where regrettably there have been a lot of interface with automobiles, much to the detriment of the automobiles as well as to the rail system. So there have been many many accidents, injuries, property damage and things of that sort.
“Even if you’re skillful enough and lucky enough to be able to design your street portion if you were to go that way…you then are going to be slowing down the automobile traffic. I don’t pretend to know and understand your city totally, but it doesn’t look to me like slowing down automobile traffic is something people would expect or want. So I think that would be a problem.
Environmental Process
“I think in terms of process, you need to be realistic about this. I was reading in one of your local papers…and it quoted somebody as saying, ‘Gee, if we make this change, it’ll simply delay the project by six months.’ Ladies and gentlemen, that is not true, and I tell you from experience every time you make a significant change in a project, particularly a project that has gone through the amount of study that this one’s gone through…if you were to take several miles of your right of way and suddenly take it from being an elevated to a street operation, you’re going to have to go back through most of that if not all of the environmental process. Why? It’s not only the environmental laws themselves that are written to protect people and protect the decisions that are made. You can’t go through an environmental process with one set of assumptions and then change a key assumption and not have to go through the process again….
“It also will change the character, as I said earlier, of this particular program. Instead of being a relatively high-speed safe elevated automated system, as soon as you come down to street grade you’re going to not be able to be an automated system anymore. You’re going to be adding drivers to the system. That is going to change the cost characteristics of the system, and the list goes on and on. Slower speeds mean you’ll need more vehicles to carry the same number of people. Of course, that really won’t be a problem because you won’t have the same number of riders. You’ll have many fewer riders than you had before (as an elevated system). Many fewer riders means there’s less benefit for the project….
“We find in city after city, the people who benefit from it of course are first the people who use the system, but the second biggest group of beneficiaries are motorists. So if you have fewer people riding the system and more people driving – well, you figure it out. (An at-grade system) isn’t going to be as beneficial as it possibly could. So you need to move very carefully in that area. From personal experience, I know that changes in the environmental process can lead to years and many many millions of dollars more of study.
“We are in the worst recession the nation has faced since the 1930s. We need jobs and we need jobs now. A project like this that is very near its planning and environmental process and just about ready to get the federal approval is a project that could move forward quickly that could generate hundreds if not thousands of construction jobs, never mind all the supply industry jobs that come along with this. If there was ever time in this country and in this community when you needed jobs, now is the time, and you have a project ready to go.
Reduced Cost
“There’s another benefit to going forward that makes a lot of sense to me, and that is, because of the bad times in the construction industry, we’re seeing all over the country…the bids from the private sector to build these projects are coming in much cheaper than the engineering estimates. It depends on the project, but 20 percent cheaper is not an unusual number we’re seeing across the country. Now that won’t last, our economy will get better, people will get back to work eventually, and the cost of construction will continue to rise. So the jobs area strikes me as something you need to consider here.
Federal Funding
“Finally…in Washington where I do most of my work there is intense competition for money to do the kinds of projects you’re talking about here in Honolulu…. I’m sure there’s at least 40 different projects around the country that are in what’s called the New Starts pipeline. That’s projects that have done their initial planning, are well into their environmental work or perhaps even through their environmental work. The Congress is unable to fund all those projects, so there’s great competition for that, and in fact, here in Honolulu you have some experience with that. The last time you moved forward with as rail project that fell apart at the end, you had hundreds of millions of dollars that did not come to Honolulu that when someplace else…. The people of Salt Lake City are very grateful to you all, because when your project failed, the money that was to come here to Honolulu in part when to Salt Lake. It went to several other cities as well…. I guess the question I’d really ask you is, do you really want your federal tax dollars that are scheduled to come to Honolulu to go to somewhere else? Because there are plenty of somewhere-elses that would be happy to take that money off your hands.”
We’ll turn to Wayne Yoshioka’s comments soon. Here’s a taste:
"The frustration that I have is that, while I have great respect for architects…., we have a group of architects that clearly are not transit professionals, did not ever build a transit system, and here is our project led by our Chief of Rapid Transit Toru Hayamasu who’s been in this business for over 30 years, and we have a line of exceptional professionals who have tremendous years of experience in transit. These are the experts, and yet, we have a forum (Monday’s hearing) and much ado about this forum with a small group of architects who have no transit experience whatsoever. And it seems people are giving credence to an 'alternative' brought up by this group of architects who have no transit experience.”
Come back soon for more.

1 comment:

Ann said...

Great article. It's nice to see that the City is going in the right direction with rail - and that APTA, FTA, and other agencies/organizations see we're going in the right direction as well.