Friday, April 30, 2010

What Too Many Don’t Get Regarding Rail Project

It’s the day after the closing of the State Legislature for another year. No matter what you think about the new $1.05/barrel tax on oil products (excluding jet fuel) and where the money will go (60 percent to the State's general fund, 40 percent to food and energy security), one thing’s certain: The cost of driving a personal vehicle just went up.

Number crunchers say the tax will add about 2.5 cents to each gallon of gasoline, which already costs Hawaii consumers more than residents of just about everyplace in the country. (McGrath, Alaska residents are paying $9/gallon, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.)

It’s a certainty that commuting by car will cost more over time, and the new tax simply is more evidence of that foregone conclusion. Commuting by rail thereby will become an obvious choice for tens of thousands of commuters once the project is up and running. But that’s not why we’re writing today.

The Big Disconnect

The evidence suggests that too many people continue to miss the essential point of grade-separated transit – that it’s the only way to completely avoid sitting in traffic congestion two or more times a day while traveling east-west through Honolulu’s urban corridor.

The recent soft launch of Civll Beat, the online subscription news service, suggests that even some of its journalists haven’t quite gotten their arms around rail. One triggered a lively exchange with readers by writing that “jobs are at the heart of this (rail) debate,” an assessment that misses rail's essential truth, which is:

Honolulu’s rail project will restore mobility to our community. Grade-separated transit (Honolulu’s will be elevated) is the only transportation mode that completely avoids surface congestion. That’s why similar projects around the world are so obviously successful in letting their riders know their exact arrival time at their destination before they even begin their trips!

Jobs, the economic stimulus, the environmental pluses – they’re all important, but surely nobody is stepping up to the microphone to declare that the primary reason to build rail is to create jobs. Only rail’s critics prop up that straw man as a convenient target to tear down.

The reason to build Honolulu’s rail system is obvious and essentially uncomplicated: People who choose to adjust their commute and give up their car for that purpose will shorten their commute time, save money, improve their lifestyles and do the environment some good.

But the bottom line is about mobility. Train riders will no longer be victimized by traffic congestion, which like the price of gasoline can only be expected to increase.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mayor Says TOD Will Reshape Community Life

Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s commentary in today’s Honolulu Star-Bulletin focuses on an often overlooked aspect of the City’s rail project – Transit-Oriented Development.

Hannemann’s piece lists a number of TOD benefits, including restoration of a sense of community to neighborhoods and the potential to create affordable housing near transit stations. One can imagine families finding it unnecessary to own more than one car due to the convenience of nearby rail transit for the daily commute to work.

The Mayor made a similar pitch Monday at the Rotary Club of Honolulu Sunrise, the third time the club has had a City briefing on rail and the first time since a local architect spoke to the club and advocated building at least part of the system at ground level.

Hannemann noted the severe handicaps of at-grade rail, including slower speeds, the potential for accidents, reduced reliability and an issue that would be certain to arise on Oahu – the high probability that remains of Hawaiian ancestors would be disturbed during construction of an at-grade system.

His presentation included slides showing construction of Phoenix’s 20-mile system and the necessity to dig a deep trench along the entire route. The Mayor said Honolulu’s elevated system will rest on support pillars that will be 100 to 150 feet apart, and the impact on buried remains will be much less.

Trenching along route of Phoenix's 20-mile at-grade system.

Friday, April 23, 2010

How Do Travelers Avoid Volcanic Ash…….?

Iceland's erupting volcano caused European and American airlines to cancel thousands of flights in the past week. Tens of thousands of travelers decided to get around the "virtual traffic jam in the sky" the same way Honolulu's future commuters will avoid traffic congestion.......... taking the train!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Earth Day Countdown—Honolulu’s Last Before Rail

On the first Earth Day in 1970, the idea of building a rail transit system that would give commuters an alternative to driving through an increasingly crowded Honolulu was shared by only a few far-sighted government leaders and transit officials.

By Earth Day 11 in 1980, Mayor Frank Fasi was pushing hard to build Honolulu Area Rapid Transit, but HART never got off the ground thanks to his surprising re-election defeat by Eileen Anderson, who promptly killed the project.

Ten years later on Earth Day 21, “Fearless Frank” was back at it again, and this time the effort to build an elevated fixed guideway between Leeward Community College and the University of Hawaii’s Manoa Campus was stronger than ever. It was derailed at the last minute by a switched vote on the City Council that denied an increase in the general excise tax that would have financed rail’s “local share.”

Nothing much was happening with rail transit on Earth Day in 2000, but 10 years later, Thursday April 22 should be the last Earth Day of Honolulu’s “pre-rail transit” history – at least since its streetcar era. If events unfold as expected, construction will have begun by Earth Day 2011 on Honolulu's 20-mile rail system, which will be one of the city’s most significant sustainability projects ever.

The Green Machine

The rail system’s name hasn’t been chosen, and The Green Machine isn’t a strong candidate, but why not call it that? Honolulu rail will be bright green by taking tens of thousands of cars off the road, eliminating all of their mobile pollution.

But what about pollution at the power plants to generate the trains’ electricity? There will be less of that, too, over the years as Hawaii continues its renewable energy revolution.

Honolulu rail will be a generations-long operation, and the goal of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative less than a generation from now is for the state to get 70 percent of its electricity from clean sources, as shown in this chart:

That means Honolulu rail will be running on higher and higher percentages of electricity generated by wind, solar, refuse, biofuel and ocean power. This is the future the vast majority of Hawaii citizens and Americans want – reduced carbon emissions and lower dependence on foreign sources of energy.

The private automobile is still indispensable for most of us, but once rail is up and running, it will seem less so for a significant segment of our population. Transit-oriented development will become the logical way of community growth, with less sprawl driven by a 20th Century fascination with the car. That’s one reason why the national Sierra Club backs rail transit so strongly.

Earth Day 2010 is a good day to focus on Honolulu’s progress toward achieving its decades-long goal of creating fast, frequent, safe, reliable and energy-saving rail transit. More important is the need to recommit to that goal and do what it takes in the coming year to make Earth Day 2011 a day of celebration around Honolulu rail.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Rail Critic Serves Up Another Pro-Car Commentary

The man we’ve credited with being the chief obstacle to rail transit creation in Honolulu is at it again today with yet another column in the Honolulu Advertiser. The paper – soon to be acquired by the owner of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin – has been a platform for Cliff Slater’s views for literally decades. He even was given a recurring “Second Opinion” commentary slot in the paper from the early 1990s to around 2006.

To his credit, Mr. Slater has been able to fire off 500 or more words on just about any subject over the years (see his Second Opinion website) on Public Education, Governments & Markets, Labor & Privatization, and of course, Traffic & Transportation.

Living by the ABCs

It’s the latter category that defines him, however. Mr. Slater is a diehard believer in the private automobile. The tie that binds his commentaries into one whole body of work is the car. We started referring to him as A-B-C “Always By Car” Cliff as evidence of his car preference piled up.

Today’s commentary is another example. He writes glowingly about a toll road to be built by private investors in Oregon. They plan to build a $400 million pay-to-ride highway south of Portland that will have tolls sufficiently high enough to cover the cost of construction, financing and operations.

The rest of his commentary has examples of government’s inability to accomplish the same goal, no matter what it builds. His chief target is the current Honolulu rail project, of course, as was the City’s plan to build a similar grade-separated system two decades ago.

What Mr. Slater doesn’t dwell on today is the big difference between a toll road and a municipal rail project. Toll roads serve the well-to-do, leaving the less financially able to sit in traffic congestion the wealthy pay to avoid. Major City infrastructure projects like Honolulu rail and TheBus system naturally must serve everyone’s needs and therefore are more progressive than toll roads.

Restoring mobility to the masses – that’s what Honolulu rail will accomplish. It’s something Mr. Slater can’t claim for his toll roads, no matter how many times he tries.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Job Growth Yet Another Sign of Hawaii’s Recovery

The general excise tax surcharge collected since January 2007 to cover the “local share” of Honolulu rail’s costs is running at about 99.5 percent of initial projections, yet some continue to question the project’s financial viability.

That skepticism is a remnant of the worst days of the recession in the waning years of the past decade, but a week doesn’t go by now without encouraging news about the health of Hawaii’s economy.

The Honolulu Advertiser’s top story on the print edition’s front page today is headlined “More in Isles finding work.” The number of Hawaii residents with jobs grew in March for the second straight month after 20 straight months of declines.

Consumer Confidence Rebounds

Yesterday’s Star-Bulletin reported on First Hawaiian Bank’s assessment that consumer confidence is “clearly improving” as seen in car and store sales figures. CEO Don Horner said same-stores sales were up 5 percent in the first quarter from a year ago.

“We haven’t seen it get back to 2007 and 2008 levels, but it’s encouraging that we’ve found a bottom based on the confidence numbers,” he said.

As the positive indicators continue to accumulate, we can only expect Hawaii’s economic rebound to nudge the pessimistic assessments closer to the margins.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

‘Bigger than an Average Humpback Whale’ Trains Attracting Higher Ridership Amid Safety Concerns

Comparing the size of Phoenix’s year-old light rail train with a humpback whale might not mean much to Arizona residents, so the safety video narrator continues:

“Do not – and I really mean – do not stop or park on the tracks! Bad idea. These trains can’t stop on a dime. They take a while to stop.”

That’s the warning in the “Our first stop is safety” video produced by Phoenix’s Valley Metro system to help drivers co-exist safely with the city’s at-grade rail system. Unfortunately, the message hasn’t gotten through to too many of them.

Metro racked up 52 crashes by in its first year of operation as drivers failed to follow instructions on how to navigate around these “humpbacks" on rails. We often mention safety here because there still are some on Oahu who think at-grade rail is a plausible option for Honolulu’s new system.

The comparative safety of elevated rail is just one reason to favor the existing plan for Honolulu – along with reliability, speed and increased mobility that also compare favorably with at-grade rail.

And Now, Phoenix’s Good News

Despite the accidents and service interruptions they cause, Valley residents continue to use METRO beyond expectations. The Arizona Republic reports today that ridership last year was 34 percent above expectations. Among its findings:

“Metro doesn’t experience a sharp drop in riders between morning and evening rush hours. Many people ride it off-peak to sporting events, museums and restaurants for riders typically shorter than 8 miles.”

City planners are now envisioning an expansion of Phoenix’s rail system to “define the city’s development goals.” They see light rail as a partner in spurring redevelopment of outlying urban villages.

The Republic’s story also reports on age group transportation preferences:

“…the Millennial Generation, those who reached adulthood after 2000, are coming to prominence. A recent in-depth study by the Pew Research Center showed that Millennials are eco-conscious and urban. Pew found that 32 percent live in central cities, compared with 23 percent of children of the Depression. They also don't want long car commutes.”

Phoenix’s 16-month-old rail system is worth watching for its “lessons learned” value for Honolulu and our own rail program, including how to meet the transportation needs of a generation that’s likely to be much less dependent on the family car than earlier ones.

But we’re already far ahead of Phoenix in some respects. Our grade-separated system will make car-train crashes impossible here, and that’s a difference we’ll continue to emphasize.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Highway Expert Offers Another Anti-Rail Critique

You can’t judge a book by its cover, and you can’t always be sure people are experts on a topic just because they write about it. Today’s commentary in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin by Dr. Panos D. Prevedouros is one such example, but there are others, as we’ll soon discuss.

Dr. Prevedouros is the University of Hawaii highway transportation expert, a conclusion to be drawn by reading his UH bio, which he presumably wrote and which doesn’t contain the words “transit” or “rail” or any evidence that he comes at the transit issue from anything other than a pro-highway perspective.

Although Dr. Prevedouros routinely writes unflattering assessments of the Honolulu rail transit project, there’s nothing in his bio to suggest he’s been involved with transit over the years except as a highway-preferring critic. We made the same point nearly two years ago.

In today’s piece, Dr. Prevedouros mentions the research of several university-based professors who also appear to have no particular transit expertise. Professor Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University is said by Wikipedia to have “written extensively about megaprojects, power and rationality in decision making, and philosophy of social science.” He has produced numerous publications and working papers, most written from a planning perspective.

One publication appears to be the source cited by Dr. Prevedouros: “Delusion and Deception in Large Infrastructure Projects; Two Models for Explaining and Preventing Executive Disaster.” Professor Flyvbjerg writes extensively about the relationship between truth and lying from a European perspective, but his list of transit-related articles seems to be less than a handful.

A co-author of that article was Massimo Garbuio, a “lecturer” at the University of Sydney, who also is mentioned by Dr. Prevedouros and who also seems to be an expert on decision making – but not transit, based on the publications he cites on his university webpage. The sole “conference paper” listed at that site is titled: “'A beliefs-preferences-attributions model of strategic decision making, Strategic Management Society SMS 29th Annual International Conference, Washington D.C., United States, 14th October 2009”

Dr. Prevedouros misspells the name of another co-author – Professor Dan Lovallo, not Lorvallo, also of the University of Sydney. Professor Lovallo is equally at home with decision making and less so apparently with transit systems. His website page says his research “is concerned with psychological aspects of strategic decisions…,” but there’s no mention of transit or rail on his bio page.

Consider the Source

Our point is this: You can find a hundred experts in management and decision making who’ve written papers critical of this or that project, but until you truly understand those projects and have heard from others familiar with them, drawing conclusions from those papers about a specific project like Honolulu rail is pointless.

Contrary to Dr. Prevedouros’s conclusions about the Honolulu project, there is no reason to believe the City has misrepresented future passenger acceptance or costs. Transit experts for decades have said Honolulu is the ideal candidate for a “transit spine” through its corridor – a long and compact urban area squeezed between mountains and the sea.

As for alleged low-balling the cost of Honolulu rail, the project has approximately 30 percent of its budget targeted for contingencies that haven’t even been identified yet – a level federal officials say may be unprecedented.

Dr. Prevedouros is a rock-ribbed rail opponent. It's therefore reasonable to view his commentary with the same degree of skepticism that he directs at the subject of his piece – the recent pro-rail commentary by a member of the American Council of Engineering Companies.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

City Says Airport Routing Issues Are Resolved; Lagoon Drive Rail Station To Be Moved One Block

One of Honolulu’s two dailies devoted literally days and columns of news hole, commentary and editorial space in late March to an allegedly intractable problem for the rail project near Honolulu International Airport.

So much for intractable problems and months of delay. Mayor Mufi Hannemann today said the rail route will be moved one block mauka near Lagoon Drive to avoid a potential incursion into the Runway Protection Zone.

Most of the guideway near the airport will still follow Aolele Street, but beginning about 2,000 feet west of Lagoon Drive, it will shift one block mauka to Ualena Street. Importantly, the Federal Transit Administration has agreed to the mitigation, which removes one of the issues that’s been holding up the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). The State Historical Preservation Division now will be asked to concur that the new alignment will not affect buildings deserving of historic preservation.

Alarmist reporting notwithstanding, the rail project is resolving the final remaining issues standing in the way of the FEIS’s presentation to the Governor’s office for its acceptance.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Pro-Rail Commentaries Provide One-Two Punch

Who would blame you if you swore off reading the “comments” sections below the newspapers’ online rail stories anymore. What’s the point? The same old pseudonyms trot out the same old pro- and anti-rail rants each and every time a story appears.

Take the two pro-rail commentaries in today's Star-Bulletin. They're like fingernails on a blackboard to the anti-railers.

Former City transportation director Joe Magaldi tops the two-page spread (in the print edition) by recalling his recent trip to the nation’s capital and its modern, grade-separated rail system.

“The only safe, convenient way to get around was riding the Washington, D.C., Metro system,” Magaldi writes. “As always, moving through the city was remarkably convenient, thanks to Metro.”

Following up with an engineer’s perspective was John Katahira, president of the American Council of Engineering Companies-Hawaii, who urges readers to respect the multi-year process involved in scoping and planning the Honolulu rail project. Says Katahira:

“Over the last five years, there have been many opportunities for public involvement. It is now time to trust the process, move forward — with our eyes wide open — and make the most of a project that will shape Honolulu's future”

The commentaries urge Honolulu citizens to embrace safe, effective, fast and convenient transit – all attributes of Honolulu’s future rail system.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Town Hall Meeting Tonight Will Focus on TOD

Illustration accompanying TOD article in today's Honolulu Advertiser
Honolulu’s anticipated economic benefits from transit oriented development (TOD) along the City’s rail transit route will be highlighted in a panel discussion this evening at Farrington High School.

The City has long extolled the value rail projects have for their communities. In addition to being a traffic-free method of commuting through congested urban areas, rail can spur renewal in the neighborhoods through which they travel.

Experts from around the country will describe how rail systems have positively impacted housing, business and employment. San Diego, Portland and Washington, D.C. are among the cities frequently mentioned as having enjoyed billions of dollars of positive investment, some of it stimulated by tax credits for developers who build affordable housing near rail transit stations.

Tonight’s workshop will begin at 6 o’clock in the Farrington High School auditorium. The TOD story in today's Honolulu Advertiser by Alan Yonan Jr. is the first rail-specific article we recall seeing written by the paper's assistant business editor. Perhaps it signals a change in rail reporting assignments at the paper; the most recent story by the paper's regular rail reporter was noteworthy for having buried its lead some 650 words into the article.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Community College Welcomes Rail ‘Gateway’

The media usually focus on negative “newsworthy” angles in their stories about the Honolulu rail project’s route, but Honolulu Community College has a different take.

HCC intends to incorporate a rail station into the campus’s building plans, as described in today’s Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

Nothing new has been built at the Dillingham Boulevard campus in 40 years, a generation ago. But now plans are being created for a six-story Advanced Technology Training Center, and most probably would agree that it’s about time.

While rail commuting will be convenient and traffic-free for everyone who decides to ride the train, nobody will find it more so than HCC students. They’ll be just minutes from class when they alight from the train and get to work in that new training center.

Return to Paradise

A business traveler writes in today’s Bulletin that she won’t return to Honolulu for pleasure and maybe not for business if she can help it. The problem? Traffic congestion made it a three-hour round trip between Waikiki and Waipahu.

Come back when the rail project is completed, Debbie Kipper of Shawnee Mission, KS. You’ll cut about two hours off that trip by riding Honolulu’s train.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Lingle Still Supports At-Grade Rail Despite Flaws; Doesn’t Fast, Frequent, Reliable & Safe Matter?

Maybe the most charitable thing to be said about the Governor’s rail-related comments on Insights PBS Hawaii last night is that she’s too distracted by other issues to fully understand the project.

Or maybe she understands it but as a Republican can’t bring herself to appear supportive of the pet project of a mayor who's a Democrat and who’ll likely run for her office.

Whatever, she asserted last night that building half of Honolulu’s rail project at ground level would save on construction and financing costs. She also said the federal government has strong reservations about the City’s plan to finance rail.


Some rail supporters undoubtedly shouted back at their TV sets last night as the Governor glowingly supported putting half of Honolulu’s system at ground level. Host and Star-Bulletin reporter Richard Borreca not once challenged the Governor about her preference for slow, neighborhood-disrupting, costly, accident-prone and therefore unreliable at-grade rail.

For reasons described in great detail by federal and local officials, transit experts, citizens and plain old bloggers, at-grade rail can’t possibly provide the kind of transportation Honolulu commuters need – fast, frequent, reliable and safe service. (You’re invited to slog through any number of posts here at Yes2Rail to read about each of these grade-separated attributes.)

Information Under-load?

The most puzzling thing about the Governor’s comments last night was her apparent obliviousness to the reasons why building any part of Honolulu’s system at ground level would spell failure. For example, does she not know about the accidents that affect at-grade systems wherever they’re built?

It makes you wonder about whether important information is actually reaching the Governor. If her aides were doing their jobs right, they’d be exposing her to diverse views about the project, but she shows no sign of having been exposed to at-grade’s negatives.

Also, despite the several strong statements of support by Washington for Honolulu’s rail project, she continues to suggest federal officials have major reservations about rail's financing plan.

So maybe it’s not so much about the Governor’s views as it is about her distractions and the quality of her support system. That’s about as charitable as we’re prepared to be.


Question from a viewer: Re the Governor’s stand on the rail project, what alternatives does she have to avoid traffic if she doesn’t accept the rail EIS?

A: (after an aside about working hard to the end of her term....) This rail issue is an acute issue for the people of the island of Oahu and for the entire state for that matter. It’s the most expensive project ever undertaken in the state. It will create an amount of debt that will be very difficult for the people I think to withstand.

And I think it’s a fair question to say, OK, if it’s not the rail, then what? There have been some good suggestions made about making the rail system, instead of all above ground, make it half-way at street level and half above ground, and that would reduce the cost by $2 billion, and that would reduce the debt on people. So there’s a huge difference between what’s been proposed and what could be implemented, so I think that’s one response.

But we’re not going to wait for rail, because regardless of which system, It’s years down the road. We need to do things now, and we have, as you know, by getting North-South Road open. We’re now going to move forward with the pm contra-flow lanes.

And also, of course, is to create jobs out in the region, so you don’t have as many people making this long commute across the island. And we’ve been so supportive of the Ko’olina Resort project out there, and of course Disney will be opening in 2011. There will be at least 1,000 jobs there, so perhaps people who are commuting will be taken off the road that way. They won’t have to come into town to work. We’ve also been big supporters of UH West Oahu, which would be another way instead of people driving to Manoa, another way to keep people more in the region.

Q: If you could, would you stop the rail project now?

A; Well, that’s a decision that the City is going to have to make. But what I am going to do is the financial analysis, and if I feel that it’s something the people simply could not afford, if it’s something that doesn’t make financial sense, I won’t sign off on it and neither will the federal government.

As you know, they have raised an issue about the City’s financial plan, and they’ve said it simply doesn’t work now as it’s been presented. And one of the things that the federal government looks at very closely — and they made this point to me when I was with them in Washington — if the City or any city is going to take a lot of money away from the existing bus system, they don’t like that as a financial plan. And this plan has $300 million being taken away from the bus system to make the financial plan work for rail.

So that’s something that’s going to have to be looked at as well. You might be able to say rail can work, but would you degrade our existing bus system so much that it would just have a poor quality of service, so that also has to be looked at.