Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Economic Recovery Written in Visitor Numbers

The latest news from the Hawaii visitor industry makes you wonder about all the double-dip recession talk. Eight straight months of visitor arrival increases is good news for Hawaii’s economy, especially when those increases in July occurred in every major market.

It ought to be obvious by now that the predicted cyclical swing back to positive territory is well underway. We keep writing about that here at Yes2Rail because to listen to some people, the economy is never never never going to improve.

That pessimistic vision supports their view that Honolulu can’t afford its planned rail system. All the positive news this month (noted here and here as well) must be disconcerting to them, even as the rest of us are cheered by it.

The “rail tax” is paid by visitors and residents alike, so the July increase in visitor expenditures – a whopping 23.3 percent above July 2009 – means the industry’s contribution to the project had a healthy jump, as well.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Skateboard Meets Train; No Doubt of Outcome

Time and again news of another accident involving an at-grade train reaches us. That’s often the unfortunate result of mixing vehicular, pedestrian and train traffic, and we call attention to them to remind Honolulu residents that the City’s proposed train system will not mix that traffic. It will be elevated above the traffic.

The most recent such mishap we’re aware of occurred yesterday in Tualatin, Oregon. A pedestrian who was either walking or skateboarding was struck by a commuter train. We don’t know the extent of the victim’s injuries and hope they’re not serious or worse.

The Honolulu rail project has been idled as the Final Environmental Impact Statement awaits action by the State government. The delay offers opponents an extended opportunity to criticize the plan and offer their own ideas of what would constitute a “better, cheaper” rail system.

For all of that, we’ve never heard any response by proponents of at-grade rail to the at-grade danger issue. The unfortunate pedestrian accident in Oregon brings the safety issue to the fore again, and we’re still waiting for a credible response.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Just In: HI Economy Doing Better than Thought

It was breaking news Thursday at the Star-Advertiser’s website, but the positive economic news is becoming almost routine. We had occasion to note other positive stories in recent weeks – for example, on June 25 and August 11.

The latest story says the economy will grow at a faster rate this year than previously forecast. Visitor arrivals had been estimated to grow 2.6 percent over 2009, but the latest forecast by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism anticipates a 4.6-percent increase.

Visitor spending is expected to rise 8.2 percent to nearly $11 billion, a much more robust increase than the original 4.9-percent forecast.

It’s a gradual economic recovery, and the labor market is still lagging, but it’s improving better than the Department had forecast back in May.

This stream of good economic news is naturally also good news for Honolulu rail and would seem to counter the pessimism some are expressing about the project’s financial plan.

UH-West Construction Starts; Rail Link Noted

So what if it’s taking decades for the University of Hawaii-West Oahu to launch? Major projects don’t happen overnight in Hawaii; just look at rail transit.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser has noted the start of construction on UH-West’s campus, for which planning began in 1966, about a decade before the Fasi Administration began working intently on the Honolulu Area Rapid Transit project.

What distinguishes the two major efforts from one another is that rapid transit has been killed off twice already (some would say three times), whereas “slow and steady” describes the dream of creating a center of higher learning in leeward Oahu.

Honolulu rail will link the campus with the urban corridor running east into Honolulu and west toward the Second City of Kapolei, as shown in the graphic from the Star-Advertiser’s article.

Linkages are important to keep in mind in the ongoing discussion about rail. It’s not just about how many cars will be taken off the road or by what percentage traffic congestion will be reduced; both certainly will be the case with rail, notwithstanding the opposition’s belittling of those statistics. (One can only wonder how much highway traffic would have been lessened if one of those earlier transit projects had been completed.)

What can’t be belittled are the linkages Honolulu rail will provide along its route, including education facilities. In addition to UH-West, the line will have stations at or near Leeward Community College, Honolulu Community College, Hawaii Pacific University and Pearl City High School. Convenient bus service will link the line’s eastern terminal at Ala Moana Center with UH’s Manoa campus and private schools, including Punahou, Iolani, Lutheran High School and others.

So think link as you follow the rail debate…… Saaaay, we like that!

Think Link with Rail!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Continuing ‘Health Benefits of Rail Transit’ Series

We took note last month of a health study on the transit-riding habits of 500 people in Charlotte, NC that concluded riding public transit provides “a moderate public health benefit to users by creating more opportunity for walking in one’s daily commute.”

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has issued a new report that concludes much the same thing. According to APTA’s website:

“People who live in communities with high-quality public transportation drive less, exercise more, live longer, and are generally healthier than residents of communities that lack quality public transit.”

The study by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute – it’s loaded with statistics and references to support its findings – says communities with good public transit have less pollution, more physically active citizens and a higher quality of life than those without those facilities.

We trust Yes2Rail visitors will want to read the full report, but here’s a summary of the study’s findings anyway.

• High quality public transportation (convenient, comfortable, fast rail and bus transport) and transit oriented development (walkable, mixed-use communities located around transit stations) tend to affect travel activity in ways that provide large health benefits, including reduced traffic crashes and pollution emissions, increased physical fitness, improved mental health, improved basic access to medical care and healthy food and increased affordability which reduces financial stress to lower-income households.

• Traffic casualty rates tend to decline as public transit travel increases in an area. Residents of transit-oriented communities have only about a quarter the per capita traffic fatality rate as residents of sprawled, automobile-dependent communities.

• Public transit reduces pollution emissions per passenger-mile, and transit-oriented development provides additional emission reductions by reducing per capita vehicle travel.

• U.S. Center for Disease Control recommends that adults average at least 22 daily minutes of moderate physical activity, such as brisk walking, to stay fit and healthy. Although less than half of American adults achieve this target, most public transportation passengers do exercise the recommended amount while walking to and from transit stations and stops.

• Neighborhood design features that support transit, such as walkability and mixed land use, also support public health. Of people with safe places to walk within ten minutes of home, 43% achieve physical activity targets, compared with just 27% of less walkable area residents.

• The United States has relatively poor health outcomes and high healthcare costs compared with peers, due in part to high per capita traffic fatality rates and diseases resulting from sedentary living. Public transit improvements can improve health outcomes and reduce healthcare costs.

• Inadequate physical activity contributes to numerous health problems, causing an estimated 200,000 annual deaths in the U.S., and significantly increasing medical costs. Among physically able adults, average annual medical expenditures are 32% lower for those who achieve physical activity targets ($1,019 per year) than for those who are sedentary ($1,349 per year).

• Many physically and economically disadvantaged people depend on public transportation to access to medical services and obtain healthy, affordable food.

• Current demographic and economic trends (aging population, rising fuel prices, increasing health and environmental concerns, and rising medical care costs) are increasing the value of public transportation health benefits.

• A growing portion of households would prefer to drive less and rely more on walking, cycling and public transit, provided these alternatives are convenient, comfortable, safe and affordable.

• Conventional planning tends to overlook and undervalue many transportation-related health impacts. More comprehensive evaluation can better integrate transportation and public health planning objectives.

• When all impacts are considered, improving public transit can be one of the most cost effective ways to achieve public health objectives, and public health improvements are among the largest benefits provided by high quality public transit and transit-oriented development.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Dissecting the Rail Debate To Hear What’s Missing

Sorry for being repetitious about the point we’re making again today, but rail’s opponents are repeating themselves on this same issue in their attempt to kill the project. It’s only natural we’d do the same.

Here’s the point: As we’ve suggested here for the past month or so regarding rail opponent Cliff Slater, anti-railers like him blast the project using selected and misleading debate points. In so doing, they misinform the citizenry about rail and its future benefits.

Mr. Slater is fond of saying traffic will be worse with rail than without it, not bothering to mention until pressed that traffic congestion will be less with rail than what it would grow to if the project weren’t built.

Others have said traffic will be reduced from 2030 levels by only 1 percent with the project in place. What they don’t tell you is that 100-percent relief from traffic congestion will be enjoyed by those who ride the train – relief that isn’t possible without grade-separated transit.

They don’t tell you that one of the project’s goals is to provide transportation equity for the aged and low-income populations by increasing their access to safe, frequent and reliable public transportation. Rail will achieve that goal; continued reliance on the private car won’t.

They don’t tell their audiences that their favorite transportation idea – a reversible elevated highway – won’t reduce dependence on the private car and won’t free car commuters from traffic congestion at both ends of such a highway. They won’t address what the FEIS covers so well – that traffic bottlenecks at both ends of the elevated highway will impede the car commute and lose whatever time advantage might have been gained.

And they sure don’t address the issue of future gasoline price increases that car-driving commuters will have to absorb – increases that are sure to happen in the decades ahead. Rail commuting will be embraced by increasing numbers of commuters for that reason alone, but they’ll also welcome the time saved on each trip by rail, as well as the positive environmental message riding public transit sends.

The savvy news consumer is discerning enough to discard the sound bites and listen closely to what’s not said in any given issue. The rail project is no different from the rest.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Sticking to His Story, No Matter How Misleading

If kudos were handed out for persistence, Cliff Slater's trophy case would be full. But Mr. Slater also has earned his share of anti-kudos for persistently using misleading arguments in his decades-old fight to stop rail transit in Honolulu.

We pointed out recently why Mr. Slater has earned the title of Obfuscator in Chief. After you read that post, consider something posted at his anti-rail site just yesterday:

“The Final EIS already says, ‘traffic congestion will be worse in the future with rail than what it is today without rail.’" As usual, Mr. Slater stops there without telling, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story.

The rest of the story surely would include Mr. Slater’s statement on July 14 during the City Council’s hearing on the rail Final Environmental Impact Statement:

“We don’t disagree at all that rail will have an effect on reducing traffic congestion from what it might be if we did nothing at all,” said Mr. Slater. In other words, after being cornered at the Council hearing, he actually had to admit that rail will reduce traffic congestion from what it would grow to if rail transit were not built.

The rest of the story surely also would include City Transportation Services Director Wayne Yoshioka’s humorous take on Mr. Slater’s well-worn one-liner: “…No kidding, in the future, traffic congestion will be greater than it is today. I don’t think that’s any earth-shattering news. I think what the difference is, is that without the rail in the future, traffic congestion will be much worse than with the rail, and I think that’s the whole point of the discussion would be….”

So we finally have Mr. Slater agreeing with Mr. Yoshioka on a key point: With rail, traffic congestion will be less in the future than if rail weren’t built.

That has the ring of truth to it. Mr. Slater’s one-liner? Not so much.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Strong Tourism Forecast Is Good News for Rail

Craig Kojima photo, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
First, remember that despite the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, GET revenues to fund the local share of Honolulu rail transit construction costs are running above 99 percent of the original forecast.

Then consider the latest visitor industry forecast, which was the subject of a Hawaii Tourism Authority Tourism Conference yesterday. A return to 7 million-plus visitors per year was forecast by Carl Bonham, director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

“We’re beyond where anybody expected us to be at this time, and there is still reason for optimism going on into the fall,” Bonham said.

This pretty much puts into perspective what rail’s proponents have said every time a big-headline story was splashed by one of the Honolulu daily newspapers (the one that’s no longer publishing) over the past year comparing revenues with the forecast. Everything moves in cycles, they said and continue to say, so the downturn in the 2008-09 years inevitably will be followed by an upswing in the indicators.

As tourism revenues increase, so do GET revenues for the rail project – good reason for optimism, indeed.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Days Later, Star-Ad Finally Catches Up with News

“The news broke last week, but what’s the rush?” seems to be the operating philosophy at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, now that Honolulu's only daily newspaper doesn't have to worry about getting beat by the competition. Back in May, the Honolulu Advertiser used fairly large headlines above a story covering accusations that the City had violated State procurement laws in awarding contracts on the Honolulu rail project.

The State office that passes judgment on such things issued a memo on August 4th clearing the City of those allegations, and the City put out a press release two days later noting same.

The Star-Ad finally gets around to covering the clearance in today’s edition. As we said last Saturday at Yes2Rail, “and so it goes” in this virtually competition-less town where the surviving entity appears to have no urgency in clearing up accusations it originally trumpeted.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Seattle At-Grade Crash Prompts Commo Review

We’re written repeatedly here at Yes2Rail about how well grade-separated transit such as what Honolulu will build compares with at-grade systems. Those positive attributes include system reliability.

At-grade trains unfortunately all too often collide with other vehicles. Collisions decrease a system’s reliability, and that in turn reduces the system’s attractiveness to potential riders. Elevated systems that are completely separated from cross traffic have the obvious advantage of not being susceptible to accidents.

Last week’s truck-train collision in Seattle was a case in point. The accident resulted in a three-hour delay while the accident scene was cleared, and news reports suggest riders were “left in the dark” about the cause and length of the interruption.

Sound Transit is now exploring ways to improve communications with stranded passengers. According to the Seattle PI online service, “transit riders ‘understand that stuff happens….’”

Thing is, stuff won’t happen nearly as often on Honolulu’s elevated system.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

State Says Procurement Code Allegation Baseless

We won’t use up much space in noting that former Governor Ben Cayetano’s allegations of Procurement Code violations in awarding rail contracts have been dismissed by the State Attorney General’s office.

The charges were splashed prominently in the late Honolulu Advertiser, which passed away in early June (and so have its archived stories, it seems). The City attacked the allegations as politically motivated.

The City issued a release yesterday noting that State Procurement Office Administrator Aaron Fujioka said in an August 4 memo that a review of the allegations “did not find any violations of (the state contracting code) ... in the awards.”

We’ve been looking, but we haven’t found anything in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser this morning about the dismissal of the former governor’s charges. And so it goes.

Friday, August 6, 2010

At-Grade Train Plan Near School Opposed in LA

Rendering of proposed at-grade station in South Los Angeles.
Residents of a community in South Los Angeles where light rail is being built are objecting to plans to build the line at ground level near a high school.

“We have never been opposed to the rail line; we’ve been opposed to the way it’s being built,” says Damien Goodmon, executive director of the United Community Association.

That “way” is on the ground, the same level used by pedestrians and vehicles, and the controversy is worth noting here in Honolulu, where some still advocate ground-level transit. South LA neighborhood residents see the potential for “catastrophic” conflicts between trains and local youth.

As reported in the L.A. Watts Times, former Metro light rail operator Lester Hollins “has attested to some of the dangers of street-level crossings. While operating a train on the Blue Line, Hollins was involved in an accident with an ambulance. ‘The professionals can’t co-exist with the trains. So, how can we expect the kids to?’ Hollis said.”

Metro Line officials have said appropriate safety measures will be implemented to enhance at-grade safety, including safety cameras, bells and flashers, vehicle and pedestrian crossings with gates, and more.

All of which will be unnecessary on Honolulu’s system, which will be built above grade and completely free of pedestrian and vehicular cross-traffic. It's something to think about the next time you hear someone advocate an at-grade system for Honolulu.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Seattle At-Grade Train Collides with Pickup Truck

Tuesday's at-grade accident was the line's ninth in 13 months.
Here’s another reminder about one of the reasons Honolulu’s future rail system will be elevated and fully separated from surface traffic. Seattle’s KING-TV aired this report today:

Anchor: A nasty accident shuts down part of the light rail along Martin Luther King Junior Way in Seattle when a pickup truck slammed into a train..... The accident again raises questions about traffic confusion where the trains run.

Reporter: There are the people on the train…..

Passenger: It was really scary.

Passenger: We just felt the rumble and we look up and we see this truck just coming.

Passenger: There was a car coming toward me sliding along the window, and I just jumped across....

Reporter: There are the witnesses on the ground.

Witness: The windows were breaking. It was pretty scary.

Witness: And then there was a screech like the screeching of a chalk board. That's what you kinda heard for about 30 seconds.

Reporter: And then there’s the driver of this now-mangled pickup….

Driver: Yeah, there was somebody definitely on my side, the Lord or somebody. It was like the crushing of an aluminum can. You know, (crushing sound). It just kept on going and going and going. I'm going, this cab's getting a little smaller.

Reporter: What happened? Through this part of South Seattle, the train runs between the north- and south-bound lanes of Martin Luther King Way. (The driver) says this is unfamiliar territory. He was driving north when he became confused at the intersection with the tracks.

Driver: I was gonna take a left-hand turn, then I realized I can't take a left-hand turn, but by the time I'd done that, the train had hit me.

Reporter: Even before Sound Transit opened this light rail line, they had a public education campaign to try and prevent this from happening.

Spokesperson: The main thing we do is put up the right kind of signs and put up as much warning as possible to follow the traffic rules and don't make a left-hand turn where there's no left-hand turn, especially if there's a train right next to you.

Reporter: Sound Transit and police say this was preventable, with nothing more than a scratch despite major damage, another teaching moment for everyone.

Anchor: Since this line opened about 13 months ago, there have been at least nine collisions between trains and vehicles. Sound Transit had expected three times as many. Police say the driver could be cited.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Enjoying Grade-Separated Transit to the Max

Paris Metro overhead line near the La Motte-Piquet -- Grenelle station. Most of the system is below grade.*
This photo was taken on our current “transit inspection” tour. The IRS won’t buy that, so we’ll call it what it is – another trip to our favorite country outside the good ‘ole US of A.

You can’t visit Paris without using the Metro, all of which is grade-separated, mostly as a subway. It’s simply unthinkable, impractical and expensive to travel across the city on surface streets unless you want to use the bus as an inexpensive alternative to a guided tour.

One, the streets are unfamiliar and undoubtedly traffic-clogged, so driving isn’t a good option, but even if you did have a car, streets are jammed with drivers who don’t drive like you do. Two, you won’t find a parking place at your destination, and three, cabs will get you there in about the same time but cost several times more than the Metro.

An outing on the Metro on a recent Saturday evening from the Gare de Lyon Metro station (12th arrondissement) to the Commerce station (in the 15th) cost about $2.20 at the current currency conversion rate. It took 20 minutes, including one line change, and the opportunity to discretely observe our traveling companions was worth the price.

Predicting Arrival Times

The Metro system makes it as easy as possible. System maps are posted in each station, and you can consult Metro’s website for a trip planner. The trains run on a timetable, allowing you to know your arrival time before you even start your trip.

That’s a point we make repeatedly when discussing Honolulu’s future rail system. H-1 and surface road traffic makes each drive through the urban corridor an unpredictable adventure; you either make it through without jams caused by accidents or the usual vehicle load or, much more likely, are caught in mind-numbing stop-and-go traffic.

So in addition to the museums, churches and cafes, be sure to enjoy the Metro when in Paris -- something the locals have relied on for fast, frequent and reliable transit service since the 19th Century.

* Honolulu's elevated system will have much less visual impact than this elevated segment, which was opened more than 100 years ago.