Saturday, June 4, 2011

Council Approves Rail Bond Float with an Asterisk

Chris Ballesteros again told the Council (as he did last July) that the vast majority of his generation want Honolulu rail to be built.
If we can elevate (like Honolulu’s future rail system) above the issue of who will control the Honolulu Authority on Rapid Transportation (HART), the rail project as a whole advanced yesterday.

The City Council approved floating $104 million in general obligation bonds to cover a projected cash shortfall in general excise tax receipts at some point during construction. The City says it would be a short-term obligation.

The Council also OK’d HART’s operating and capital budgets commencing July 1, when HART actually begins operating under a board of directors. All three measures were passed with an amendment to the original bills that gives the Council final approval authority over HART spending.

The control issue eventually will be sorted out, perhaps in court, but the issue we’ll focus on today is the continuing assertion by rail opponents that rail would be a failure because future traffic congestion will exceed today’s levels.

Inevitable Growth

Among the testifiers yesterday was a leader of the Stop Rail Now group formed in 2008 to fight the “steel-on-steel” charter amendment. Voters approved the measure, but the group’s members have continued to fight rail using the old argument that rail’s not worth building if traffic will be worse in 2030 than it is today.

The response is obvious: Oahu’s population is not going to sit at current levels for the next 20 years. If it did, congestion would indeed decrease with rail in operation and 40,000 fewer cars on the road each day.

But Oahu’s population forecast is for 200,000 more residents in 2030 than 2005. More than 90 percent of the new residents are expected to live in or adjacent to the corridor between urban Honolulu and the Second City on the ewa plain.

Traffic will grow with population growth; it’s axiomatic. Highway users’ concerns will be addressed with $3 billion in road improvements already included in the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization’s long-range transportation plan. Rail will be the only component of that plan that will be completely unaffected by surface traffic.

A Familiar Response

The response to the anti-railer refrain hasn’t changed during all the months and times it has been used. Director of Transportation Services Wayne Yoshioka used the succinct version last July before the Council when he said, “No kidding, in the future, traffic congestion will be greater than it is today….”

Mr. Yoshioka expanded on that theme during yesterday’s Council meeting by focusing on levels of service, which he explained are graded from level A, the best, to F – like a report card:

“One of the things about level of service F, there are different kinds of level service F. There’s level service F that you experience congestion on the highways, and at a certain level, although we don’t like it, it’s tolerable. But there are other types of level service F that drive people crazy. They start doing strange things, and that’s when it takes half an hour to move two blocks. Now, that kind of level service F drives people crazy, and you know, I think there is a difference. And what we’re trying to make sure that, although we have congestion, we’re trying to manage that congestion and also provide mobility for the city (emphasis added). That’s a key component of the way Oahu was envisioned to develop, and that’s what enables us to keep the country country, preserve agriculture and focus development.”

What Mr. Yoshioka doesn’t say in public but we can is that rail opponents who use this congestion argument are dumbing down the rail debate by suggesting rail will have no positive benefit to the community. That is easily refuted; rail will reduce the number of cars on the road by attracting 40,000 drivers onto the system each day for reasons involving cost and convenience.

Even Cliff Slater had to admit it at the July Council meeting linked above, but the word that never seems to pass Mr. Slater’s lips is “mobility.” His preference to address congestion growth is more highways and toll roads, which of course do nothing to assure mobility through the urban core. Cars and buses inevitably must return to surface streets at the end of their HOT lanes run, and that dumps them right back into congestion.

Mr. Yoshioka noted yesterday that mobility – one of the project’s key goals – will be enhanced by building Honolulu rail. Indeed, riding the system will be the only way to guarantee a time of arrival at your destination. When you step onto a train at the Downtown Honolulu station, you’ll get off at the Kapolei station 37 minutes later – every day and every time you ride.

The Stop Rail contingent will be with us no matter how heavily it is outnumbered by rail supporters – 57 percent to 40 percent according to the latest QMark poll – and so will their congestion argument. It’s up to the rest of us to see it for what it is – shot full of holes big enough to drive their luxury cars through.

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