Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lawsuit Backers Switch Tactics, Blast Honolulu Rail in Media Broadside Aimed at Influencing Public Opinion, but Absolutely Nothing Is New

Newspaper headline writers attempt to capture the essence of stories to help readers get into the piece or avoid it altogether, depending on their interest. We’ve tried to do that here at Yes2Rail today about yet another anti-railer attack in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s editorial section today (subscription required).

The commentary purporting to show how the city has misled the public on Honolulu rail has the fingerprints of Cliff “Always By Car” Slater all over it. Former Governor Ben Cayetano, former Judge Walter Heen and UH law professor Randall Roth are along for the ride. These three gentlemen profess no transportation expertise, so they’re relying on Mr. Slater for guidance in trying to influence the public, something he has failed at. They’re also plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit with an unambiguous goal: “If we prevail,” their commentary reads, “the rail project will be halted.”

The weakness of their newspaper presentation is apparent in the first paragraph, where journalists traditionally draw readers into their stories, commentaries and editorials with solid information and facts about what lies within the piece itself. But that’s not the case in today’s anti-railer attack.

This one starts off with an allegation that public relations firms are responsible for hoodwinking the public into giving the project strong support in three scientific opinion polls conducted since 2008. It  amounts to an admission that Mr. Slater and friends have been unsuccessful in convincing the public that rail should not be built.

“We’ve failed up ‘til now,” we can imagine them saying in their strategy session, “so this time let’s throw everything we’ve ever used at the project and see if something finally sticks. Maybe blaming the public relations people might work.”

Really? PR people are responsible for the public’s overwhelming endorsement of rail? If that’s the best they can do, it’s pretty weak, but it gets weaker the deeper you read. Let’s break it down by examining some of the allegations.

Recyling, Recycling
The first thing to note is that there’s nothing new in this piece. You can find proof of that at Mr. Slater’s own website – Scroll down and you’ll find the same graphics carried in today’s newspaper; the street scenes comparison was posted on July 18th, and the rendering of the Bishop Street and Nimitz Highway station has been used repeatedly at, one of Mr. Slater's third-party anti-rail sites (search there for “Slater”).

About those “aircraft carrier” rail stations: It’s a spurious exaggeration meant to obfuscate and confuse, one of Mr. Slater’s favorite tactics. The project’s website says the station platforms will be 240 feet long, shorter than Mr. Slater’s claim that stations will be “270 feet long and 50 feet wide.” How does that compare to actual aircraft carriers? The U.S. Navy says Nimitz Class carriers are 1092 feet long and 134 feet wide – 4.55 times longer than a rail station. Even using Mr. Slater’s exaggerated width, carriers are more than two-and-one-half times wider.

Blame it on the consultants: Keep in mind as you read through the newspaper piece that nowhere does it offer any alternative to the rail project, nor does it dispute the project’s goals, which realistically can be met only with a grade-separated transportation mode, like elevated rail. So in the absence of any substantive contributions, the authors attempt to stain the project by innuendo – first with vague allegations about PR agencies and then contractors Parsons Brinckerhoff and InfraConsult.

Every project with costs running into the billions of dollars encounters detractors and attention-grabbing journalists (we’ve had both here), so to suggest Honolulu rail is tainted by what a company did on another completely different project a continent or more away is weak. Even the reference to the H-3 freeway is weak in light of the Fasi Administration’s dogged resistance during the years it fought the project to a standstill. You can find “Cliff Slaters” everywhere – fighting against progress, defending the status quo, or in the case of our own Mr. Slater, advocating more highways and toll roads.

That old chestnut? Mr. Slater works his repetitious and thread-bare argument into the “Stacking the deck” section of today’s commentary. He wants the reader to believe he forced City transportation director Wayne Yoshioka into admitting something shameful, something that should be hidden – that “traffic congestion will be worse in the future with rail than what it is today without rail.”

Does common sense have a place in Mr. Slater’s world? Of course traffic will grow in the future with the population. As Mr. Yoshioka told the City Council in July 2010, “No kidding, in the future, traffic will be worse than it is today. I don’t think that’s any earth-shattering news.” He said that because Oahu’s population is projected to increase by 200,000 in 2030 compared to 2005 (more on that below). With population increase comes more traffic.

And here’s the kicker that puts Mr. Slater’s commentary into proper, disreputable perspective: At that same Council meeting, Mr. Slater said this: “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.” In other words, as Mr. Yoshioka told Council members, “…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."

Yes, that is the whole point – but it’s one Mr. Slater won’t admit unless he’s forced into a corner, as he was at the Council meeting. His anti-rail presentations are intellectually dishonest in the extreme, as his interview with Civil Beat last year revealed.

About Oahu’s growth: Today’s commentary says the city has “cherry-picked data” to estimate Oahu’s 2030 population. “It relies upon a 2004 30-year population forecast even though the 2008 30-year population forecast indicates 100,000 fewer people in 2030 than was previously forecasted,” the plaintiffs write.

Let’s see what the 2010 census found: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Oahu's growth over the past decade kept pace with the project’s projections. See for yourself at our February post. Mr. Slater has been silent on what actually is happening on Oahu, preferring instead to obfuscate as usual by focusing on the theoretical.

We could go on and will in future Yes2Rail posts. What stands out about this commentary is the lawsuit plaintiffs’ own apparent doubt about the success of their efforts. They’ve filed a lawsuit but know they've lost the public opinion battle, so they’re taking their case to the streets again with the same tired arguments that have failed to gain traction for all the years this project has been progressing.

They want to stop a much-needed public infrastructure improvement that’s supported by a solid majority of citizens based on what they’ve read, learned and absorbed about Honolulu rail – both from critics and supporters. It’s a desperate gambit by the losing team – a prayerful Hail Mary pass. We’ll see plenty of them in the coming football season. Mr. Slater's Gang of Four no doubt is conjuring up more desperation Xs and Os for use against Honolulu rail.

(Today's post has been added to our "aggregation site" in the Mr. Cliff Slater section.)

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