Saturday, August 6, 2011

Saturday Review: Sumitomo Protest Continues, Ansaldo CEO Resigns, Critic Rolls Out Statistics

Houston's classic hub-and-spoke highway system.
Rail critics are heartened by any news that’s short of brilliantly positive for the Honolulu project, so Sumitomo's protest of the city’s award of the car manufacturing and system O&M contract to Ansaldo cheers them up. Even cheerier was the resignation of Ansaldo’s CEO amid reports of corporate turmoil.

But what really gets chief rail opponent Cliff Slater going is any opportunity to slice off a thin layer of statistics and use it as proof that rail transit is failing all around the country and will fail here, too. (See our aggregation site for past discussions of Mr. Slater’s approach.)

Mr. Slater’s latest post at (dated July 29th) observes that “Houston has 20 percent less bus and rail transit riders today than it had 10 years ago when it had only a bus system. This has happened despite building a rail transit system and having a 26 percent increase in population…. Should Honolulu be worried just because other rail lines have only achieved 60 percent of the ridership their cities had forecast? You bet.”

This is classic Cliff Slater – floating a statistic without any context, explanation or background and then standing back to let it sink in. (See his July 2010 interview with Civil Beat for a typical example.)

Honolulu Isn’t Houston!

We decided to compare Houston and Honolulu for their geography and the highway systems that have been developed to serve both cities. Houston’s layout is at the top of this post; Honolulu’s is below.

Thankfully, Honolulu isn’t Houston, and we can be glad, but we must admit that Houstonians do have it all over Oahu residents in one category – highway options. It's impossible to over-emphasize the contrast.

Houston suburbs stretch for miles in every direction. The city’s freeways provide multiple highway alternatives for residents to reach their destinations. Here’s a portion of what Wikipedia says about Houston’s highway system:

"Houston freeways are heavily traveled and often under construction to meet the demands of continuing growth. Interstate 45 south has been in a continuous state of construction, in one portion or another, almost since the first segment, the Gulf Freeway—Texas's first freeway—was opened in 1948…. Houston has a hub-and-spoke freeway structure with multiple loops. The innermost is Interstate 610, forming approximately a 10-mile-diameter (16 km) loop around downtown. The roughly square "Loop-610" is quartered into "North Loop," "South Loop," "West Loop," and "East Loop." The roads of Beltway 8 and their freeway core, the Sam Houston Tollway, are the next loop, at a diameter of roughly 25 miles. A proposed highway project, State Highway 99 (The Grand Parkway), would form a third loop outside of Houston, though some sections of this project have been controversial. As of 2007, the completed portion of State Highway 99 runs from just north of Interstate 10, west of Houston, to U.S. Highway 59 in Sugar Land, southwest of Houston, and was completed in 1994. The next portion to be constructed is from the current terminus at U.S. Highway 59 to State Highway 288 in Brazoria County."

We could go on, but why bother? Houston’s dissimilarities with Honolulu’s long and narrow urban corridor bounded by mountains and the Pacific Ocean are so great they're almost laughable.

Even transit backers acknowledge that the privately owned automobile is usually the first preference when travel options are compared. Texans are probably the most independent-minded of all Americans, or so they tell us, and are first to demand and defend their right to drive their own cars anywhere they want. They wanted highways, and it’s highways they have.

West Oahu residents have one freeway linking them to downtown – ONE! – and options to build more are slim to none. We live on an island and are happy to be here, but traffic is bad and getting worse. Even the Texas Transportation Institute says Honolulu has some of the worst congestion in the country.

So Mr. Slater’s statistics gambit once again is exposed for what it is – an intellectually dishonest attempt to sway public opinion on Oahu by using Houston’s experience as a predictor of failure for Honolulu rail. He would have made as much sense comparing Honolulu to Jupiter or Mars.
One freeway links west Oahu's Second City with Honolulu.
There's no better example of what near-total reliance on a single freeway can mean than the September 6, 2006 mishap on Honolulu's H-1. The gridlock was so big and so bad that some motorists abandoned their cars and walked. Others drove to the windward side and around the entire island to get home. Still others spent the night in a hotel. Had Honolulu's rail system been in operation, tens of thousands of commuters would have made the trip home on time and without incident.

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