Friday, September 23, 2011

Show’s Transcript Reveals Motivations: Opponents Want Faster Motoring, Not Faster Public Transit

This is likely our final post on the week-old radio Hawaii Public Radio talk show with anti-rail guests Cliff Slater and Randall Roth. It’s hard to let go of this rich vein of material. We’ve already filled up considerable space this week examining their factual errors and misleading statements during the program – particularly on the “future congestion issue” (see Tuesday’s post).

Today’s focus is what’s driving Messrs. Slater and Roth in their anti-rail campaign, and it turns out to be nothing more complicated than a desire to improve the car owner’s commuting experience at the expense of public transportation. That’s the logical inference, since they’d prefer money intended to build Honolulu rail going instead to largely unspecified highway improvements.

In fact, once you have time to read a long selection from the show’s transcript at your leisure (below), what jumps out in their near-total focus on moving cars quicker through Honolulu’s road and highway network. One of them goes so far as to suggest – seriously, it seems – that there are actual “traffic solutions” that would dramatically reduce congestion to accomplish their quicker-car goals.

Professor Roth said the following in the second half of the radio show: “…there are experts that say there are things they could do overnight that would relieve traffic by about 30 percent. Nobody knows for sure, synchronization, there are just a number of things the city for whatever reason has been very reluctant, slow to do, perhaps because they’re trying to convince people that traffic is so bad that we have to spend five point three billion dollars on elevated heavy rail.”

We think that statement betrays a couple things. First, Mr. Roth must be a relative newcomer to transportation issues if he thinks there are finger-snap “solutions” that could virtually wipe out traffic congestion “overnight.” Second, his opinion of public servants in city government is remarkably low if he believes they would deliberately abuse the public by making the daily commute more difficult than it needs to be.

The transcript begins around the 36th minute of the program; you can listen to the show yourself until HPR removes the recording from the “Town Square” archive, but reading the excerpts takes much less time.

Private vs. Public
Mr. Slater: “In effect, whatever you do with public transportation, it’s not gonna affect traffic congestion. (This is Mr. Slater’s key distinction; if the plan is not about highways and reducing driving time, he’s against it.) You’ve got to deal with them almost separately. They’re not intertwined the way the city is trying to sell it. You don’t get any huge increases of the transportation usage when you bring a rail line in….
Responding to a query about what he prefers as an alternative to rail transit, Mr. Slater continued:

“The thing we’ve ( advocated for is an elevated tollway coming into town from beyond Waikele for buses, van pools and automobiles paying a toll. It’s two or three lanes reversible. So if you’ve got three lanes that are reversible around mid-day, that’s the equivalent of six lanes. And when you toll, (a) it helps pay for the thing, and (b) you can keep the facility full and free-flowing without being congested.” (See a 2010 Yes2Rail post for more on how HOT lanes work.)
The program’s moderator said “there will be criticism of that idea because it would segregate people into the haves and have-nots.”

Mr. Slater: “Yes, but the devil is in the details. You’ve got to look at federal studies of existing facilities. Two have been around for a long time now – the SR 91 in Los Angeles, and the I-15 in San Diego – both very successful, and both meet with approval across all income groups. And the reason for that is that it is very reliable. If you are late for an appointment, for a doctor’s appointment or picking up your kids from daycare when there’s a penalty involved in that, you can pay your four or five dollars and go on the HOT lanes and you won’t be late for your appointment. You may not use it very often but you know that should you ever be caught like that that you can use it. That’s why it meets with approval across all income groups.”
Time Out: Saying HOT lanes meet the approval of all income groups is not the same as saying HOT lanes are affordable and equitable to everyone in all income groups. Also, HOT lanes are only used if the alternative (the free lanes) are congested enough to make paying a toll preferable. HOT lanes aren't going to eliminate congestion but rather will be an alternative to using a congested freeway – just like rail, though rail in an exclusive right-of-way is far more reliable than any toll facility.

Moderator: “You’re saying they’re not using it all the time, every day, for several trips, it may be a once-in-a-while situation, but still, what does that do for people who have to make a commute every single day and they don’t get to use it because they can’t afford it?”

Mr. Slater: “If you take the equivalent of a six-lane highway, you’re gonna take a lot of traffic off of the regular freeway.”
Mr. Roth: “Plus, those people paying the tolls, that money can then be focused on improving traffic congestions for everybody else. There are a number of things – widening highways, there’re just a number of things that I personally think the city has done relatively little of over the years when they’ve been trying to sell the public on elevated heavy rail.“ (There's that term again, which is used 25 times during this one-hour show; Honolulu rail actually is designated "light metro," as discussed yesterday.)

Mr. Slater: “Traffic signals.”

Mr. Roth: “There are experts that say there are things they could do overnight would relieve traffic by about 30 percent. Nobody knows for sure, synchronization, there are just a number of things the city for whatever reason has been very reluctant slow to do, perhaps because they’re trying to convince people that traffic is so bad that we have to spend five point three billion dollars on elevated heavy rail. There may be other reasons, but those tolls could be used for those kinds of traffic improvements. Our group, the four of us who wrote the (op-ed) piece, are in total agreement that the city has deceived the public…. And frankly, I think if we had a legitimate alternative study in front of us, I think the four of us would agree pretty quickly. I don’t think it’s rocket science once you’ve got a fair analysis of the various options in front of you.”
Caller Pualoa from Ewa Beach: “I’m really getting tired of conspiracy theories between Mayor Hannemann and the city and Mayor Carlisle, and everybody, OMPO is in on the conspiracy to make our lives miserable out on the West Side, I mean, for the most part I want to clarify. We don’t really care about traffic congestion in 15 years. We know it’s gonna get bad, but if you give us a reliable transportation alternative that IS all we’re asking, so everybody else that wants to sit in traffic, be whatever it may, we’re gonna be sitting on rail. That’s really all we’re asking for, a reliable transportation alternative. You cannot force us to use our cars for the rest of our lives. I mean, these guys must be getting money from the automobile industry! We’re just not interested in doing it. Those of us that are living on the West Side, we are struggling economically. We have some of the most needy people on this island, the biggest proportion of native Hawaiians living out here. We need more things to get us to town, and unfortunately for the folks who are advocating HOT lanes, I just don’t understand why you would force us to drive our cars every day and force us into more traffic congestion in town.”
Mr. Roth: “Well, the H and the O in HOT are High Occupancy, so right up there moving at the speed limit is gonna be TheBus, and so people in Central Oahu, for example, have TheBus as an option, and to the extent that there were attempts made to either expand the Zipper Lanes or have HOT lanes, there are a number of things that can be done that would make the buses even more dependable than they are now. We have an excellent bus system, and I personally think that at a minimum we should be beefing it up even more, but H stands for High Occupancy, so those buses would have preferred status, and there wouldn’t be a fee paid by bus riders.”
Caller Jerry in Kailua: “Isn’t it true that the congestion will increase, but under No Rail, it will increase…well, if you have rail it will still increase by a magnitude of 5 but without the building of rail you’ll have an increase in congestion of a magnitude of 10 or 15. I think that’s a strategic misrepresentation that your guests are putting forward that is just simply untrue and unfair.”
Mr. Slater: “We have never said it would have no effect on traffic congestion. Of course it will have an effect on traffic congestion, but it is relatively minor. For example, if without rail you had a 100-percent increase in traffic congestion, with rail it will be between 11 percent and 20 percent, so we’re talking about an 80 percent to 90 percent rather than 100 percent.” (Mr. Slater dismisses as insignificant a potential 20-percent reduction in traffic growth.)

Moderator: “Which goes back to the point that we’re going to have more congestion no matter what.”

Mr. Slater: “Right.”

Mr. Roth: “But, you’re looking at it as if it’s elevated heavy rail or nothing. There are some traffic congestion solutions, unlike elevated heavy rail, which isn’t a solution to current traffic problems. There are solutions. It’s just that the deck was stacked against them in the alternatives study.” (Note once again the allusion to “solutions” that Mr. Roth apparently believes would dramatically reduce congestion if only recalcitrant city employees would implement them.)

Caller Gale in Ewa Beach (excerpted): “…. Now you want to tell us we’re gonna pay a toll? Are you out of your mind? All you misters over there, when you got your community built and they built roads, you didn’t pay to drive on those roads. Why are WE paying?”
Moderator, recapping the hour’s discussion: “…as far as traffic congestion and public transportation, those are separate issues that should be viewed separately, and that you’re not at all against public transportation. You think there are things that could be done with public transportation that could be easily done if the city had a mind to do it. Would that (summary) be fair?”

Mr. Roth: “Yes. There’re clearly solutions to what we clearly have in the way of problems. There’s a traffic congestion problem. There are solutions. We need to beef up our public transportation system. There are ways of doing that. Spending five point three billion on elevated heavy rail doesn’t solve any of our problems and it prevents us from solving them with real solutions as opposed to something that I think is an excuse to spend a lot of money.”
And so it went – with Mr. Slater advocating toll roads on a new, elevated highway built between Iwilei and someplace west of Waikele that wouldn’t be equitable and Mr. Roth calling for mostly unspecified traffic-related improvements that would end commuters’ war on congestion in our time.

Both men are motivated by a desire to improve travel times for car drivers but not so much for public transportation users. Users of Honolulu rail will experience improved travel times and reliability by avoiding all surface traffic, but Mr. Slater brushes that significant benefit aside because he thinks rail wouldn’t do enough for automobile drivers.

Go to the Goals
A quick read of the goals and objectives in the project’s Alternatives Analysis document (Table 1-2) shows that reducing corridor travel times and improving travel time reliability are in the list but reducing highway congestion is not. Messrs. Slater and Roth would have the project start all over again because they’re not happy with the AAs conclusion: “While the Fixed Guideway Alternative would have the highest cost, it is also the only alternative that would provide a substantial transportation benefit, measured both by the benefit to transit users and in the reduction in congestion compared to the No Build Alternative.”

If Messrs. Slater and Roth believe highways are the way of the future, perhaps they should see how much support they have with the public and its elected and appointed representatives in local, state and federal government. Instead of doing that and launching a parallel project, they’re trying to kill rail with their federal lawsuit, which Mr. Roth said "in theory" might be decided by the end of this year but more likely "it’s going to be in the first half of next year.”

It’s more than a theory that the public wants rail built. That’s evident in the public opinion polls, the election of pro-rail candidates to political office, the defeat of outspoken anti-rail candidates and in the approval of charter amendments to create the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation and affirm the city’s pursuit of a steel-on-steel rail system.

Far as we know, HPR is still refusing the city’s request for equal time to rebut Messrs. Slater and Roth. If you believe the city deserves its hour in the studio, you might want to call the station – 955-8821.


Anonymous said...

Slater chose the 91 Express Lanes as one of his prime examples for his pro-toll campaign. Key facts he gladly omitted.

1) Peak toll 3-4PM on Fridays eastbound is $9.75. Do that 5 days a week and that's an extra ~$50.

2) 3+ carpoolers do not travel for free all the time. Weekdays 4-6PM, they still pay 50% of established toll.

3) There is a non-compete clause Caltrans has where they can't widen the existing freeway or build any mass transit near it. Long story short, OCTA spent more money to buy the tollway back and when they built an extra non-toll 5 mile lane, toll revenues dropped.

4) Standard FasTrak account has a $7 monthly fee regardless if you use that tollway for the month. That's an extra $84 a year.

For Mr. Roth, he should try to use bus routes around the world that travel across tollways. Most require a much higher bus fare that factor in the toll so bus riders do pay the toll. Unless he is suggesting further tax subsidies but then I'm confused, aren't Slater/Roth trying to pitch a solution that doesn't use tax subsidies?

Doug Carlson said...

Thanks much for that insight, Anonymous. Much of what was said on that radio show seemed implausible or was flat-out wrong.