Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Going Beyond Fact Checks To Ask the Obvious

Civil Beat’s Fact Check posted this morning rewarding Honolulu rail’s opponents for their ability to quote documents accurately still feels like a chicken bone stuck sideways. Hours after our first reaction, it cannot be ignored and we're still hacking on it.

We know the old advice about not picking fights with newspapers that buy ink by the barrel, and maybe that's also true in the digital ago. Nevertheless, we still like the idea of fact checking the fact-checkers now and then.

Civil Beat was remarkably uncritical of rail opponent Cliff Slater in CB’s video interview with him in July 2010. The video is still posted online and contains Mr. Slater’s remarkable admission that he tells audiences just two things about Honolulu rail – its cost and the fact that traffic will be greater after rail is built than it is today.

We’ve just about worn out the laptop’s keys linking to Yes2Rail's reaction to that interview as a prime example of Mr. Slater’s tendency to obfuscate and dumb down his arguments against rail. As the city’s Wayne Yoshioka told the City Council later that month, “No kidding, in the future, traffic congestion will be greater than it is today.”

Mr. Slater’s comment was overly ripe for dissection but received none in Civil Beat’s write-up of that interview. Some might have seen evidence of sympathetic treatment, consciously or otherwise, by how CB ended its online report on the interview:

“The city still has many hurdles to cross. And (Slater) will be there to make every one of them as difficult as possible. The question in the end will be whether we’ll thank him for standing firm or blame him for preventing a giant new addition that could transform the look and feel of a significant part of Honolulu.”
As we noted at the time, both of those possibilities – blaming Mr. Slater or thanking him – are premised on rail not being built. Another possibility is that Mr. Slater will indeed be blamed for delaying rail’s eventual construction and increasing the project’s cost by pursuing his lawsuit and generally employing a range of delaying tactics.

Mr. Slater might well have been fact-checked then about his “just say no” campaign every time a transit project is proposed by the city. Here’s his quote (posted in the comments section below today’s Fact Check) from the March 8, 2004 Honolulu Advertiser about the bus rapid transit project that was proposed back then: “From day 1, the city has not been straight with the voters about the BRT program. Let us hope it is not too late for some action to halt this nonsense.”

Mr. Slater is consistent – always against transit and always advocating more highways. That’s why we started calling him “ABC Cliff” years ago – as in, Always By Car.

Obvious Questions
Civil Beat’s interviewer pulled out several “memorable lines” from his sit-down with Mr. Slater, but there’s no evidence CB questioned the veracity or logic of any of them. Here’s a sampling:

“Why pay more when we can get the same service for less?” Obvious challenge to Mr. Slater: Prove it. What other project(s) would provide comparable service and achieve rail’s well-articulated goals?
“These folks on the Ewa plane (sic) need some traffic relief. Nothing that’s being proposed is going to give them that.” Obvious challenge: That’s not true. Commuters who ride the train will have total relief from traffic, and so will drivers when tens of thousands of commuters stop driving and start riding.
“No metropolitan area in the United States, whether or not they’ve built rail, has in the past 20 year period improved the percentage of people traveling by public transportation.” Obvious challenges: Are you saying public transportation is a failure? Are you saying transit ridership is falling? What would New Yorkers do without transit? What about commuters into Chicago, San Francisco, LA and all the rest, including Honolulu?
“This whole thing about energy savings (from rail) is bizarre. The data just doesn’t show it.” Obvious challenge: Prove it. Show me your data that disproves the city’s assertions in the EIS about rail’s energy and pollution reductions.
“We need to address the traffic congestion problem, not the public transportation problem. We need to use tools to address congestion. Rail is not one of them.” Obvious challenges: Are you not interested in improving public transportation? Is your sole focus on cars and highways? Have you read OMPO’s transportation plan that includes $3 billion in road improvements by 2030?

Civil Beat ended its interview with Mr. Slater with a summation that surely does reflect his version of reality in the Always By Car universe:

“In Slater’s world, you do what makes financial sense and what works to solve the problem you’re trying to address. He’s not buying the arguments for ‘transit-oriented development’ that will come with rail and potentially transform Honolulu into a more dense and lively city.
“’Most people don’t want to live in vibrant neighborhoods,’ he says of the transit-oriented development concept. They want, he says, quiet neighborhoods, with soccer fields.
“It all seems clear in Slater’s world. The city is about to make a big mistake that should be obvious to anyone, a mistake we can’t afford.”
That does pretty much reflect ABC Cliff’s version of how things should be in the 21st century – exactly as they were in the 20th, with quiet neighborhoods, picket fences and soccer fields in suburbia dotted with churches, supermarkets and gas stations, all accessible by car.

The media could remind Mr. Slater that times have changed and ask for his detailed vision of Oahu’s future – something specific, something we all can hold up for scrutiny and then decide if it has any merit.

Of course, that’s exactly what the past few years were about when alternatives were analyzed, technology was selected and routes drawn on maps. Mr. Slater’s vision didn't carry the day, and the community has decided it likes a vision that includes rail.

It's just not Mr. Slater's vision, and because it isn't, we all can expect him to continue saying no to that vision and any others involving transit – over and over and over again.

(This post has been added to our aggregation site under Cliff Slater.)

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