Thursday, October 6, 2011

Question #3 Is about Traffic Levels: ‘Mr. Slater, HOT Lanes Don’t Reduce Congestion, Do They?’

If you find yourself in a conversation with Cliff Slater, leader of the rail opposition, you’ll likely soon be talking about traffic congestion. It’s Mr. Slater’s favorite topic, and he’ll want to convince you that HOT lanes – high-occupancy toll roads – can reduce overall traffic congestion on Oahu and Honolulu rail can’t.

We started a series of 10 questions two days ago as a lead-in to the October 13th “INSIGHTS on Hawaii PBS” television program on public TV. Mr. Slater and former Governor Benjamin Cayetano will be guests on that show as they continue the anti-rail PR campaign they launched in August. They’re so intent on trying to kill rail that they’re plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that aims to do so. (If the city doesn't participate on this particular program, that's why.)

As usual, today’s post has a primary audience of two people – the INSIGHTS show’s host and producer – but all Yes2Rail visitors are invited to start thinking of your own questions that you can email, tweet or phone into the “live” program.

The Set-Up
Question #3 in our series of 10 questions builds on #1, which was posted here two days ago. To review, Mr. Slater believes rail isn’t worth the effort because there will be more traffic congestion in Honolulu after rail is running than there is today.

He makes a big deal out of this and uses it as a cudgel to attack rail. Build HOT lanes instead, Mr. Slater says, implying that a new highway with reversible traffic flow during the morning and afternoon rush hours would reduce overall road congestion in urban Honolulu.

When reduced to its essence, Question #1 wants Mr. Slater to admit that traffic congestion growth is inevitable no matter what is built. Tens of thousands of new residents living on Oahu with tens of thousands of new vehicles on the island will add up to more congestion for all of us. The math is simple.

Question #3
“Mr. Slater, you seem to think highway congestion is a problem that can be eliminated by simply applying the right solution. Build the Honolulu rail system and congestion will be worse than today, you say; build HOT lanes and it’ll go away. But I’d like you to agree here on ‘live’ television tonight that congestion will be worse no matter what transportation ‘solutions’ we apply. You’ve said it before on radio, so please say it here on INSIGHTS. Isn’t it true that traffic would be worse in the future than it is today even if HOT Lanes were built? And since that IS true, you don't have an option to rail that would reduce congestion, do you?”

This congestion issue takes a little more thought than Mr. Slater typically wants Oahu citizens to exercise. The simple fact is this: Highway congestion will be with us forever as long as the population continues to grow and there are no restrictions on the number of vehicles on the island.

Mr. Slater’s anti-rail presentations to community groups acknowledge that fact only as it relates to the rail project, but then he stops short and never says the same would be true if HOT lanes were built instead.

On the Prowl
People switch from driving their own cars – their preferred travel option – to transit when they can see a benefit from doing so to save time or money or both. Honolulu rail anticipates 40,000 fewer daily car trips in 2030 when the rail system is operational. The removal of that many cars from streets and highways will free up road space.

What happens next is why congestion is and will be a fact of commuting life for the foreseeable future. Experience across America tells us that highways, like nature, don’t like a vacuum. Commuters rush in to fill any space that opens up when enough people start taking transit or drivers start taking a different route.

We all know this is true from personal experience. Commuters are always on the prowl looking for ways to avoid the congestion we hate. If there’s an accident ahead on the freeway, we’ll jump off the freeway to take a surface route instead if we think we can save time.

With 40,000 fewer daily vehicle trips by 2030, road and highway space that would have been occupied by those former drivers will be filled by others. That’s just the way it is, and that’s also just what would happen if a reversible high-occupancy toll road were built here instead of rail.

Imagine an Oahu future with both HOT lanes – which charge a toll – and surface streets with no toll operating in parallel. If drivers perceived that traffic were flowing just as freely on the surface roads as on the HOT lanes, they'd stay off the toll road and save their money. The inevitable condition in such a future is that the surface roads would be congested no matter what were happening on the roll road.

Drivers able to afford the toll would take the HOT lanes, freeing up (temporarily) space on other streets and highways. That “vacuum” would be filled quickly enough, and we’d have the same levels of congestion as existed before the highway was built – levels that could only grow with the population.

Essential Differences
Congestion will continue with rail in place, and it would do the same if HOT lanes were built, but that’s where the similarity ends. People who can’t afford to pay the tolls necessary to access managed lanes and those who don’t own a car would get no benefit from them. Rail will be affordable by virtually everyone who chooses to ride the train.

Buses presumably could access HOT lanes, but there would be few if any on- and off-ramps along the elevated reversible highway. Residents living in communities between the start and end of the lanes would have no access. The rail system will have 21 stations along its 20-mile route. TheBus system will feed passengers to and from those stations in an integrated transportation network.

And wherever there are highways, there are accidents. There’s no guarantee vehicles on managed lanes would be accident- and breakdown-free, so they’d be prone to congestion caused by unforeseen incidents.  Additionally, the rail project’s FEIS also says bottlenecks would occur at the beginning and end of the managed lanes for the obvious fact that vehicles using them would eventually be right back in surface congestion at their exits.

Elevated rail will be completely separated from that congestion – which we can only hope Mr. Slater will be forced to admit on “live” television one week from tonight, 7:30 to 8:30 on KHET. It could be quite a show.

This post has been added to our "aggregation site" under the heading Mr. Cliff Slater (and friends).

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