Saturday, October 29, 2011

‘Town Square’ Show Covered Many Rail Issues: Benefits, Funding and Whether City Officials Lie

We provided extensive quotes from the September 15th public radio show with guests Cliff Slater and Randall Roth beginning with our next day's post. Transcripts are a much quicker way to get the essence of what was said than spending an hour listening to the show, but if you insist, HPR has archived the program.

Thursday’s guests were Mayor Peter Carlisle, Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Interim Executive Director Toru Hamayasu and Makakilo resident Maeda Timson, a former neighborhood board chair who's president of the Go Rail Go group.

After making the introductions, host Beth-Ann Kozlovich noted that Ansaldo, the company selected by the city to supply trains and operate the system, has paid a $150,000 fine for not being a licensed contractor when it first bid on the project. She said it prompts questions about Ansaldo’s reliability and asked the Mayor, “Are you satisfied beyond any doubt that Ansaldo is still the best choice, categorically?

Carlisle: “I think the doubt has to do with economic circumstances that are beyond anybody’s control, but am I satisfied that we’ve followed the right procedures to select the right person for the job? Yes, absolutely, unequivocally.”
Kozlovich asked for an update on the status of Ansaldo’s contract with the city. Hamayasu said after the evaluation of which bidder provide the best value to the city, Ansaldo was announced as the awardee. The contract was sent to Ansaldo, which has return it with a performance bond.

Hamayasu: “The one added element to this was the (HART) board had requested us to have a third-party counsel – outside lawyers – be hired and go through the bond document, so that’s what we’re doing right now. So once that’s done, then we have no reason to hold up, to execute the contract.” He said the city is now in the 30-day period it has to evaluate Ansaldo's package and bond.

Kozlovich: “A lot of people are still concerned about the money. Are people looking for too much certainty?”
Carlisle: “I think we have to give as much certainty as possible, but we also have to take a look around and say, OK, who is supporting this, what’s the oversight look like, and is this something that’s been going on for 40 years and we’ve wasted a lot of opportunities already to get this going? Is this the right time to be doing it?
“And frankly, the economic downturn is in many ways a bonus to us – less expensive labor, you can tie in contracts for longer periods of time, you have less-expensive supplies, the transportation of it is less expensive, so all of those things are real positives for us, and so far, we have gotten savings which we can detail that are less than what the original (cost) projections were. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re going to come in under that because things could happen in the future that would make it more expensive, but right now we’re coming in under budget.
Kozlovich said even though costs may appear to be less expensive now, the average person wonders about costs not being “locked in” – part of their anxiety that the project will not come together exactly as projected.

Carlisle: “If you take a look at how they used to do projections, they were nowhere near as specific as they are now. The oversight wasn’t there, and people would always be padding the numbers or making them deflated so it wasn’t what was actually going to be spent. The Federal Transit Administration took a look at that and said, we’re going to do a better job at this, and right now, everything they’ve done so far has been spot on. So we have to be very, very impressed with what’s happened so far, and there’s no reason for us to foresee in the future that that’s not going to continue to be the case.”
Kozlovich: But we’ve spent hundreds of millions and not necessarily sure in some people’s minds that we’re going to get the one point five billion in federal funds given the fact that we’ve got a huge federal deficit and that you’ve got opposition by Republicans in the House. Are you at all concerned about the chances of getting the money?”
Carlisle: “What I look at are all the people who are saying all the reasons why we’re going to get the money. You have essentially (FTA Administrator Peter) Rogoff telling you that. You have Secretary (of Transportation Ray) LaHood telling us that (rail) is something that he’s going to be working hard for and that this is the right project, and then beyond that, you’ve got Congress Member (John) Mica, who is in charge of the Transportation Committee as a Republican, and he’s saying this is exactly what we’re going to be doing, and that this is a great project, so he understands it.
On top of that you have Dan Inouye, you have Barack Obama. And who (is there) lined up against those people – people who have the same stature and ability to put this forward? I don’t think so, and the oversight that we have is ongoing and extensive. There are meetings every month to make sure that everything is being done correctly by the book and being done in such a fashion that we’ll be able to do it on time and on budget.”

Kozlovich said that even with all the local officials’ trips to Washington for meetings and oversight, there's still a chance something will go awry with Honolulu rail.

Carlisle: “It’s critical to (make those trips), and frankly, that’s one of the things that was pounded into my head early by (former Council Chair) Todd Apo, who said one of the first things I need to do after my election – and actually I was empowered to do it – was to get to Washington, DC, and (answer the question) are you a supporter or not and to answer that question truthfully. And the answer is, I was skeptical of rail at the beginning like a lot of people were, but once you take a look at all the facts, this is absolutely essential to the infrastructure of this large city from now to 50, to 75, to 100 years from now.
“So (rail) is going to transform Honolulu, not only in terms of transportation but in terms of transit-oriented development and in terms of the quality of life for the people who are going to live here. They’ll be spending more time at the office working rather than being stuck in traffic and more time at home where they can do those things that they want to be doing – being with their family and interacting with them.”
Kozlovich: “What will you do, though, if Congress decides for whatever reason to only give you a smaller portion of what you thought we might get?”

Carlisle: “Plow forward, and I think that that’s a hypothetical that so far is not particularly realistic.”
Kozlovich: “Well, that’s why I asked you earlier. Do you think people are not being realistic when they look at some of these questions?”
Carlisle: “No, I think they’re being led by people to say the sky is falling, the sky is falling, and the sky is not falling.”
Kozlovich “Are you angry at the Gang of Four?”
Carlisle: “No, they have their own view of the world, and I don’t dispute that they think it’s the right thing, but do I think they’re giving people accurate information? No. Do I think that when they say we’re deliberately misleading the public? I think that’s false.”
Kozlivich said a lot in the public feel they’re caught between the two camps and that it’s tough for people to make a decision one way or the other. She asked, “Is there a way of sitting down with some of the Gang of Four and meeting them point by point?”

Carlisle: “If they want to do that someplace in an isolated room, I’d be happy to talk with anyone. Am I going to give them a public forum that they don’t deserve? No. They have been doing everything they can to delay this project and make it more expensive and to try and frighten away the people who are doing (rail) and frighten away support from it – sometimes using things like this ‘conspiracy’ to mislead people.
“I don’t consider myself somebody who conspires to tell people things that I know are false…. I just think that’s the rhetoric that comes from these guys, and if that’s what they want to do, fine, but I think we can beat this out with the facts. If you take a look at the facts and everything that’s been looked at, all the other alternatives, there are solid reasons why (they) were rejected. When (rail opponents) start saying let’s put it all on the ground, that makes absolutely no sense. When you think about what they did in Phoenix. They trenched 30 feet across and six feet down.”
The Mayor said building at-grade transit on Hotel Street through downtown Honolulu, as some have advocated, would essentially create chaos for pedestrian and vehicle traffic through Chinatown, with cross-traffic interrupted at intersections by trains arriving every few minutes.

“The second you do that through Honolulu, Hawaii and put (transit) on the ground, you can just wipe out Hotel Street as a method of people transporting themselves from point A to point B. Now what’s that going to do with traffic downtown? It’s gonna completely kill it off and leave (traffic backups) that are completely untenable, so (at-grade transit) is not solving the problem that we have …” Carlisle said at-grade transit also would be vulnerable to accidents at intersections.

Heavy, Light, What?
Kozlovich took a call from “Eileen in Kaimuki” who asked about the terms used to describe Honolulu rail, such as heavy rail, light rail and light metro.

Hamayasu: “We’re saying ours is a light metro system. It’s certainly not heavy rail like other systems such as (San Francisco’s) BART or the Washington METRO where each car is 75 feet long, and they can connect up to 10 or 15 cars together to make a train.”
He said Honolulu’s system will have only four-car trains and will be smaller and lighter in weight, with much less noise than heavy rail systems. Honolulu rail will be automated, which makes it different that the typical light rail that runs on ground like a streetcar, “so we’re not heavy rail. We’re not light rail. That’s why there’s now this new terminology, light metro.” Kozlovich asked the caller if the terminology makes a difference to her. “Eileen” said not really; she just wanted some clarification since she’s been hearing different terms being used and wondered about what’s so.

Rail opponents Slater and Roth, two members of the so-called Gang of Four, used the “heavy rail” term to describe Honolulu rail 26 times during their appearance on the one-hour “Town Square” show. Carlisle said the use of “heavy rail” to describe Honolulu rail is misleading and conjures up imagines that are not applicable here.

City Fibbers?
Caller “Kevin of Honolulu” said it’s a “fib” that the Sierra Club endorses Honolulu rail and said “neither the local nor the national Sierra Club has endorsed the rail, and if you’re fibbing on that, could (the Mayor) be fibbing about the Alternatives Analysis…?”

Carlisle quoted from a national Sierra Club report called Missing the Train: “We will enjoy benefits, including better air and water quality, greater public health, less sprawl and more independence for our aging population.” “Kevin” responded that the local chapter hasn’t endorsed Honolulu rail, and Kozlovich attempted to summarize the Sierra Club’s position on rail transit – that the Sierra Club nationally has made supportive statements about rail but the Sierra Club locally has not endorsed the rail project in Honolulu.

As blog posts go, transcriptions go long, so we’ll pick up with more of the “Town Square” transcript tomorrow – but not before jumping further into the show to address the Sierra Club issue with our own call to KIPO:

“I have a question for Toru, but let me just tell you what I see on the Sierra Club Oahu Group’s website. I’ll read you one short sentence: ‘Sierra Club Oahu Group supports the Fixed Guideway (rail) alternative.’ That should take care of the question about what the Oahu Group says.”
We didn’t have enough time to read the rest of the position statement:

“The Fixed Guideway alternative provides what Oahu needs most: an alternative to the automobile. Oahu residents have become overly dependent on private automobiles, and this dependence has devastating effects: reliance on fossil fuels, pollution and global warming, traffic congestion and the resulting loss of productivity, consumption of more land for roadways and parking, and negative impacts on public health and community life. The Oahu Group believes these are urgent problems that require a major shift in our transportation habits, and therefore supports the development of a rail system on Oahu.”
We’ll pick up the transcription with our question to Mr. Hamayasu based on comments by Messrs. Slater and Roth on “Town Square” six weeks ago – especially Mr. Roth’s “Shame on the city” hyperbole:

To Mr. Hamayasu: “Have you been lying all these years…?”

Come back tomorrow for his response.

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