Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Open Letter to Outdoor Circle Members: Some of You Oppose Rail, but Have You Weighed Impacts vs Benefits? Unless Your Life Is Impacted Daily by Congestion, You Can’t Appreciate Traffic’s Costs

Thank you for your years of support for the generations-long determination to keep billboards out of Hawaii. The Circle’s influence can be seen with every drive we take through town and country, and we’re always pleased when first-time visitors remark on the billboard-free environment that differs so markedly from their hometowns. Your conservation of notable trees is another ongoing campaign that rightly deserves praise.

This letter comes to you as a sincere attempt to encourage a broader view of the Honolulu rail project than what your organization’s leaders seem to have embraced. As you know, the Circle’s leadership has just declared its opposition to the Honolulu rail project. The story in today’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser (subscription) raises issues that are familiar to both rail opponents and supporters alike.

Even those of us who endorse rail recognize that an elevated 20-mile-long rail structure will have impacts. But the newspaper story contains information that suggests areas ripe for further discussion, and it totally ignores the impacts that other construction projects will have on our town that will be far more visible than what rail will impose.

Benefits vs Impacts
Rail supporters disagree with the Circle’s leadership that believes impacts outweigh the benefits that rail will provide to our population. In that regard, it may be worth noting that according to the Circle’s website, your group apparently has no organized representation in Leeward Oahu. Branch Presidents are listed for the North Shore, the Windward Side and East Honolulu but not for the communities on the ewa plain where hundreds of thousands of residents live now or will live decades from now in the one large area on Oahu designated by the county’s General Plan for development – the Second City.

If you don’t experience the morning-and-night commute in traffic congestion that even a prominent anti-rail morning talk show host calls “a very difficult situation” and “unbelievable,” you undoubtedly can’t appreciate what that daily grind is doing to commuters on the H-1 and the surface streets and highways and to their families. Quite obviously, traffic congestion robs them of their most valuable commodity – time. Commuters who reside on the ewa plain and drive to their jobs in town waste dozens of hours each month caught in traffic that they simply cannot avoid. The Lanikai resident who called the morning radio show today almost certainly never ventures into that kind of congestion.

Representatives of leeward communities attended several outreach meetings conducted by the rail project a couple months ago. Residents of Kapolei and Makakilo stood up at the sessions at Kalani High School in East Honolulu, Castle High School in Kaneohe and at other venues in town to tell others about the hours they spend in their cars each day. They said building rail would afford them a travel option. That’s what rail will be for them and anyone else who chooses to ride – an option that will completely avoid all traffic congestion on the H-1 freeway and other thoroughfares in the east-west corridor.

Understanding Rail
Today’s newspaper story contains a quote from your organization’s website that deserves special attention: “The project is destined to become an ugly scar across one of the most beautiful places on earth while there is little evidence that it will bring relief to Oahu’s unacceptable traffic situation.” That quote suggests your leadership does not understand what we’ve just stated in the preceding paragraph – that rail’s first-among-equals goal is to restore mobility to our community by providing an alternative to driving and sitting in traffic. Rail is not a “traffic relief” project; those of you who have actually spent time with project documents know that its goals are about mobility, travel reliability, transportation equity and future development rationality – things Outdoor Circle members presumably care about. And while the website decries the “degradation to neighborhoods” along the rail route, others see opportunities for in-fill development that will enrich those neighborhoods with housing and supportive commercial activities.

Unfortunately, it’s not surprising that some in the Circle have succumbed to misinformation about rail’s goals and rail’s true relationship to traffic – a way to avoid it, not reduce it. Prominent anti-rail activists, including those who want an elevated toll road built instead of elevated rail, have been deliberately confusing the issues and thereby the public for years. It’s a despicable practice that does them no credit, and it’s a shame that the Circle’s leadership seems to have been persuaded that traffic reduction is rail’s goal. That simply is not the case, but as should be obvious, without rail there will be no relief from traffic congestion that’s already horrible and will only worsen as Oahu’s population increases in the decades ahead. If you haven’t spent time understanding rail’s purpose, please take time to do so by acquainting yourself with the project’s website and the many documents posted there.

And to members of the Circle’s leadership, we pose this simple question: If not rail, what? What is their alternative to rail, which exhaustive analysis has found is the only way to provide fast, frequent, reliable and safe transportation through the urban corridor for large numbers of commuters and other travelers and thereby achieve the project’s goals.

About that ‘Scar’
There’s no question that an elevated rail line will have impacts, but they are exaggerated by those with an agenda to oppose rail no matter what and no matter the benefits of building the project. According to an October 27th story in the Star-Advertiser, a proposal to increase the height limit of buildings in Honolulu would allow a 650-foot tower to be built in Kakaako “that would offer spectacular, unobstructed views of the ocean and downtown….” The views truly would be spectacular, but a 650-foot tower would have other impacts on views – the ones this building and the 26 other high-rises currently planned for Kakaako would obstruct.

All this vertical construction begs the question: What about those impacts, and how will they compare with a 30-foot tall structure that will be dwarfed by existing and new buildings? The rail project’s environmental impact statement readily acknowledges rail’s potential to affect the environment, especially when viewed from a short distance, but as distance increases, the elevated guideway’s impact will decrease, too. Adding two dozen high-rise buildings to our cityscape will create view blockages for miles in every direction. Rail’s presence in that environment will be virtually invisible, a fact that we would ask the Outdoor Circle’s membership to weigh against the benefits it will deliver to our community.

Thank you for your attention to these issues, most of which seem to be lost in the misinformation campaign that is influencing the discussion about rail. The bottom line is simple: Nothing will reduce traffic congestion one, three or five decades from now – not as long as families have babies and people are free to move to our state and settle here. With congestion a fact of life, the issue then becomes how we deal with it while providing a fast, frequent, reliable and safe travel option for our citizens. At-grade transit can’t meet those requirements, and neither can a reversible toll road, a so-called “solution” that benefits those who can afford to own a car and pay the tolls, but nobody else. We've posted dozens of entries on these issues here at Yes2Rail, and you're invited to scan through them by clicking on links to their headlines in the right-hand column – below the many photographs of vehicle accidents in cities with at-grade rail transit.

In conclusion, we urge Outdoor Circle members to think beyond your traditional areas of concern and embrace rail for its potential to benefit our community and future residents for decades to come.

This post has been added to our “aggregation site” under the heading Project’s Goals, and more.


Anonymous said...

Carlson is or has been a paid PR consultant for the City's rail team. His letter has a lot of confusing double talk. What exactly are the goals of rail ---- further massive development in the Ewa Plain.

Doug Carlson said...

LOL. You get props for knowing how to read, Anonymous; note the copy in the blue band at the top of this blog.

As for confusing "double talk," what's so hard to understand about the rail project's goals? They're as valid as ever (see our 1/3/11 post). You've replaced them with your own belief system, and if that's your opinion, terrific. You're free to promote it anonymously. Actually, one of the project's actual goals amounts to "infill" development around the stations, so you might want to rethink your opposition on development grounds.