Sunday, December 11, 2011

Friends of the Outdoors, How Big Is Your Circle? Broader Vision in the 21st Century Could Win Friends, Save Human Lives as Well as Trees

Today’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser editorial page (subscription) is a study in contrasts for supporters of the Honolulu rail project. The editorial – HART makes good case for Ansaldo deal – is just what they’d hope the paper would say about the selection of the Italian firm that will supply rail cars, the train control system and operate/maintain the system once it’s built.

Next to it is a commentary by the Outdoor Circle, the century-old environment-oriented organization that traditionally has fought to preserve trees and keep the state free of billboards. The group had been working with the city but now says it wants to kill the project.

The piece argues that Honolulu rail’s elevated structure (in most places built about 30 feet above the middle of streets and highways) will “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.”

Didn't Even Try?
Today’s commentary is essentially the same piece the Circle posted at its website last month – a denunciation of elevated rail based on the group’s apparent belief that the city just didn’t try hard enough to find a better alternative.

Read the Circle’s commentary and you know what it’s against, but it’s also obvious the group doesn’t know specifically what it’s for – just an undefined something other than rail that will “bring relief to Oahu’s unacceptable traffic.”

The group’s leadership apparently is following the lead of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit to kill rail when they assert the city didn’t really explore all the alternatives to achieve that relief. Today’s editorial disagrees:

“…plaintiffs face an uphill battle in proving capriciousness on the city’s part, given that the entire process was vetted by the Federal Transit Administration and congressional overseers, too.”
The Outdoor Circle clearly is happy with the delay this lawsuit is causing, and in the months it will take for the case to run it course, the group might study congestion and the range of alternatives to come up with a specific preference.

Defining the Issue
The Circle says it “is not anti-transit and would support a proposal that will reduce traffic and protect Hawaii’s greatest asset, the unique and incomparable beauty of our islands.”

That statement suggests the Circle doesn’t understand the issue. “Reducing traffic” is not what Honolulu rail is intended to do, and in fact, nothing can accomplish as long as Oahu’s population continues to grow, as it surely will over the decades. The commentary is silent on what could reduce traffic below current levels because nothing will.

In essence, Oahu’s mobility issues are about time and the hours commuters waste while sitting in traffic or creeping slowly on freeways and surface streets because of congestion.

The city’s latest attempt to address that issue is the rail project, and as all the alternatives were indeed examined, it became apparent that the only transportation alternative that will provide commuters time-saving travel through the city is grade-separated transit.

Building a subway (unacceptable for cost and other reasons) or an elevated line would be the only way to simultaneously avoid traffic congestion and provide the level of service that’s needed by commuters and others.

The project’s goals are clear, and they say nothing about reducing traffic. They’re about providing a travel option that will be fast, frequent, reliable and safe – the very definition of elevated rail. A transit option such as at-grade light-rail isn't "green" if it can't deliver those attributes; it would be just another way to rob commuters of their time.

A 21st Century Vision
While the Outdoor Circle has been successful in keeping out the billboards and preserving trees, the realities of urban life in the 21st century suggest the possibility and even a necessity for a broader vision beyond preserving Oahu’s mauka-makai view planes.

Grade-separated transit is as inevitable on this island as are the dozens of high-rises currently planned or under construction in Honolulu’s urban core – buildings that will inflict much more damage to view planes than low-rise rail. One could conclude that the Outdoor Circle has already lost that fight.

The “great outdoors” is a work in progress, and much of what’s happening outdoors needs a lot more work. Pedestrians are killed outdoors, even while in crosswalks; bicyclists are hit and killed by drivers who apparently care too little about their safety to avoid them.

Oahu’s maddening traffic congestion robs drivers of their time and also makes them impatient. Red-light running is common, and so is failure to yield to pedestrians, yet there’s little evidence traffic laws designed to protect pedestrians and others are enforced. (Late-afternoon update: We saw two cars blow through a four-way stop in Kakaako this afternoon. Life-threatening traffic violations are now commonplace in Honolulu.)

What if the Outdoor Circle’s 21st century activities included proactive efforts to reduce the number of pedestrian fatalities on our streets and highways? What if the Circle’s concerns extended to bicyclists in the great outdoors? What if the Circle moved from being against the only travel option that will reduce hours of delay by 18 percent in the urban core to supporting efforts to make the great outdoors more accessible because it will help commuters save travel time?

The Circle’s current anti-rail stance can only alienate large numbers of long-suffering commuters who appreciate rail as a congestion-avoiding option they’ll eventually use. A broader 21st century vision to make the outdoor experience a safer experience would rest nicely on the foundation built by the Circle in the 20th.

We’ll have more in future posts that might help Outdoor Circle members better appreciate congestion and population issues and rail’s promise to make life in the outdoors more livable for future generations.

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