Friday, December 2, 2011

Rail Court Case Will Make News Intermittently, so We Launch a New Feature on Letters to the Editor

The calendar has wound down to what many believe is the most uplifting month of the year – a time for goodwill and cheer among people of all stripes. In the spirit of the season, we’ll make an extra point to not “go personal” in our continuing criticism of the leading rail opponents’ arguments.

We perhaps came close on occasion over the past several months. It does rankle when we catch someone repeatedly misleading the public about the project by misstating its goals. Rail won’t accomplish the miracle of reducing traffic congestion in decades ahead as Oahu's population grows. Its purpose will be to give residents a travel option that avoids congestion completely.

It also rubs us the wrong way when a leading rail opponent essentially accuses city officials of lying with his “shame on the city” accusations. We lift a glass of eggnog to Hawaii Public Radio for giving those same officials their own hour to defend the project as well as their reputations a month later.

So let the holiday season begin. We’re launching something new here at Yes2Rail – the LTE Forum, a recurring feature on views expressed about rail in letters to the editor published by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and other media outlets. There will be nothing personal in this feature – a strictly issue-focused examination of what’s said about rail in the letters columns from a pro-rail perspective.

The LTE Forum
First, a couple observations: A newspaper’s letters column is not a scientific sampling of community sentiment on any particular issue. It is a compilation of individual views on the issues – whether those views are researched and well-informed or not. What's important is that residents are taking their time to express and share them.

Editors presumably attempt to print a representative sample of the letters they receive on any given recurring topic (see submission information on more than 100 newspapers). Human nature being what it is, our presumption is that rail opponents are more active than supporters in their writing. Sampling the volume of letters therefore may result in the printing of more letters in opposition than in support.

Something else: The “I won’t ride it so why should I support it?” factor is alive and well on Oahu. Rail obviously will not be an option for every car commuter on the island; it will mostly serve those who live and/or work along its 20-mile route between East Kapolei on the ewa plain and Ala Moana Center, giving them a travel option in the east-west urban corridor. Stops along the way will include the UH West Oahu campus, Leeward Community College, Pearlridge Shopping Center, Aloha Stadium (and the nearby Arizona Memorial), Pearl Harbor Shipyard, Honolulu International Airport and related businesses, commercial districts along Dillingham Boulevard, Honolulu Community College, Chinatown, the downtown business district, Blaisdell Center and the emerging Kakaako “urban village.”

We’ve found in our community outreach that quite a few people – still a minority in our experience – don’t want to pay for a project that does not benefit them personally. Most people on the island won’t ride rail each day, and if that’s their opinion, they’re entitled to it. What’s good for others doesn’t seem to matter to this segment of the population, and we think it’s a consideration worth weighing. An undertaking of rail’s size and import truly is a “community” project.

On to the letters. As it happens, the first one this week was from a rail supporter:

H-3 success offers lesson on rail delay (Star-Advertiser, 11/29)
The writer, a Honolulu resident, is reminded of the drawn-out H-3 freeway project in the 1970s. “The opposition then made similar claims about how it would damage the visual impact of the Windward side…. As I drive the H-3 now, I don’t see any degradation to the environment as it is one of the most scenic drives on Oahu. And the freeway is working perfectly fine in reducing congestion to the Windward side. The rail provides an alternate means of transportation and we need it now.”

The writer has it perfectly right about rail’s purpose – to be the travel alternative that will give the rider a traffic-free experience. His other point about the cost of delaying rail’s construction was especially timely this week; the anti-rail lawsuit had its first hearing on Wednesday.

Rail transit will burden Hawaii (Star-Advertiser, 11/30)
“I can’t believe that the train is still going forward. Not one train in the entire U.S. has made money or broken even. Everyone will have to drive to the train station and/or use TheBus at either end…. What’s going to happen when the work (the unions) are promised is done? Where will Hawaii be? I’ll tell you: broke and broken! Here’s a question that I would love someone to answer: How much will we have to pay to ride the train?”

We'll respond to the Kaneohe resident’s issues starting with her question: Riding the train will cost exactly the same as riding TheBus. As with the bus system, most of its regular patrons will use a pass purchased annually or for another period. A trip that includes bus rides at both ends of a train ride will be considered one continuous trip, whether using a pass or buying a single trip ticket; i.e., transfers to other public transit modes will be covered by the single price.

She’s right about transit systems not turning a profit. Not many people complain about the taxpayers’ subsidy of TheBus; the City Council’s budget each year includes a subsidy for the system of between 67 and 73 percent of its O&M expense. Like underwriting the cost of schools, which also don’t “make money” in the short run, public transit is treated as a critical piece of the public infrastructure and therefore worth supporting. Rail isn’t a “jobs project” (see the project’s goals), although jobs certainly will be created during construction and afterwards to operate the system. As for accessing train stations, tens of thousands of riders will walk to and from them on their trips; that’s how it’s done by millions of rail transit users in cities the world over.

Rail would be a permanent mistake (Star-Advertiser, 12/1)
“Thank God people are actually coming to their senses about the monstrosity being planned for our fair city…. The biggest problem with a permanent rail system is precisely that it is permanent. No matter how our population shifts, the huge concrete pillars will remain just where they are. Other systems can be flexible – trolly/bus lines or whatever – but concrete is forever….”

There’s more to this Hawaii Kai resident’s letter, and you’re invited to read it, but we won’t comment on each and every point in the letters discussed here in the LTE Forum. Regarding Oahu’s population growth, the patterns are pretty well understood by now and are the consequence of considerable planning over the past four decades. The city’s General Plan channels significant housing development to the ewa plain and central Oahu and away from east Honolulu, the Windward side and the North Shore – helping to “keep the country country.” The mountains and the ocean also dictate limits on where growth reasonably can occur.

Honolulu’s “inflexible” rail system will be a transportation spine running east-west through our urban corridor. Patrons will use the flexible bus system to reach the stations; others will drive and park there, be dropped off or walk. People do become accustomed to walking as part of their daily commute when a cost-effective, time-saving option like rail is introduced. It happens elsewhere by millions of customers and will happen here, too.

We’ll continue dipping into the newspaper’s letters column here at the LTE Forum. You’re invited to leave a comment on our observations by clicking the "comments" link immediately below.

This post has been added to our "aggregation site" under the new heading LTE Forum.

No comments: