Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rail Opponent Floats Toll Road Alternative, Paints Rosy Picture but Fails to Mention Key Fact: Only Those Who Can Afford Tolls Use Managed Lanes; Plus, Obama Budget Targets $250M for Rail Here

Let’s be clear about what “managed lanes” are. They’re toll roads. The only people they help are those who can afford to pay the toll. If you can’t, you get to creep along on “unmanaged lanes” in traffic congestion.

Highway advocate Panos Prevedouros described how “managed lanes” work in October 2010: “Higher tolls are necessary to discourage overloading,” he wrote in a HawaiiReporter.com commentary.

By “overloading,” Dr. Prevedouros means “congestion,” so the way managed lanes manage to keep congestion at bay and down there on surface streets is to jack up the tolls until only the relatively well-to-do can afford them.

That’s quite a concept. It obviously fails to satisfy one of the Honolulu rail project’s main goals – to ensure transportation equity for all citizens along the line, regardless of financial capability.

With that preamble, we can examine a commentary extolling managed lanes in yesterday’s Star-Advertiser (subscription). One of Cliff Slater’s anti-rail colleagues described their alleged benefits; not mentioned, of course, are the disadvantages, which we’re happy to cover.

Elevated Exclusivity
“Managed lanes on Oahu would be elevated high-occupancy lanes….,” wrote John Brizdle. Stop right there if your primary objection to Honolulu rail is because it will be elevated. If you detest overhead obstructions, there would be more to dislike in an elevated highway compared to narrower elevated rail.

John Brizdle writes that “express buses on managed lanes would be superior to rail in every category” on their route from Waipahu to downtown Honolulu. Details are scarce throughout the commentary, including the failure to mention on- and off-ramps between those two points to service communities along the route.

He also skips past the build-up of congestion at the start and end of those lanes that the rail project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement says would become a significant problem. Here’s how a letter in today’s Star-Advertiser (subscription) puts it:

“…Brizdle’s plan has hundreds of buses cruising nicely at top speeds up and down the H-1 freeway with no mention of how these lanes operate in the Honolulu central business district, where people actually need to go.”
With a dozen stations between Waipahu and downtown, rail will be unquestionably superior in its ability to service communities along the line – communities that an elevated highway with no access ramps would bypass.

A Jobs Project?
Mr. Brizdle writes that “local workers can build and maintain an express bus system, not so with rail.” That last phrase is false, of course. Local residents will provide the bulk of rail’s labor force, not only during construction but for operations, too.

Beyond that, the commentary praises managed lanes as a jobs project, a observation that is out of synch with opponents' objections to rail on that very point.

Mr. Brizdle then notes that his express buses would have drivers, a feature he praises as a security enhancement. Drivers would increase the cost to operate the bus fleet, and since fully automated trains with no drivers (and therefore no human error potential) is a significant way to control operating expense, the lanes come up short in this respect, too.

Accidents Happen
“The city can decide which other vehicles besides express buses can use the managed lanes,” the commentary continues. Unmentioned are what happens on highways being negotiated by inattentive lane-switching, following-too-close, sleepy, inebriated, texting-while-driving, high-on-drugs and/or low-skill vehicle drivers. They crash; highways are shut down.

That’s a huge blind spot for managed-lane advocates. They wave off or simply refuse to acknowledge the accidents that happen on our streets and highways each day – accidents that would severely degrade the performance of elevated lanes that would give motorists no possibility of escape.

Elevated Honolulu rail will completely avoid all traffic congestion, including that caused by accidents. How often must that be said?

Motorcade Avoidance
Here’s where the commentary goes off the rails. Mr. Brizdle writes, “As the manager, the city can close the lanes to all traffic in order to allow for the presidential motorcade and leave the H-1 freeway open (rail cannot do that). As the manager, the city can open the managed lanes to all traffic when there is an accident on H-1 (rail cannot do that).”

Rail cannot do what – close lanes and open lanes? It makes no sense, and beyond that, Mr. Brizdle ignores the obvious advantage of rail transit – complete segregation from whatever is happening on roads and freeways. Let them close the freeway all they want for visiting dignitaries; that would not affect rail commuters in the least.

Getting Down to Business
The commentary finally gets around the mentioning tolls: “Would local drivers be willing to pay? …. rail offers no benefit to our commercial companies that use our public highways other than to pay higher taxes and experience more traffic.”

Aside from the fact that managed lanes would not appear out of thin air with no taxpayer support, this is as bizarre argument. Rail opponents seem to think their managed lanes concept is a “magic bullet” that would “solve” congestion. Today’s letter dismisses magical thinking:

“Honolulu needs to stop looking for the magic bullet for our traffic problems. The only viable solution is a combination of management methods that includes all modes of transportation: a comprehensive network of pedestrian paths separated from traffic, managed lanes, increased bus service and, yes, rail.”
Maybe there is a role for managed lanes in Oahu’s future decades from now to meet the needs of future generations of our children and grandchildren. As a substitute for rail, toll roads are a non-starter.

Obama’s Budget
The Obama Administration released its 2013 budget yesterday and included $250 million for the Honolulu rail project, the largest request to Congress for any rail project in the nation. Senator Daniel Inouye’s announcement noted the continuing commitment to Honolulu rail by the federal government.

“Like any large, publicly funded project, there are bound to be questions and concerns about how best to proceed,” Inouye said, a reference to the recent Star-Advertiser opinion survey that – more than anything – revealed the result of ongoing efforts by rail opponents to confuse the issues.

“But the facts remain that the successful construction and timely completion of this project will create jobs, decrease our dependence on imported oil, and offer a long awaited alternative to driving for thousands of working families on the West side of Oahu.”
Unmentioned in the statement is rail’s biggest feature – complete freedom from traffic congestion that toll roads would never deliver.

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