Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Cayetano Will Use Harris’s 2000 BRT Plan, Says More Buses Are What Oahu Needs To Fight Traffic; HART Board Member Takes Candidate to Task, Plus: How Media Can Influence Opinions on Rail

Ben Cayetano and Walter Heen, his campaign chair, at Tuesday's event.
Mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano held a campaign event disguised as a press conference yesterday, and sure enough, the media rolled on it because – well, that’s what they do with the former governor. He’s the big gun fighting rail and is always good for two minutes on the evening news or a six-column story.

But Mr. Cayetano’s future campaign pressers might attract less attention if yesterday’s event was a prelude to more of the same. The session was billed as an exposĂ© of the city’s “lousy practices of public manipulation” in the early years of the rail project’s planning phase. Civil Beat even headlined the event in advance as a revelation of a “conspiracy.”

But the smoking gun promised in the media advisory was nowhere to be seen at the event itself. The “conspiracy” turned out to be snippets found in several emails among 500,000 documents filed as part of the Administrative Record in the lawsuit by Mr. Cayetano and several other plaintiffs that seeks to kill the Honolulu rail project.

FTA Responds
Here’s one of the excerpts Mr. Cayetano read – an intra-office email exchange in 2006 between two Federal Transit Administration officials: “We seem to be proceeding in the hallowed tradition of Honolulu rapid transit studies: never enough time to do it right, but lots of time to do it over.”

The author presumably would like a do-over on that one now that the email has been used as alleged proof of “lousy practices and manipulation” by the city. Here’s the FTA statement on Mr. Cayetano’s event:

“There is no question that this project has overcome early obstacles because of a much improved Federal partnership with the City of Honolulu and State of Hawaii over the past several years. The Federal Transit Administration believes that this project will bring much needed relief rrom the suffocating congestion on the H-1 Freeway and provide a real transportation alternative for the people of Oahu as gas prices rise.”

Mr. Cayetano’s ‘Alternative’
We’ve been prodding the media to start asking questions about what exactly Mr. Cayetano has in mind instead of Honolulu rail to give commuters relief from H-1 and surface traffic. Yesterday’s event was the perfect opportunity, coming as it did 54 days into Mr. Cayetano’s anti-rail campaign.

A reporter did ask Mr. Cayetano what he’d tell west side residents that he’d propose to address their traffic congestion problem if he’s elected mayor and kills rail. Paraphrasing the former governor:

“We’re working on a plan, and I’ve been asked for that plan by some people, including a blogger who’s here today.” (Yes2Rail was there.) “The specifics are in the Bus Rapid Transit plan compiled in 2000 by the same company that’s advising the city now on the rail project – Parsons Brinckerhoff. They compared all the alternatives and found that BRT would cost a fraction of what rail would cost.”
Mr. Cayetano then said the Alternatives Analysis for the rail project should have started with adding more buses to TheBus system. Instead of tossing out BRT, he said PB should have considered adjustments to the plan written in 2000 – such as using Beretania Street instead of Kapiolani Boulevard for a dedicated bus lane. Of course, the exclusion of cars from the proposed bus-only lanes was a major factor in  BRT's failure a decade ago.

We predicted yesterday that the candidate won’t “describe and defend a detailed transportation plan” during the campaign, but we may have been wrong about that. Mr. Cayetano said he has a team working on the 12-year-old BRT plan, and he may roll out a new plan any week now. We can certainly hope so, because without something to show the public as a better option than rail, we’re all just guessing at what it might be. Yesterday’s event made it clear that whatever it is, it won’t be new.

Mr. Cayetano was also asked yesterday for his BRT plan’s cost and how it would be financed. He said he doesn’t have a figure yet – just another one of those vexing details that by rights he should have been ready to discuss on Day 1 of his campaign.

Senator Bunda Weighs In
The political careers of former Senate President Robert Bunda and Mr. Cayetano took them both to the State Capitol at the same time. Mr Bunda’s commentary supporting Honolulu rail appears in today’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser (subscription) under the headline Cayetano has no realistic plan to solve West Oahu traffic mess. It’s a message we’re likely to hear a lot more often now that TheBus seems to be Mr. Cayetano’s answer to congestion.

Mr. Bunda, who's now a board member of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART), minces no words in criticizing the former governor’s position on rail. He recounts the Cayetano administration’s securing of land for a new UH-West Oahu campus and efforts to encourage economic activity on the ewa plain.

“Massive development did take place and the population continued shifting at an incredible pace to West Oahu,” Mr. Bunda says. “While much of the area infrastructure built is essential and important in the development of Kapolei, there was no clear vision by the Cayetano administration of any transportation infrastructure to move people from West Oahu to downtown as part of their commute.”
The Bunda commentary notes what has been obvious to observers since Mr. Cayetano announced his candidacy in January – that he has offered no detailed plan to replace Honolulu rail.

“Cayetano’s campaign website states that he supports dedicated freeway bus lanes and more buses, but there is no detail, nor funding in place for that, and no guarantees of anything other than wasting more time piling on additional impact studies.
“…the biggest problem with BRT is that it takes away freeway and roadway lanes from other vehicles to be used exclusively for buses. Anyone driving from Leeward Oahu into town in the morning knows the shutdown of even one freeway lane becomes a traffic nightmare.”
With HART board members showing more inclination to speak out on behalf of Honolulu rail, Mr. Cayetano’s “clear sailing” in the media so far may be heading toward a stormy patch.

The Media Present Tense in Headlines
The media obviously have a tremendous ability to influence public attitudes on any issue, especially when they show up with bright lights and cameras (yesterday's over-exposure is at right). We’ve seen that played out already in 2012, from their public opinion surveys earlier this year on Honolulu rail to something as seemingly arcane as headline writing today.
The Star-Advertiser story on Mr. Cayetano’s presser was headlined Emails suggest problems with rail. Headlines are almost always written in present tense except on the obituary page, where both the headline and the subject of the story are in the past.

It’s not until you read today’s sub-head on the rail story that it’s clear the present tense doesn’t accurately reflect the facts in the story: Former Gov. Cayetano releases documents that show federal officials HAD concerns (emphasis added).  In other words, the “problems” and “concern” were yesterday’s news, not today’s.

The only thing current about them in light of the FTA’s several approvals that have allowed construction to begin in a matter of weeks is Mr. Cayetano’s alarm about six-year-old emails.

The Media – Lack of Attribution
Something else the media often do is simply repeat a newsmaker's words without applying attribution to comments that clearly are opinion, not fact.

Hawaii News Now did this in last evening’s report on Mr. Cayetano’s event. Its story began, “Ben Cayetano has released some damaging emails written by the federal government…emails he’s using to show the Federal Transit Administration shares some of his anti-rail concerns.”

The reporter didn’t attribute the “damaging” observation to Mr. Cayetano; he simply said the emails are damaging as if that’s a fact, but it’s not a fact. It’s Mr. Cayetano’s opinion.

Even that assertion is demonstrably not true. If it were, the FTA would not have approved rail’s environmental impact statement in 2010 and given the city a Letter of No Prejudice on February 6 authorizing it to begin construction with local funds.

If the FTA ever did actually “share” Mr. Cayetano’s concerns, which isn’t at all clear, it certainly doesn’t now. Hawaii News Now’s story implied something about the status of city-FTA relations that simply isn’t true – which makes you wonder what kind of journalistic oversight is in effect at Bob Sevey’s old station.

The Media – Push-Pulling about Polls

Civil Beat’s reporter on the Honolulu rail project, Michael Levine, attended yesterday’s campaign event and managed to prompt an answer from Mr. Cayetano to one of his questions. The candidate apparently has thought better of banning Mr. Levine from his sight.

Mr. Levine let Yes2Rail’s author know that he didn’t appreciate our characterization of Civil Beat’s recent rail public opinion survey as a “push poll.” “If you understand what a ‘push poll’ is, you’d admit you were wrong,” he said.

Our response is that he’s right about one thing; the Civil Beat poll wasn't one of those unsavory telemarketing campaigns that sound legitimate but end up blackening the reputation of one candidate. We don’t think Civil Beat is anti-rail, and given the opportunity for a do-over, we would say the poll could have been improved by eliminating one push-poll characteristic that remained in the survey.

The American Association for Public Opinion Research’s website says legitimate opinion surveys “usually ask about more than one candidate or mention both sides of an issue.” Civil Beat’s poll presented only “concerns” to the respondents and none of rail’s benefits and in so doing excluded all positives about rail, such as traffic-free commuting.

Also, the survey excluded people who said they’re not likely to vote in the 2012 election. That seems reasonable in a poll about the mayoral horse race, but its weakness is that it ignored approximately half of the populace who are non-voters. That’s the half more likely to use public transit and rail, and their opinions on rail are no less valid than those who vote.

What’s Ahead?
Everyone at Mr. Cayetano’s campaign headquarters yesterday – reporters included – exhibited the cordiality we’ve come to expect in Hawaii. It’s still early, and the heavy slogging in the Great 2012 Rail Debate will play out over the next five months.

The other two major mayoral candidates – Mayor Peter Carlisle and former managing director Kirk Caldwell – have yet to really begin their campaigns except for a few radio spots. Television advertising, the great determining factor in most political campaigns, hasn’t started for any candidate to a noticeable degree.

HART board members like Senator Bunda are taking the initiative more than previously to stand up for rail, and HART’s new executive officer, Dan Grabauskas, will begin his duties here in early April after wrapping up his work in Boston. He’s articulate and certain to be influential in this debate.

Then there’s Mr. Cayetano’s "Truth Squad" that he said will hold a press conference next week. We’ll likely attend that one, too, but we doubt the local media will cover such an obviously politicized campaign event with another full-court press, as they did yesterday.


Anonymous said...

“We seem to be proceeding in the hallowed tradition of Honolulu rapid transit studies: never enough time to do it right, but lots of time to do it over.”

It is just me or do others see the sheer hypocrisy when Ben accuses the city of lousy practice yet what is his plan for transit alternatives? Basically to study old plans over, doing exactly that hallowed tradition quote in the email.

Frances said...

While there would definitely be patrons of such transit, there would still be several who would opt to buy used cars Oahu has to offer instead.