Sunday, March 4, 2012

Newest Piece of ‘Sunday’ Journalism Fits Pattern: Just Like Future Congestion, Transit Subsidies Would Be Greater if Rail System Were Not Built

Right on schedule, the Sunday newspaper hit the streets with another big and bold headline on page one written for maximum impact to make the average citizen wonder if building rail transit is worth the price.

Here's the main headline and its subhead you can read without a subscription: Transit system cost estimate could be way off, report says  The city’s financial plan did not include possible increases to support TheBus and Handi-Van services in the future

It isn’t until you read the story’s final paragraphs on page 13 that you learn subsidies for TheBus and Handi-Van services would be higher without rail than with it!

Burying information deep in a story that diminishes the impact of an alarming headline is so ingrained in newspaper culture that we doubt it’ll ever change. But a different newspaper – maybe the one that died, leaving Honolulu with only one daily paper – might have played the story differently:

Rail will control future transit system subsidies, city says  The project's financial plan predicts higher taxpayer support if system isn’t built

Professional headline writers would do a better job, but then, they’d never write that one – not when presented with a story that doesn’t bring in this fact until the 24th paragraph, six paragraphs from the end. That’s not a knock on the reporter; other levels in the hierarchy influence the Star-Advertiser’s rail coverage.

Worse without Rail
It’s clear that another pattern emerges from all the stories on the rail project: Honolulu rail will produce positive results in a number of areas that have received little coverage -- by reducing congestion from levels it would grow to, by dampening the increase in taxpayer support for transit, by channeling growth predictably in station-centered communities, and so on.  For a number of reasons, Oahu would be worse off without rail than with it.

That’s a reasonable conclusion regarding transit subsidies, since Honolulu’s population will be tilting toward the aged end of the demographic scale as the decades unfold. We’re already one of the “oldest” populations in the country, so future generations of the elderly will rely on transit much more than today.

Rail therefore emerges as an ameliorator of future trends and conditions. Even anti-railer Cliff Slater admits congestion would be worse without rail than with it. Today’s new issue about future transit subsidies and what they’d grow to without rail actually turns out to be a positive for rail, not the negative suggested in today’s headline.

Yet another Pattern
The numerous journalistic “scoops” the Star-Advertiser is enjoying thanks to the information request process has pushed the rail project into a reactive mode.

Today’s editorial – Rail needs to add seats and optimize experience -- says the recent report recommending more seats for passengers “should have been publicly released and been made accessible online” rather than have the issue explode onto page one.

While we still think the alleged insufficiency of seats has been blown way out of proportion by rail opponents, the editorial strives to make the point that pre-emptive release of project information is the right course.

That at least might put an end to the “death by a thousand paper cuts” that rail seems to be confronting week after week.

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