Thursday, May 10, 2012

Non-Shocker of the Week: Civil Beat Finds CEO Grabauskas Tells the Truth, Plus Letter to PBN Urges Focus on Cayetano BRT, Not Rail’s ‘PR’

We’ve made a big deal of Civil Beat’s Fact Checks – e.g., the Gang of Four’s poor record on sticking to the facts – so we have to call attention to the online service’s latest investigation.
Dan Grabauskas, the new CEO of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, has been making a strong case for Honolulu rail’s financial plan since his first day on the job a month ago. One of his more eye-popping statements to Civil Beat was that the project is like “a house with no mortgage” because all construction costs, including interest on the financing, will be paid off shortly after the entire 20-mile line is up and running.

That contrasts big time with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) that Mr. Grabauskas used to run in Boston. “I come from an old system where 30 percent of our operating budget (in Boston) goes to debt service,” he told the City Council. “….you’ll be having an operating obligation but no debt service,” he said, because rail’s construction is being paid for by the local GET tax surcharge and a future $1.55 billion from the Federal Transit Administration.

The Truth

Civil Beat checked out the 30-percent figure, and long story short, Dan Grabauskas was telling the truth. Writes CB: “The truth is that on average over the past 20 years, 28 percent of MBTA’s operating budget went toward debt payments. That’s close enough to 30 percent for us to give him a grade of   TRUE   in his first Fact Check.”

A prediction: Everything Dan Grabauskas says about rail today, tomorrow, next month or next year will be  TRUE . That’s what he’s obligated to do tell the truth. It’s opponents like Cliff Slater and Ben Cayetano who shy away from the facts by bending a truth – i.e., “congestion will be worse in the future with rail than it is today” – thereby turning that inevitable result of population growth into a negative for rail.

Open Letter to PBN

Dear Mark Abramson:

As Pacific Business News’ lead writer on the Honolulu rail project, you must necessarily be aware that anti-rail mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano is refusing to openly discuss his proposed rail alternative – the Harris Administration’s bus rapid transit plan that was written in 2000 and was trashed for robbing lanes from car drivers and giving them to buses. According to his interview with the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle, that's what the new/old Cayetano BRT plan will do, too.

You undoubtedly know Mr. Cayetano told Civil Beat in mid-March that he’d release details of his alleged BRT plan by mid-April. He missed that self-imposed headline without explanation, and I summarized that history in another Open Letter this week to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s B.J. Reyes, who also is covering the mayoral race.

The most recent piece I’ve seen that you’ve written about rail was last Friday’s story headlined: Honolulu rail supporters tell Cayetano to ‘Be Nice Ben’  It began:

“The PR campaign being waged by rail supporters and opponents of Honolulu’s $5.17 billion project has gone into a kind of ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ mode.” You wrote about the tongue-in-cheek campaign launched by rail supporter Pacific Resource Partnership urging Mr. Cayetano to “be nice” after the candidate said rail supporter Senator Dan Inouye was “out of touch.”

All well and good. Everybody’s had a good laugh by now, but here’s what doesn’t get covered when you focus so much on these sideshow issues: Mr. Cayetano still refuses to release details of his BRT plan – and from my former-City Hall reporter perpective, Mark, that’s what you need to report.

Your readers need to know exactly what Mr. Cayetano proposes to do if he kills mobility-restoring, travel-time-reducing, development-guiding, transportation-equity-ensuring and job creating Honolulu rail.

Have you asked him? And if you have, Mark, what was his response? Civil Beat’s been asking and reporting that the candidate doesn’t respond to those inquiries. Did he respond to you? If so, what will Mr. Cayetano’s BRT be like? How much will it cost, where will it run, how many lanes will it steal from car drivers and where? The list of questions goes on and on. And if he refuses to respond, don’t your readers need to know that?

At the end of your story last Friday you asked: “Can an online (‘Be Nice Ben’) petition get someone to change their behavior or influence what they say? I’m guessing not.”

I’m guessing that Ben Cayetano won't volunteer details about his BRT plan throughout the remainder of this mayoral campaign unless reporters like you press the issue. That is remarkable, Mark, and in the spirit of journalism's traditional role, it would be helpful if you’d report from that perspective – one that many other reporters have used in this town over the years….just not so much lately.



Anonymous said...

Doug, I've been following your blog for some time now, and I appreciate your view and attempts to educate the public.
This morning's paper (5/10) talked about an attempt to kill HART by the city council. Why are they trying to politicize HART, when the whole deal was to keep politics out of it? What's next? The Board of Water Supply?

Thank you so much for having a forward-looking outlook. I just wish most of our elected officials would stop only thinking of themselves and "now", and realize there are future generations that need this.

Doug Carlson said...

Thank you for the thumbs-up, Anonymous. I'm not in a position to comment on what the City Council does for the most part. My role is to answer questions about rail, supply pro-rail talking points and generally challenge those outside of government who are determined to confuse the issues.

I will say though that leadership within the City presumably requires long-term thinking and planning, since rail is being designed to operate at least for 100 years. That's a perspective that extends far beyond the election cycle, so let's hope what you describe as the politicization of rail doesn't do any long-term damage to the project.