Monday, May 14, 2012

What Does Honolulu Rail Have in Common with The Golden Gate Bridge? Opponents Fought Both Projects with Virtually the Same Arguments

San Francisco without the Golden Gate Bridge is nearly unthinkable today, yet the project’s supporters in the early 1930s had to overcome a boisterous opposition that predicted economic failure and environmental ruin.
With the iconic structure’s 75th anniversary being observed this month, the San Francisco Chronicle reviewed the anti-bridge arguments in yesterday’s edition with an eye on another transportation controversy – the California High-Speed Rail project.

It’s also no stretch to find parallels in the arguments thrown at both the bridge and the Honolulu elevated rail transit project. The paper reprinted several anti-bridge statements of the day, and we’ve taken the liberty to make the parallels obvious:

“The present plan for a [bridge/rail system] across the [Golden Gate/city] is a menace to our [harbor/community] that should be opposed by everyone who has the interests of [San Francisco/Honolulu] and its commerce at heart.”

“I do not believe it probable that the [Golden Gate Bridge/Honolulu rail project] will procure the majority of traffic that is now going or every will go between [San Francisco/Honolulu] and [Marine County/Kapolei].”

The paper noted the vehemence and skepticism in the early 1930s “toward a bridge now taken for granted” and quoted several of the leading opponents.

“I am in favor of a bridge across the Golden Gate if it can be physically and feasibly built,” said one skeptic, adding that while he insisted he wasn’t against the concept of building a bridge, he couldn’t support this particular concept.

You hear that all the time among rail opponents, including the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “Don’t misunderstand us,” they say. “We support rail transit – just not this project.”

Bridge to BART to Rail
Wrote John King in the Chronicle: “What is striking in retrospect isn’t how wrong the arguments turned out to be…but how familiar they still sound: We need more data, the details we do have can’t be trusted, and there are better alternatives.”

Bringing it back home again, mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano says a bus rapid transit plan he’s borrowing from the Harris Administration is a better alternative than elevated rail. It’s hard to know why he thinks that, because he’s refusing to release any details of the 12-year-old BRT plan, which was never implemented due to severe local opposition.

The Chronicle’s urban design critic continued: “Look no further than the ongoing campaign against California’s high-speed rail system. Before voters approved bonds to help fund the effort in 2008 (the same year Honolulu voters OK’d the steel-on-steel charter amendment), opponents depicted it in ballot arguments as a ‘boondoggle’ that would benefit ‘out-of-state special interests.’ Since then they’ve used the environmental review process and other venues to challenge the financing, ridership projections and route of the still-evolving plan.

“There were similar objections to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system before its approval in 1962 by 61 percent of the voters in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Nine years later, as opening day approached, critics were more virulent than ever.”

The parallels with Honolulu rail are obvious. Oahu voters approved creation of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation to build and operate the rail project by a 63-percent majority less than two years ago, yet Mr. Cayetano and his anti-rail cadre say they know better – without telling us exactly why.

There Goes the Neighborhood
Critic King continued: “’BART will be especially effective in destroying neighborhoods,’ warned the weekly Bay Guardian, which also called the system ‘the ultimate money drain.’ But wait, there’s more: ‘It’s designed to handle peak-hour commuter traffic, which occurs only three hours per day… The other 8,160 hours per year much of its equipment will lie idle and unproductive.’”

King wrapped up his retrospective of the anti-bridge campaign by noting that “…the what-ifs and worst-case scenarios can blind us to the fact that projects of a certain scale often reshape the landscape in ways we can’t imagine. And sometimes, the landscape is the better as a result.”

That’s how Honolulu rail’s supporters see this project – restoring mobility to a community that’s lost it; reducing travel times and adding the element of predictability that’s impossible today; providing a rationale way to plan and provide residential and commercial opportunities around rail stations; ensuring that all income levels are treated equally (something high-occupancy toll roads can’t possibly do), and creating thousands of jobs during construction and for decades beyond.

The Chronicle’s King gave the final word in his story to environmentalist Ansel Adams:

“I remember thousands of people fought the Golden Gate Bridge. My mother used to think it was ‘just terrible, ruining the Gate.’ Well, the bridge is up. I personally don’t think it was so bad. I think it’s a very majestic structure.”

Mr. Adams’ environmentalist followers in Honolulu may never see “majesty” in Honolulu’s 20-mile elevated rail infrastructure, but that’s the kind of praise we can imagine future train riders using as they completely avoid surface-street traffic while gliding above Oahu's ever-increasing congestion.

There’s another Honolulu rail parallel with the Golden Gate Bridge: The view will be pretty remarkable, too.


Anonymous said...

It's uncanny how the dubious arguments against the bridge are so strikingly similar to those against rail in Honolulu today.

But what's also unmistakable is the degree of level-headed maturity in the Chronicle piece that's been missing in the all-too-often inflammatory and alarmist "reporting" and flat-out dishonest commentary here.

Doug Carlson said...

I agree. How can the media just shrug off Cayetano's opaqueness about his BRT plan? What's going on here?

If anybody has insights, please add them here. It's hard to get a grip on this uncritical behavior by the media without dipping into the "conspiracy theory" pit.

Anonymous said...

I don't buy into conspiracy theories, but it sure is hard to see a reasonable explanation for the near total lack of scrutiny of rail opponent motives (especially private transportation providers and mainland right-wing think tanks), the financial backers of the federal lawsuit against rail (has anyone ever even asked where the money is coming from to pay the pricey posse of lawyers?), or the complete lack of any details from Cayetano about any semblance of a viable alternative to rail (will he even go through the motions of proposing something?).

If some alleged alternative is actually unveiled, will it receive any real scrutiny, or will it just be the usual he-said, she-said nonsense, in which two sides of an argument are uncritically treated as equals, even if one side is completely preposterous?

Doug Carlson said...

You're asking questions the media should be asking. Thanks for adding to the list. I have to think the media leadership eventually will demand answers from the anti-rail candidate. And if they don't, we'll know there's a conspiracy afoot after all.