Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Anti-Railer Randy Roth Reveals Rather Shallow Understanding of How Managed Lanes Work, Says Tolls Aren’t Necessary, but That’s How They Work!
The morning talk show host continues to bring opponents and supporters of the Honolulu rail project together on his program, a refreshing change from years of one-sided rants against the Honolulu project.
Yesterday’s guests were Honolulu attorney Bill Meheula and University of Hawai`i law professor Randy Roth. Both are participants in the lawsuit that intends to kill rail; Mr. Meheula represents Pacific Resource Partnership, an intervener in the lawsuit, and Mr. Roth is one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs.
The one-hour discussion covered numerous issues within the rail project. We’re highlighting one of them today, since it reveals Professor Roth’s basic misunderstanding of the nature of traffic congestion, rail’s role in avoiding it and how his favorite rail alternative – managed lanes – actually work.
We’re leaving Mr. Meheula’s comments for another day to focus entirely on Professor Roth’s statements about managed lanes – also known as High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes.
Professor Roth: Bill started by saying that it’s just not fair that the people in west Oahu are suffering. Clearly there’s a traffic congestion problem. It’s a huge problem. Just as clearly, rail is not a solution to that problem. As I mentioned before, there’s a quote from the (Environmental Impact Statement) – “traffic congestion will be worse in the future with rail than what it is today without rail.” There are traffic congestion solutions. Rail, we know, is not one of them. The supporters of rail have acknowledged in the EIS that it is not a traffic congestion solution.
This observation by Professor Roth is a good place to begin today’s deconstruction. He and fellow plaintiffs Cliff Slater and Ben Cayetano are obsessed with this quote from the EIS. They treat it as if it’s a shameful admission that had to be pried out of the city. In fact, it’s an honest acknowledgement that congestion increases with population growth. It’s not shocking to say that congestion will be worse in the future than it is today – with or without rail. It’s the truth.
The logical comeback to Professor Roth’s assertion that “solutions” exist for congestion is “Where?” Where has congestion been solved? And what is Professor Roth’s definition of a “solution” – free-flowing traffic during rush hour on surface roads used by most commuters?
If that’s what he means, common sense says he’s badly mistaken. Congestion exists everywhere in the American urban environment, and nowhere has it been solved. That’s today’s Strike One against Professor Roth’s approach to transportation planning. His radio comments continue:
Professor Roth: On the mainland, there are 30 different cities that have completed or are in the process of completing what’s called managed lanes. Our Zipper Lane is an example of a managed lane. If you want to build a separate managed lane, you can do that, but with managed lanes, instead of going 27 miles an hour, which is how fast the rail would go, with managed lanes, people in buses, people from west Oahu who are suffering in traffic congestion now and they say, that’s wrong, and we need to find something else, with managed lanes they can be going 55 miles per hour, 60 miles an hour….
It’s not a concept, it’s a proven traffic congestion solution that costs far less than what the rail would cost, even if you do have an elevated portion, but with elevated, instead of 40 vehicles an hour, which is what you have with the train, you can have four thousand vehicles an hour – not just buses, not just emergency vehicles, not just low-emission cars. You can have way more capacity than what you could ever do with the rail system.
Professor Roth touts 30 mainland cities where congestion allegedly has been solved, but which cities are those, exactly, that have made congestion go away? And what about this elevated managed lane concept? Where would they be elevated on Oahu? How high would they be? How wide? How much property would have to be seized for on- and off-ramps? Would there even be any access ramps along the route – and if not, how would transit-oriented development be achieved using BRT?
The radio show’s host took several calls during listeners, and one of them pressed Mr. Roth for answers:
Caller “Paul” near the airport: I’d like to ask Professor Roth if he wouldn’t confirm a couple things for me. One, managed lanes he says are going to be the way to go instead of building rail. They’re toll roads, isn’t that right, Professor Roth? And the way the lanes are kept flowing freely is to continue to increase the cost of the toll until the people who can’t afford it don’t get on it, which allows those who have the wherewithal to pay the toll to have a free ride into town. Isn’t that right? (Background: UH highway expert Panos Prevedouros has written that “higher tolls are necessary to discourage overloading.”)
Professor Roth: Some cities have allowed the excess capacity to be used by people in vehicles regardless of how many people are in the vehicles by paying a toll. Other cities have not done that. We could take whatever approach made the most sense to this community. I personally think it makes a lot of sense, once you’ve got buses and van pools, car pools, emergency vehicles, I think it makes an awful lot of sense to say look, if you’ve got a low-emission car, if it’s rated at 30 miles per gallon and better, then you can ride for free. There are a lot of different ways this has been approached across the country. The Federal Highway Administration actually has some real clear guidelines in terms of the priorities the community should set and might consider, but it’s up to individual communities. If we don’t want toll roads, we don’t need to have ‘em even if we choose to go with managed lanes.
The caller tried to have Professor Roth agree that raising tolls is how managed lanes keep traffic free-flowing, but the show’s host cut off that line of questioning and allowed Professor Roth to continue:
Professor Roth: We’ve got managed lanes. The Zipper lane is a managed lane. It’s not a toll road. We don’t have to have...if you want tolls, then I would encourage you to make that argument with respect to Zipper lanes or whatever else it might be. A lot of people don’t want tolls, and if our community doesn’t want tolls, then there’s no reason in the world why we need to do that.
Caller: And that’s why the (managed lane) will not be effective, if you do not have a fee. That’s why Panos Prevedouros says that. The second point to acknowledge is cars won’t be going 55 miles an hour once they get off the toll road. They’re gonna be caught in the same traffic that people are caught in now on the surface roads. So there is no guarantee that these alternatives to rail can deliver people at a predictable time as rail will. Would you acknowledge that?
Professor Roth: No, I think you’re flat wrong. And I think if you read the FTA’s report on the bus rapid transit project that Mufi Hannemann killed virtually the day he became mayor, I think you’ll determine that there’s a lot of recognition from outside Hawaii that enhanced BRT makes way more sense than this rail project that we’re talkin’ about.
Talk about a Laugh-Out-Loud moment. Mr. Roth wants managed lanes – aka toll roads – then backs away from tolls when pressed to acknowledge that tolls are required to make managed lanes work.
He then says that if Honolulu residents are opposed to paying a toll to drive to work, other restrictions to access those lanes would be required, such as the current high-occupancy vehicle requirement for the Zipper Lane.
What He Wants
To summarize Professor Roth’s radio presentation, he says non-rail travel options have “solved” traffic congestion in 30 or more cities on the mainland, but there’s no evidence congestion has been eliminated in any of them.
He advocates managed lanes, which fellow anti-railer Prevedouros says require ever-increasing tolls to keep them free-flowing, but he backs away from tolls if the community doesn’t want them. When pressed about the inevitability that vehicles using managed lanes must eventually return to at-grade traffic-clogged streets, he denies it and reverts to a decade-old report that might as well have been written a generation ago.
Professor Roth wants more than an option to sitting in traffic congestion. He wants an option that will let him continue driving his car while avoiding that congestion. In truth, there is no car-based way to avoid congestion, which simply can’t be managed away.
Rail will be the non-car option to congestion – the only way west Oahu commuters will be able to accurately predict their arrival time before they begin their rail commute. Construction already has begun on the rail option. Killing the project because it doesn't allow the commuter to drive his or her car makes no sense at all.