Thursday, June 28, 2012

Understanding Honolulu Rail Project’s Big Benefit Involves Going Beyond the Opponents’ Rhetoric

Quick, answer this: Do you believe building Honolulu rail will result in less traffic congestion?
If you answer Yes, you’re correct. And if you answer No, you’re also correct. How can both answers be correct? It’s confusing, right?

Since Yes2Rail exists to provide information about the Honolulu rail project that helps educate the public, let’s take this whole issue apart, piece by piece.

First, can we all agree that Oahu’s biggest traffic problem exists on streets and highways that run east-west through the urban corridor? At least that much should be obvious; Honolulu’s worst-in-the-country traffic congestion is on those thoroughfares, so although this first point is not in doubt among most residents, it’s a key piece in understanding the traffic congestion issue.

Another point most would not disagree with is that Oahu’s population will continue to grow over the coming decades, just as it has in decades past. Another 150,000 to 200,000 people are expected to be living on the island by 2030, and the vast majority of them will be living in the long-and-lean urban corridor between town and the ewa plain.

Point three: As the population goes, so goes traffic congestion. Those additional residents will be driving vehicles, so the number of cars on the island will also increase, resulting in increased congestion.

Number four: Oahu doesn’t have space in the east-west corridor for more highways, and there’s little if any evidence that residents are enthusiastic about building them. Aside from some tweaks here and there – a new Zipper lane (created out of existing freeway space) and repainting lanes on the H-1 in town to narrow them – we have what we have. (Even if a new highway were built, it would soon be choked by congestion, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Finally, using sophisticated computer modeling that has been enhanced and improved over the years, the Honolulu rail project anticipates a daily ridership in 116,000 passengers in 2030.

Without rail, those people would be traveling on streets and highways to reach their destination along the corridor – either on TheBus or in cars and other vehicles. Another projection: There will be 40,000 fewer vehicle trips each day in 2030 than there would be if rail were not built.

More people driving their cars on essentially the same network of streets and highways in 2030 will produce more congestion than we have today. Congestion’s growth is inevitable, as most of us would agree.

And if we agree on the five basic points discussed above, we should be able to agree on this, too:  Without rail, there will be more congestion on Honolulu’s streets and highways than with it. Rail will reduce congestion – plain and simple. Even anti-rail leader Cliff Slater says so (see below), and since this much is obvious, the Yes answer at the top obviously is the right one.

But we also said you’d be correct if you answered No. How can that be?

It should be obvious by now that both answers are correct depending on how you view the facts.  Rail opponents are fond of saying congestion will be reduced by only 1.3 percent, a benefit too small to justify such a large expenditure. But here’s how they get to that figure:

They calculate the reduction in daily trips (due to drivers becoming rail riders in the corridor) and compare it to the total number of daily vehicle trips around the entire island. It’s a neat trick that accurately describes rail’s effect on total traffic everywhere on the island – the Windward Side, North Shore, East Honolulu, Mililani, the Waianae Coast, everywhere.

But as for describing rail’s true impact in the most congested traffic corridor in the country, it fails miserably. Rail’s actual reduction of vehicle hours of delay (VHD) in that corridor is expected to be 18 percent, not 1.3. (Note: See July 5th post for an update and clarification on the 18-percent issue.)

When you consider that VHD in the corridor is reduced by about 11 percent when the University of Hawaii is out of session, you begin to appreciate rail’s true impact on congestion. Like Mr. Slater said before the City Council, “We don’t disagree at all that rail will have an effect on reducing traffic congestion from what it might be if we did nothing at all.”

Rail's Biggest Benefit
But that’s not what you hear him and his fellow opponents say in their anti-rail campaign. They promote a misleading message that, while accurate, also obfuscates why rail is needed – because it will restore true mobility and improve travel times, not only for riders but also for drivers. We wrote about it here yesterday.

Opponents also always ignore this essential fact, which is rail’s biggest benefit: Residents who ride Honolulu’s elevated train will avoid all congestion as they travel through the east-west corridor. For them, congestion will be a big zero.

Rail will be a piece of transportation infrastructure that’s missing on Oahu today but which is found in all progressive cities around the world – a congestion-free mode of travel, either above or below street level. Decades from now, daily living on Oahu would be unimaginably difficult without elevated rail, with no alternative to massive traffic congestion that can only continue to worsen.

A final comment: Today’s Yes2Rail mini-essay may be the most important of the 772 posted here in the past four years because it cuts to the heart of the anti-rail campaign’s prominent rhetoric and exposes it for its manipulative qualities. (Visit our "aggregation site" and the section under Mr. Slater's heading for a compilation.)

Understanding the congestion issue requires more than a 30-second message on TV or radio, and we thank you for taking the time to read Yes2Rail.

1 comment:

Roy Kamisato said...

Myth number 1 through 50. Honolulu can't afford rail. The Honolulu rail system will be fully paid for by the time the half percent GET expires in about ten years. Maintenance costs are higher for buses than rail. In other words it will be more costly to run and maintain an equivalent bus system when compared to rail. So if one is concerned about future costs supporting rail is your only choice.