Sunday, August 31, 2008

Pro-Rail Sentiments Offset Slater on HOT SEAT

Just when we thought the Labor Day weekend might be stress free (our sign-off to the August 29th post below), here’s Cliff Slater in a reprise of the Advertiser’s HOT SEAT feature, which was the subject of the aforementioned post.

We’ve long found Mr. Slater’s relationship with this newspaper remarkable. Throughout the ‘90s and this decade, readers have been treated to his recurring columns with the consistent theme on why Honolulu shouldn’t build a fixed guideway transit system. We often took issue with Slater, as in our response to one of his columns in early 2004.

We weren’t alone in wondering in letters to the editor why the paper gave this particular private citizen so much space, but today’s HOT SEAT column produces a different reaction. You can’t read through it without concluding that Slater over the years has really hacked off a lot of citizens who see him as perhaps the biggest obstacle to transit progress, a point about which he undoubtedly is proud.

Take this comment from “Pualani”:

“Slater has stated twice (in this HOT SEAT dialogue) that ‘tolls act as a deterrent.’ So Slater and his group want taxpayers to subsidize new roadways that only the wealthy will be able to travel on while the rest of us sit in traffic gridlock with no other alternative? No thanks!” 

Slater is nothing if not consistent – or consistently inflexible – in his anti-transit advocacy. He consistently discounts fixed guideway transit as a viable option for commuters who desire only to travel quickly between points A and B without encountering traffic.

One Size Fits All

Slater’s argument comes down to an assertion that all citizens have multiple destinations each day – school, the dentist, the cleaners, the grocery story, etc. We all have days like that, but what he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge is that there are thousands and thousands of residents who simply want to go 20 miles to and from work without wasting an hour each way in traffic. The side trips to the grocery story can wait until the end of the day.

When he says, as he did in the HOT SEAT column, “People are not dumb; individual transportation saves time and time is money,” you have to conclude he’s never sat on the H-1 town-bound at 6:30 a.m. or ewa-bound at 5 in the afternoon.

Without the grade-separated alternative of rail, our population is trapped by traffic. Of course there will still be a need for the private automobile to make all those side trips, but that doesn’t disqualify the legitimacy of affordable grade-separated rail transit. Pualani’s right; Slater’s HOT lanes and their tolls keep the lanes open by punishing drivers to the point they can’t afford that exclusive highway.

The Last Straw

One also gets the feeling from today’s column that Mr. Slater knows the tide has turned against him and that his anti-rail arguments are threadbare. The polls certainly show that to be the case, and so does he with one of his last comments in the HOT SEAT column:

“…rail is all about campaign contributions. Once they (the public) understand that, watch out!”

There it is – the last ditch argument of desperate debaters who sense they’re losing the argument and therefore encourage cynicism about their opponents’ motives.

We actually like Cliff Slater enough to feel a little embarrassed for him. We also think the public is smart enough to see through his arguments.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Hot Seat Revisited: Dissecting Slater

Let’s roll back the calendar a couple days and examine some of the positions advanced by long-time transit opponent Cliff Slater as the guest on the Honolulu Advertiser’s “HOT SEAT.”

One of the first questions sent by a reader addressed the spike in transit ridership due to historically high gas prices. Slater’s answer: “Ridership is only up 3 percent over last year across the nation despite what the city says…. Over the long haul transit continues to lose market share.”

But it’s not the “long haul” that’s at issue. As gas prices passed $4 per gallon and approached $5, people reacted and rode transit. Demand for oil is increasing, the supply will diminish, so businessman Slater surely can see the consequences – higher gas prices and more transit ridership. The “new haul” favors transit as riders say the high costs of driving, maintaining and parking their cars make transit attractive.

But if Slater has his way, Oahu commuters – unlike those who switched to transit on the mainland – won’t have a fast, convenient and affordable transit alternative to gas when the price creeps up to $10 per gallon someday.

And that’s a key difference between the pro- and anti-rail people. Rail supporters don’t expect everyone will ride the train; in fact, they know a large majority of day trips will still be by car. When Honolulu’s system is up and running, rail will be an option available to those who don’t want to drive.

But the anti-rail faction in essence is demanding that NO ONE rides the train. Slater’s choices for future commuters are the freeway, toll lanes or surface streets and roads. His vision for Oahu is continued reliance on gas-guzzling cars and buses, with no room in the mix for a renewable-energy-powered train that bypasses all surface traffic.

Population Growth & Ridership

Another reader kept the focus on record transit ridership levels across the country. Slater’s answer: “Both locally and nationally ridership has been drifting sideways while the population keeps increasing. Check APTA figures and the census data for population…..”

For as long as we can remember, Cliff Slater has been banging away on this comparison between population growth and transit ridership and concludes each and every time that transit is a bust because ridership allegedly isn’t growing apace with the population.

Suburbia is where growth is happening near major urban centers, right? Anybody visit Sacramento lately? New communities are everywhere; e.g., a tremendous amount of open space out by the airport and between Arco Arena, home of the NBA Kings, and Sacramento’s former “city limits” is now filling up with housing – all built conveniently along the major highway and feeder roads.

Sacramento is expanding its transit system, but highway commuting understandably is growing faster than transit commuting. According to Slater, that means transit is a loser, when in fact, it’s simply a reflection of how urban centers have expanded. Ask Sacramento residents if their city needs and relies on transit, and the answer is a resounding Yes!

We could go on, but Labor Day weekend has started according to our watch. We hope anyone still interested enough in this debate to read critically about it will do that with the Slater HOT SEAT column. As we noted near the end of the session, transit opponents have a consistent mantra: “My way IS the highway – and too bad if you want rail.” That’s the definition of inflexibility.

Have a good stress-free holiday, everybody.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Second Poll Shows Strong Support for Rail

Today’s Advertiser reports on a 59-38 percent public opinion poll split in favor of Honolulu’s proposed rail transit project.

That’s right up there with LBJ over Goldwater (61.1 / 38.5), FDR over Landon (60.8 / 36.5%) and Nixon over McGovern (60.7 / 37.5%). In other words, these are landslide numbers that reveal an enough-with-the-delays mindset among those who were polled by the respected local firm of OmniTrak Group Inc.

Will this result be duplicated on November 4 when Oahu citizens apparently will have a chance to vote on the issue? Time will tell, but in the words of many out there who’ve watched and waited for this mobility-enhancing project to begin, “It’s about time!”

We do have to agree with long-time rail opponent Cliff Slater, who complains in the story about the wording of the poll in asking respondents whether they favored or opposed rail after hearing this statement: “The City and County of Honolulu has approved developing a fixed-rail mass transit system as a means to reduce traffic.”

The question could have been worded more artfully. As Yes 2 Rail and others have said consistently, traffic “reduction” isn’t what any transit project can do over the long haul if you just look at gross numbers on the roads now verses the future.

A Matter of Personal Choice

Traffic will increase; that’s a no-brainer. What rail will do is reduce the number of cars on the road compared to the number that would be clogging traffic if rail weren’t built. That’s a plus, but more importantly, commuters who choose to ride – and that’s the key; it’ll be a matter of personal choice – will completely avoid traffic. Life will be markedly better as noted in a letter in today’s Advertiser by a Makiki resident.

So bring on November 4. The people deserve their say. And in the finest traditions of Hawaii elections, it’s time to Get Out the Vote.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

And Your Point Is? Comparing Honolulu Rail to H-3 Just Another Way to Obfuscate Main Issue

Point | Counterpoint today examines another anti-rail letter that raises mock issues while never getting close to the important one – mobility for leeward side commuters.

The writer wants readers to be alarmed about something, but it’s hard to know about what. The letter doesn’t say why the involvement of some engineering personnel with both the H-3 highway project and Honolulu’s proposed rail system should be alarming.

Raising non-issues has become the SOP of the anti-rail faction because it’s safer than trying to defend their HOT Lane alternative to the rail system. HOT Lanes simply dump cars and buses right back into the traffic mix that the rail system will avoid completely.

Rail will separate commuters from surface traffic, and in doing so, it will restore mobility to thousands of commuters who choose to use it. The number of vehicles on surface streets and highways will be fewer with rail than without, so even non-riders will see a benefit.

Here’s an SOP we all can use in evaluating the quality of letters in the papers: Judge them by the solutions they propose to restore mobility. If there are none, you’ll know the letter is just another exercise in obfuscation.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Transit Is Not an Either-Or Issue; Highway and Road Improvements Will Continue Next to Rail

Yes 2 Rail today takes a Point | Counterpoint approach to covering the ongoing debate over the Honolulu Rail Project. Anti-rail and pro-rail advocates continue their attempts to win over public opinion in letters to the editors. Today’s P | P examines an anti-rail letter in today’s Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

The writer asks: “…shouldn’t we study the amount of traffic reduction $5 billion spent on roads will buy?” and thereby leaves the impression that money will be spent either on rail or on roads.

Not so. The Oahu Regional Transportation Plan includes 65 major improvement projects that will be undertaken by 2030. Of those, 34 (53 percent) will relieve congestion. There will be 8 transit projects, or 12 percent of the total. In other words, hundreds of millions of dollars (if not billions) will be spent on roads over the next two decades in addition to the Honolulu rail project.

Picture This

The writer ends his letter: “Picture rail in place. Do you see me riding the rails to leave empty roads for you to enjoy, or vice-versa? Unless it’s the latter, you have the wrong picture.”

We don’t know why he thinks Oahu’s roads will ever be empty; nobody is predicting that, so his future scenario seems off. But go ahead and picture rail in place as he suggests.

Picture also if you can what the cost of driving your car and parking might be in a future scenario that also will include significant traffic on the highways. Does the writer really believe people will choose to drive if the alternative is traffic-free reliable and comfortable commuting by rail?

It’s clear he won’t make that choice, but it will be a personal one. Many many others will choose rail for convenience, cost and reliability. Picture that instead.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

As Vote Nears, Mobility Stands Out as Key Issue

With a November vote on rail looking like a certainty, Oahu residents are in for an education on transit from opposing perspectives whether they want it or not. Our goal here is to help convince you to say Yes 2 Rail, and this week we’ve been posting about the so-called “Y” words – or “Why” words. 

We started off with Renewability to highlight the potential for alternative energy to eventually power the rail system. The notion that ocean power and other renewables will generate the electricity to run the train has to be a winning point for many citizens.

We next focused on Reliability. Equally compelling to many is the prospect of knowing exactly when you’ll arrive at your destination when you use rail. None of us can do that today when we have to drive more than a few miles through Honolulu. With rail, you will.

Mobility is our final “Y” word. It’s a quality enjoyed by modern cities around the world. Honolulu would find it difficult if not impossible to keep pace with the demands of the 21st century if its citizens have no alternative to the traffic that impedes travel between Oahu’s major population and employment centers.

The Transit Trifecta

The Three Y’s add up to a Trifecta of pro-rail reasoning. The rationale put forward by the anti-rail minority (according to the recent public opinion polls) just doesn’t address them.

Their so-called alternative – managed lanes – would keep all commuters in cars and buses and eventually bogged down again in the traffic.

Undecided voters are undoubtedly going to dwindle in number as the weeks go by. Yes2Rail hopes they keep the Three Y’s in mind when they mark their ballots in November, should it come to that.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Rail’s Promise: Arriving On Time, Every Time

Today’s post continues our series on the so-called “Y” words that we first mentioned a few days ago for the benefit of those still undecided on whether to back Honolulu’s rail project. We’ve already touched on Renewability and turn today to Reliability.

If you drive in Honolulu, you already know what a crap shoot it is to accurately predict when you’ll arrive at your destination. Surface streets or freeway, it makes no difference; traffic can block your progress when it’s least expected.

Many of us have scratched our heads as we sit in a jam on H-1 on days when “it shouldn’t be like this.” We recall a Saturday morning several weeks back when the highway was clogged for no apparent reason other than everybody wanted to be on it at once.

Rail will be different. Anyone who chooses to ride the system through the urban corridor between ewa and downtown will know their exact time of arrival before they even set foot on the train. Grade-separated transit is the only transportation mode that can do that – well, aside from short trips by foot.

It doesn’t take a crane smashing into an H-1 overpass to stall traffic for hours. A heavy downpour or a gravel spill can create a miles-long jam (like the one in the Star-Bulletin photo at the top taken by Dennis Oda).

Rail riders will be completely unaffected by surface disruptions. Reliability will be their reality, and this “Why” alone is probably enough to swing many undecided commuters over to rail.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Solid Reason to Back Rail: Environmentalism

Our most recent post here at Yes2Rail suggested that citizens still undecided on Honolulu’s rail question might consider three “Y” words – mobility, reliability and renewability. Today we look at the last of the three, the one that should appeal to anyone with environmental concerns.

Hawaii depends on imported fossil fuel for more than 90 percent of its energy requirements, more than any other state. According to a story two days ago in the Honolulu Advertiser, 78 percent of the electricity generated here is produced by burning oil.

Our need to transition to renewable energy sources therefore is greater, too. We know all too well what real or perceived interruptions to oil supplies can do to our gas and electricity prices.

Electricity vs. Gasoline

At the heart of the rail debate is whether commuters will use electricity or gasoline to travel between the ewa side and Honolulu – whether there will be an “electric train” option to automobiles and buses.

Every new wind, solar photovoltaic, biofuel and ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) project that comes online on Oahu displaces oil and coal to generate electricity. (Our graphic today is an artist’s conception of a floating OTEC plant, which we’ve promoted frequently at our Hawaii Energy Options blog.)

The faster the transition, the less dependent we’ll be on imported oil. Honolulu’s “electric train” undoubtedly will be powered by green energy by the time the system is completed.

If running the train with solar energy stored in our tropical ocean appeals to you, so should rail. Read up on OTEC as Hawaii’s energy game-changer and future energizer of Honolulu’s fixed guideway project.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Reaching the Still Undecided: 3 Arguments Back Rail as Necessary for West Side Commuters

Caught between the highly partisan pro- and anti-rail factions are Oahu residents who have yet to decide which side to join. Three issues may help them appreciate the views of those who support rail -- mobility, reliability and renewability.

Mobility is the primary reason to build a fixed guideway system. Commuters who travel between ewa and downtown Honolulu don’t have it today thanks to traffic that continues to worsen. With rail, commuters who choose to ride will get their mobility back.

Rail will be reliable, with predictable arrival times. Only grade-separated transit delivers riders to their destinations on time, every time.

Since rail will run on electricity, it eventually will use “green power” as our society transitions from fossil fuel to renewable forms of electricity generation – wind, solar, municipal waste, ocean thermal energy conversion, biofuels and perhaps others. Rail will reduce pollution and be a natural market for renewable energy.

The anti-rail opposition generally avoids addressing those issues head-on. Citizens still searching for answers on the project might well ask opponents about them.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Inventive Opposition: Anti-Railers Cite ‘Graffiti Magnet,’ Air Fares as Reasons to Fight Project

Anti-rail letters have the field to themselves in today’s Advertiser. Granted, other days have seen only pro-rail letters, but it makes you wonder how the editors choose what to run. Surely letters on both sides of the issue are pilled high in their office on any given day. New Rule: “Balance letters on both sides of the major issues.” (Bill Maher, we need you.)

One anti-rail letter ends with the expectation that “those concrete towers will be magnets” for graffiti, thereby requiring cleanup, along with all the other expense. Another concludes by connecting the dots between higher oil prices, higher air fares, less tourism, reduced GET revenue and rail’s doomed future.

We agree that life has its ups and downs, many of them unanticipated, and problems require solutions; there’s nothing new in that. So roll up your sleeves and think beyond your upset.

Where’s the Beef?

The key subject today’s writers circumvent and fail to address is simply this: How do they propose moving commuters through Honolulu’s urban corridor back and forth to the ewa side without ensnarling them in traffic? They never, never, never address that issue – just the perceived deal-killers.

People (including the Stop Rail Crowd who filed suit yesterday): Move beyond your outrage and come up with viable solutions to Oahu’s mobility problem. And don’t simply roll out that old non-starter -- grade-separated but eventually-bogged-down-in-traffic Lexus Lanes. They won’t accomplish the mission, which is to give commuters an alternative to sitting in traffic that will enable a predictable time of arrival at their destinations -- each time, every time.

Maybe tomorrow’s letters will include something from the opposition that addresses the mobility factor. Somehow, we think not.  (Homework assignment: Click on the Comment to our August 3rd post, below, and then the links supplied by "billso.")

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Closer Rail Gets, the More “Way Out” the Alternatives Are; a Sea Tunnel Around Oahu?!

Maybe it’s a sign of desperation among the anti-rail crowd that their alternatives to a straight-shot transit system through the urban heart of our island are by their own description “way out.” Take the commentary – please -- in today’s Star-Bulletin.

With public opinion solidly behind the City’s project, the magnetic levitation supporters are in the letters column again, but for sheer bravura, the cake goes to the commentary’s suggestion:

“…a tunnel-like construction of a new freeway encircling the island in the ocean just offshore with entry and exit spokes every so often.,,, This "circle the island tunnel" could be built over decades in segments. If the use of this tunnel system were restricted to EV traffic only, then much lighter and cheaper tunnel specifications and ventilation systems might be feasible. The construction of the tunnel need not hurt our surfing if planned properly.”

It’s tough to know where to begin with such a suggestion – the “tunnel to nowhere” issue, the environment, the cost, the surfing, the effect on tourism, the sheer “way-outness” of it. Credit goes to the newspaper for giving more than 800 words to this contributor.

A column half that length focused on electric vehicles (the piece’s initial hook) and that subject alone would have been solid. EVs are what we’ll all be driving someday, but just replacing gasoline-powered cars with EVs will do nothing to restore mobility to Oahu’s commuters.

But keep those cards and letters and commentaries coming in, anti-rail people. They make for entertaining reading, even if they don’t come close to addressing that major issue – mobility!