Friday, October 30, 2009

Beware Monsters of Misinformation at Halloween

It’s wise to watch your step at the end of October. Ghosts and goblins are everywhere, eager to startle and shock you into giving up something of value – usually candy.

These Halloween monsters are harmless, but others out there are intent on scaring you into giving up something more valuable – your common sense. You find them in the Comments forum below many of the online stories in the Honolulu newspapers.

A current example is the Comment section containing reactions to the Mayor’s “State of the Rail” address. They reveal an extraordinary level of misinformation and misunderstanding about the Honolulu rail project.

An Example

Here’s a typical post by a rail opponent, followed by our response:

Rail does NOT benefit everybody for the following reasons:
1) You assume that EVERYONE lives at a TRAIN STATION. How do people take the Train to go to the BEACH, Costco, Sea Life park, etc. You need a CAR or BUS.
2) You assume AGAIN, that people can ride Rail EVERYWHERE. The Rail line DICTATES where you can go. Where you REALLY have to go- the rail DOESN'T.

Response: Both of the writer’s presumed assumptions are false. Nobody at the City has ever suggested rail will go “everywhere” or serve “everyone.” None of the successful rail systems the world over go everywhere and serve everyone. The writer has (intentionally or otherwise) misunderstood rail’s purpose, which is to be part of an overall multi-modal transportation system. Some commuters will ride it 10 or more times a week. Others will never ride it. And that’s OK. To call rail a failure because it won't take every rider to the doorstep of his or her destination – Costco, Sea Life Park or anywhere else – is reaching hard to find a reason to oppose the project.

The writer also has missed the point made repeatedly by the City that rail will benefit everybody by reducing traffic congestion by about 20 percent from what it would grow to without the system.

Ironically, most of the posts beneath the newspapers’ stories validate the need for the City’s rigorous public outreach efforts. Silence in the face of such extreme and misinformed accusations about the project would be exactly the wrong tactic.

Honolulu Mayor Accepts Groundbreaking Delay on Rail Project To Provide for a Complete Review

Mayor Mufi Hannemann at his State of the Rail address.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s major rail-oriented address yesterday was a summary of earlier false starts on grade-separated projects here that have given way to the recent four years of progress to finally build a system.

Announcing a willingness to delay groundbreaking “for at least a month” beyond the late-2009 scheduled event, Hannemann said the delay will “allow the appropriate federal, state, and community organizations to cross the T’s and dot the I’s to bring to fruition what House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair, Congress Jim Oberstar, has described as ‘the most exciting transportation project in the nation.’…”

“But while I’m willing to wait to address these environmental matters, the longer we delay, the greater the chance the money will go away. The longer we delay, the greater the economic disarray. I speak, of course, of some in the state Legislature and administration desperately searching for a way out of their budget woes and eyeing our transit tax revenues as an easy take-away.”

Avoiding the Kibosh

Hannemann alluded to a final legal hurdle the project must surmount – acceptance of the Final Environmental Impact Statement by Governor Linda Lingle, as required by law for government-driven projects:

“By rejecting the EIS, the state could put the kibosh on our work and end four years of Herculean effort. Governor Lingle said recently—in reference to the Superferry and other projects—that groups oppose things, but rarely offer alternatives. She said, and I quote, ‘There were consequences for the political leadership here not stepping up and coming out strong and saying, We need this. If there were steps that weren’t followed, let’s get that handled; but we’re for this alternative for our people.’”

As remarkable as it may seem, the Governor could kill the project by drawing an X across it, even after all the T’s and I’s have been crossed and dotted.

Maintaining the Legacy

It’s hard to imagine she’d do that. As things stand now, her legacy would appear to be the state’s relatively recent positioning vis-à-vis agreements and procedures to advance renewable energy development and reduce Hawaii’s crippling dependence on imported oil – something the rail project will help accomplish.

A refusal to accept the FEIS would put a different spin on the Lingle legacy – no doubt about it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mayor Schedules ‘State of the Rail’ Address

As Honolulu’s rail transit project picks up speed and momentum, Mayor Mufi Hannemann has scheduled a “State of the Rail” address to update the public on its progress.

“The Honolulu Rail Transit Project is one of the most significant infrastructure projects in City history and will provide jobs and a boost to the state’s economy,” Hannemann said. “We have achieved several milestones recently, such as entering Preliminary Engineering and awarding the first construction contract.
“Rail transit is becoming a reality, and many more activities will occur soon. My administration is committed to keep the public informed about the Project’s progress, and now is an excellent time to let the public know what to expect in the coming months.”

Hannemann’s address will be given from 1:30-2 pm tomorrow (10/29) at Mission Memorial Auditorium on the Civic Center campus. It will be televised from 6:30 to 7 pm on KGMB-9 and KHNL-8; a rebroadcast is scheduled for 9:30 pm Friday on KFVE-5.

Council Votes Keep Honolulu Rail on Track

If we had a sound capability on Yes2Rail, we’d plug in the pleasing sound of a rail car closing its doors and quietly accelerating down the track. Yesterday’s three votes by the Honolulu City Council moved the project along closer to groundbreaking, which is still scheduled for late this year.

As each one of these necessary steps is successfully achieved, West Oahu commuters are that much nearer to leaving their cars and traffic concerns behind in favor of taking Honolulu’s elevated train to and from work in one of the most scenic places on Earth.

From where we sit, the view both inside and outside City Council chambers looks great!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Star-Bulletin: ‘Foolish’ Not To Build Rail Now

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin today continues the daily newspapers’ editorial support for Honolulu’s rail project. Disagreeing with rail critics who urge a go-slow approach, the paper says “…prompt action is warranted to help Hawaii’s economy and keep costs down.” The editorial concludes:

“The reliability of future federal funds is backed by U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye’s chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee. It would be foolish not to capitalize on the circumstances at the very time stimulus is needed.”

The Honolulu Advertiser took a similar position in an editorial on October 14.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Appreciating Paris Metro’s Teachable Moments

Our stroll today on this little vacation we’re on didn’t start out to be about transit, and in fact, most of it wasn’t. But we couldn’t help but notice as we walked beneath the Paris Metro along Boulevard de Grenelle that grade-separated transit was what we were seeing – the kind Honolulu will build.

Although most of the Paris Metro system is below ground, some segments are above grade – and we can’t help but emphasize that none of it runs in the mix of traffic. The French got that one right from the very start, way back at the end of the 19th century.

Only when we looked at today’s photos did we notice the subtle way that foliage is used to soften the view of the elevated structure. That’s especially true when you back away from the line a block or so, as seen below.

Other characteristics were much more obvious -- especially how street traffic and the Metro trains coexist without any concern whatsoever for one another, as the photos suggest. It would have been even more obvious if we had stuck around long enough to take a shot showing cars and trucks passing beneath the elevated line as a train passed over the intersection of Grenelle and Quai Branly.

Our final contribution to the little photo gallery is another form of grade-separated transit – accentuating the vertical!

Notice how the trees partially mask the structure.

At a distance the line is even less obvious.

Cars pass beneath the Metro line at Quai Branly.

A few minutes later, a Metro train passes overhead.

Another view of busy street traffic below the line.

And if cars had been there, still no problem.

A different kind of overhead transit.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Honolulu Phase 1 Contract $90 Million under Plan

Mayor Hannemann announces Phase 1 award.
The first indication that the down economy might produce savings on Honolulu’s rail project came back in August, when Mayor Mufi Hannemann said bids were coming in lower than the forecast. Today’s awarding of the Phase 1 contract confirmed it.

Kiewit Pacific Company submitted the winning bid for the 6.5-mile link from East Kapolei to Pearl Highlands -- $483 million, or about $90 million less than the original estimate.

"This award shows that we have been conservative in our estimate and our financial plan is very sound," Hannemann said in a statement. "This is why we need to get this project going now during a down economy because of the lower costs and the need to create jobs."

In an effort to realize more savings, the City now will solicit bids for Phase 2 two years earlier than planned. That phase will be 3.9 miles from Pearl Highlands to Aloha Stadium.

The project is scheduled to break ground in December; Phase 1 is targeted to be operational by 2012. The entire 20-mile rail line is planned to be operating between East Kapolei and Ala Moana Center in 2019.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Getting Graphic about Grade-Separated Transit

We write here a lot about grade-separated transit, but the term is starting to sound like transportation jargon. Some readers are probably asking what it’s all about.

A couple photos will illustrate our main point about grade-separated transit – that if you run your transit vehicle at a different level than cars, buses, trucks, bicycles, motorcycles and pedestrians are on, you eliminate the possibility that transit commuters can be delayed by traffic congestion. Have a look:

Boulevard St-Germain, Paris, 3:48 pm, 10/20/09
Odéon Metro Station, beneath Boulevard St-Germain,
3:53 pm, 10/20/09
Honolulu’s future train will be grade-separated, but instead of running below ground as the Paris Metro does, it will be elevated about 30 feet above the city's streets. And there’s another significance difference: The Paris Metro can be a pretty boring underground ride, but Honolulu’s train will give riders exceptional views of two mountain ranges, US Navy ships in Pearl Harbor, civilian ships entering and leaving Honolulu harbor, passing showers and their rainbows, sunrises and sunsets, Honolulu's city lights, sailboats at sea and all the other sights Oahu’s south shore has to offer. Boring it won't be, which leads us to conclude:

Vive la différence!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Overpass Mishap Causes Another Massive Traffic Jam; Honolulu Rail Riders Won’t Have that Worry

A worker chips away at impact spot in Friday's overpass strike.
Anyone traveling east through town on Honolulu’s H-1 freeway around noon on Friday knows all about the two-hour-long stoppage caused by yet another overpass accident.

Yesterday’s jam wasn’t nearly as long as the infamous 2006 Aiea Heights pedestrian overpass strike. Thousands of homeward-bound drivers were stuck in traffic then for eight hours or more; some gave up and spent the night in Waikiki.

Friday’s accident similarly involved a truck hauling construction equipment that was too high to clear the overpass. This strike won’t require an overpass tear-down – the fate of the pedestrian bridge – but it shows how unpredictable it an be to drive across town.

The Beauty of Grade Separation

Which brings us to a familiar topic here at Yes2Rail: Grade-separated transit is the only way to travel through an urban area with a predictable arrival time. They issue timetables, after all! Grade-separated transit allows you to anticipate when you'll arrive according to your departure time – every time, no matter what’s happening with ground-level traffic.

Honolulu’s’ future elevated rail system is designed to operate completely free of traffic congestion, like yesterday's (above). Commuters will be unaffected by road and highway delays – whether caused by accidents or the usual drive-time congestion.

That’s why our favorite new slogan for Honolulu’s future rail system (though not original) is “Elevated Transit – the Only Way to Fly” – and it will seem like flying compared to being stuck in the same old commuting-by-car routine.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

‘tiser’s Editorial Urges Council To ‘Stay on Course’

It’s getting so we want to turn to the editorial page first! Today’s Honolulu Advertiser editorial makes for good reading if you’re a supporter of the City’s rail transit project.

Other recent pro-rail pieces on the Advertiser’s opinion page include its September 27th “Let’s Move On and Make Rail Happen” editorial and last Sunday’s Hot Seat interview with Don Horner, CEO of First Hawaiian Bank.

Noting the Federal Transit Administration’s recent go-ahead to the project for Preliminary Engineering, the editorial captured the critical nature of this most recent step:

The importance of this Federal Transit Administration approval must not be underestimated. Permission of the FTA to proceed with preliminary engineering means that the Honolulu project has risen to the top of the stack of "new starts" proposals vying for federal dollars. That signifies a consensus among key FTA officials that the project meets the high bar set by federal regulations for its initial planning and financial blueprint.

The project looks to be meeting its schedule for a December groundbreaking, and that likely will happen if the editorial’s advice to stay the course is heeded.

Pearlridge Station Workshop
The second community-based workshop on the Pearlridge station will be held Thursday evening, 5-30-9:00 at the Pearl Ridge Elementary School, 98-940 Moanalua Road. The project team will present preliminary sketches and designs for station entrances. Area residents are invited to participate and provide feedback to the team. For information on the free workshop, call 566-2299.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Feds OK Honolulu Rail for Preliminary Engineering

The Federal Transit Administration has given Honolulu a green light to begin Preliminary Engineering for the local rail transit system. We put PE in caps because FTA authorization for this phase is a key step along the way to groundbreaking for the project, scheduled late this year.

Senator Daniel K. Inouye made the announcement:

“This is a critical federal milestone and an important accomplishment in the development of Honolulu’s Rail Transit Project. The competition for Preliminary Engineering among our nation’s cities is fierce. This approval is, in large part, a credit to Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s administration, and a result of the Honolulu project meeting the stringent federal planning and financial justification requirements.”

Future steps include publishing the Final Environmental Impact Statement, scheduled for sometime this month. The Draft EIS was released last November and prompted hundreds of comments and suggestions that the City has built into the Final document.

Here's the Advertiser's story (with a video of Mayor Mufi Hannemann's news conference) on the FTA's approval of Preliminary Engineering; the Star-Bulletin also has coverage.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday Roundup Includes Groundbreaking Target

Reading the Sunday Advertiser can be a “Serenity Now!” moment for rail transit advocates. Some of us would turn to Cosmo Kramer’s incantation for stress relief that he made memorable in a particularly hilarious Seinfeld episode.

It seemed as if Sunday couldn’t go by without another downbeat assessment of the project, and the demand for tight headline writing often blackened the picture. But today’s page one head in the print edition (the online version is different) has it right:

“December groundbreaking still in sight for rail project”

What follows is a pretty straightforward timeline of the key hurdles that must be cleared for a December groundbreaking. The story quotes some of the usual skeptics but also has a City Council member’s assertion that moving the project forward means “not looking back on all the decisions that have already been made.”

That could have been a reference to the eleventh-hour proposal by some that a portion of the 20-mile rail route be built at street level. That option already was studied and discarded for its inability to provide fast, frequent and reliable transit service.

A Banker’s Assessment

Elsewhere in the paper, First Hawaiian Bank CEO Don Horner gives a strong endorsement of the project in the Focus section’s “Hot Seat” feature. Horner was asked if Honolulu can afford the rail project:

“I had the privilege of chairing a committee for Business Roundtable to look at this subject when the heated debate was going on, and just before…we all voted for rail. I think the short answer is yes…. What people don’t understand is this system is designed to be a 16-year full payout. So it’s just like a 15-year mortgage. So at the end of 15 years, this is fully paid off.”

Another questioner asked why business should support rail, particularly those not on the route:

“…The gridlock we are experiencing on the west side is not sustainable. That’s where the growth is. I mean the same question could be asked why should we build H-3? Why should we widen Kalanianaole Highway? Why did we widen that road all the way to Hawaii Kai? So I think it’s the west side’s turn. The west side has not ever been endowed with a lot of infrastructure, historically. So, I think it’s good that we start on the west side….”

Horner’s “Hot Seat” is worth a read for its coverage of other topics, including this comment about the Wall Street disarray that led to the economy’s troubles:

“There’s investment banking and Main Street banking. I’m a Main Street banker; I’m not a Wall Street banker. I don’t understand all those fancy things. That’s why we are not in trouble. We do things pretty simple. We loan money to people who can pay us back. That’s the reason I love Hawaii, because most of the people in Hawaii pay you back.”

No wonder Cosmo Kramer always wanted to be a banker.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Digging Deep in Remote Places for Transit Insights

A shift today from socko to subtle – from images of train-vehicle collisions to a more nuanced message about why at-grade rail isn’t right for Honolulu’s future system.

An Arizona Republic online story describes Tempe’s options for connecting with Phoenix’s at-grade Metro light rail.

“Tempe’s streetcar would look similar to Metro light-rail trains but would be smaller, carry fewer passengers and weigh less,” says the story. “The streetcar would be able to stop as often as every block, which is much more frequent than light-rail stops.”

In other words, Tempe's at-grade option would be slower, smaller, less efficient and (socko) vulnerable to collisions with other surface traffic.

That’s quite a contrast with Honolulu’s rail system (groundbreaking late this year) which will be a high-speed, high-volume, highly safe and highly reliable option for traveling the 20 miles between East Kapolei and Ala Moana Center.

You can’t say the same for at-grade transit, and there’s nothing subtle about it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

When Safety Is Crucial, Think Elevated Rail

We’re at risk of becoming a bore on the subject of rail safety by mentioning it so often, but when you get right down to it, what could be more important? We’ll put safety at the top of the list, and we have to believe our fellow citizens do, too.

That’s why we continue to post here about the built-in safety of Honolulu’s elevated rail system, which is scheduled to break ground late this year. By being above vehicular and pedestrian traffic, Honolulu’s trains won’t “interact” with cars, trucks, buses and people.

Phoenix’s METRO light rail has been operating since December and is averaging five collisions a month, which has prompted the operators to launch a Light Rail Safety campaign called Stay Aware, Stay Safe. Signs posted along the 20-mile route (at left) remind drivers of the ever-present danger of a collision, and the system’s website carries this cautionary warning:

"At any time of the day or night, you can find yourself near an operating light rail vehicle or a METRO train consisting of two or three vehicles connected together. Each METRO vehicle is 90 feet long and weighs more than 100,000 pounds. Now is the time to learn and practice the rules of light rail safety."

Honolulu’s elevated system will require no such warnings, because its trains won’t intersect with a single street, crosswalk, bike path or highway, unlike the proposal being circulated around town for at-grade transit.

“Safety is our most important product” is a shop-worn marketing phrase, but it’s also an assertion that will distinguish Honolulu’s future rail system.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Theory vs. Experience at Heart of Rail Debate

Today’s Honolulu Star-Bulletin carries two columns about whether Honolulu’s rail system should be built at ground level or elevated, which is the current plan.

The columns are of approximately the same length. The difference? One is written by an architect who whose main argument favoring at-grade rail is its alleged “flexibility.” The other column favoring an all-elevated system is by the man who runs Phoenix’s at-grade rail.

Read both, and as you do, consider which person has the qualifications and experience to know which version of rail will be most beneficial for Honolulu. To us, there’s no contest.

Richard Simonetta is the chief executive officer of Metro Rail, which began operating its 20-mile at-grade system in December. Here are the key statements in his commentary in support of elevated rail for Honolulu:

Surface rail works quite well in the Valley of the Sun because we have relative low density and wide arterial streets with ample room for the trains and cars to share the right-of-way.
From my observations, the same conditions do not apply in Honolulu. Widening streets to incorporate a rail system would seriously disrupt communities and be enormously expensive. With the density of development that already exists along your route, hundreds of businesses and residences would be dislocated for right of way. Surface rail would most likely result in the removal of traffic lanes, which would inevitably increase congestion where the desire is to reduce congestion.
The elevated system Honolulu has planned avoids this. With support columns placed in the roadway median, it won't consume through traffic lanes. And while it will require some right-of-way acquisitions, they will be far fewer than a surface route would require.
Honolulu's elevated rail system operating on an exclusive trackway will have other benefits. It will be much faster than surface rail because the elevated trains won't have to compete with other traffic at intersections.
The Phoenix light rail system crosses 149 signalized intersections and takes 65 minutes to travel 20 miles. Increased speed also means more frequent service and more ridership. Honolulu's elevated rail is projected to carry 100,000 riders a day when fully operational. Our system carries about one-third of that.
Finally, an elevated rail line will also be safer for rail passengers, motorists and pedestrians. The Phoenix surface rail line has averaged five collisions per month since opening last December, resulting in personal injuries, costly damage to trains and vehicles, and service delays to passengers. (An earlier post here has graphic examples of these collisions.)
In contrast, the elevated, automated SkyTrain system in Vancouver, British Columbia, has operated for 23 years without a single accident.
I urge Honolulu to keep moving forward with your elevated rail system. You only have one opportunity to get it right.
In my opinion, you are making the right choice and your community will reap rewards for years to come.