Friday, February 26, 2010

Just As Honolulu Rail Coverage Seems Balanced, Honolulu on Brink of Having Just One Daily

As we said here five days ago:

“Rail coverage by Honolulu’s two newspapers reminds us once again why it’s so important to be a two-newspaper city. One continues to splash rail stories that have remarkably little heft to them, while the other seems content to report on the process without contributing hysteria.”

Guess which one looks almost certain to go out of business.

Shock is the most common reaction we’ve heard to the news that the Honolulu Star-Bulletin is acquiring the Honolulu Advertiser from Gannett Corporation. Honolulu has been the country’s only major city with competing daily newspapers, but that seems about to change.

Both papers treat the news as the blockbuster it is in today's editions, and dozens of employees in the newspapers' newsrooms, back shops, advertising and circulation departments now face troubling days ahead about whether they’ll have jobs much longer.

What of Rail Coverage?

Their concerns trump just about any others, but we can’t help comment here that the implications for the Honolulu rail project are not inconsequential. Our February 21 post focused on the “all puffed up” stories (think Jerrry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt) on page one of the Advertiser, whose news hole (unlike the editorial page) seems devoted to the “view with alarm” school of journalism.

Like many other days, the Star-Bulletin carried nary a word about that which bothered the Advertiser so much last Sunday – concerns that seem laughable when you take time to think through those stories' topics.

Even if the Bulletin is purchased by an outsider and survives, we’ll be watching to see whether the Advertiser’s coverage of rail becomes more rational, more accurate and less alarmist about rail issues in general under its new ownership – which under the sale's terms will be the current Star-Bulletin’s management. One can hope.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

AIA ‘Spinning’ Extends to its Own Internal Survey; More Said They Favor Elevated Rail than At-Grade!

We focus so much attention here on the American Institute of Architects Hawaii Chapter’s credibility because Governor Linda Lingle seems to be relying on the AIA so much. Her official website devotes considerable space to the AIA presentation on January 18 that she hosted in the State Capitol. (The links to Governor Lingle's website became obsolete when her successor took office.)

Should the Governor be concerned about the AIA’s representations? We think so and have posted three times in the past week on statements made on a local public television program by an AIA member a week ago tonight.

We called attention to apparent willful misrepresentations about the environmental impact process, the speed of at-grade trains and the dangers to other vehicle traffic when rail is built at-grade.

Today we’re going back to perhaps the biggest AIA misrepresentation of them all. The local chapter surveyed its membership last June with an emailed poll. To bolster the chapter’s campaign against Honolulu’s planned elevated rail system, here’s how its website spins the results:

“A total of 90/144 member responses (62.5%) favored either at-grade or below grade through the downtown urban core. A total of 41/144 members (28.4%) indicated their preference for elevated rail through the urban core.”

What the summary doesn’t tell you – but clicking on the actual survey results does – is that more AIA members said they favored elevated rail than at-grade rail – 28.5% for elevated and 24.3% for at-grade. And if “spinning” is the issue, you can make the case that 68.7% favor a grade-separated solution over ground-level rail.

Using this survey's results, the AIA chapter has gone to the public with a misinformation campaign favoring at-grade rail (see referenced Yes2Rail posts, above) even though the poll showed lower support for at-grade rail than the other two alternatives!

That's why the Governor is urged to use caution in evaluating what the AIA chapter is communicating to her and the community. More than ever, it’s obvious the at-grade campaign is championed by a small minority within the chapter that is intent on confusing the public about the most important construction project in the state’s history.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

AIA Once Again Misrepresents and Ignores Higher Danger to Street Traffic Posed by At-Grade Transit

Today’s post continues the dissection of last Thursday’s “Insights on PBS Hawaii” television panel discussion on Honolulu’s rail project. We previously looked at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) representative’s statements about the Environmental Impact Statement process and how he was contradicted by three others on the panel. Yesterday's post concentrated on the implausibility of the AIA claim that its proposed at-grade system could carry as many passengers and do so nearly as quickly as the City’s elevated plan.

Today’s issue is safety, which we’ve previously noted has been ignored by the AIA. We’ll pick up with host Dan Boylan reading a question sent in by a viewer:

Boylan: “Commaaina wants to know via Twitter, Peter: 'The AIA ignores the poor safety of at-grade systems. Phoenix had 52 accidents in its first year. It mustn’t be built here.'”

Peter Vincent: “And the City has ignored the accidents and the safety record of, say, the model Vancouver SkyTrain system, and Mr. Okino has said to me personally that there’ve been no accidents there….”

Council Member Gary Okino: “I didn’t say there have been no accidents, but it’s not….”

Vincent: “…when Sean Hao’s Advertiser article upon research indicated there have been 10 accidental deaths in Vancouver, OK, so there are unfortunately accidents with any system. The good news, and being for a rail system here, rail has a very low incident rate compared to other modes of transportation. So rail, being elevated (or) at-grade is a much safer way to travel than most other ways.”

Upon Closer Examination

The viewer’s question specifically addressed at-grade’s relatively poor safety record by noting the Phoenix system’s accident-a-week rate in its first year of operation. How does the AIA’s Peter Vincent respond?

He completely avoids the obvious thrust of the at-grade safety issue and then obfuscates it by protesting that “there have been 10 accidental deaths in Vancouver….” His source is Honolulu Advertiser reporter Sean Hao, whose inaccurate reporting on rail and selective use of quotes has been noted in this blog.

We’ve made our own inquiries about Vancouver’s safety record. Doug Kelsey, president and chief executive officer of British Columbia Rapid Transit Company, Ltd., which operates and maintains the Vancouver SkyTrain, says there have been “zero accidents caused by the technology” on the system.

Kelsey says SkyTrain has learned from the few regrettable incidents on its system and installed an intrusion system that triggers an alarm when it detects someone falling off the platform. (SkyTrain was recognized late last year as “Best Organization” at the Fifth Annual Lieutenant Governor’s Awards for Public Safety – British Columbia’s highest safety honor.”)

What also comes through is that Vancouver's accidents have been "personal" in nature and not collisions, which is the major issue with at-grade transit. As City Transportation Services Director Wayne Yoshioka said at a January press conference:

“Let’s go back logically and look at this. You’re elevated. You’re totally separated from the roadway. You’re in a protected environment and completely separated out… What cars are flying at that level above the ground? And what people are flying through the air at that level above the ground? As opposed to an at-grade transist that’s crossing active streets with active vehicles turning in front of the train, with pedestrians crossing in front of the train?”

Perhaps the AIA’s representative thinks he’s doing his organization’s bidding well by sidestepping the obvious fact that no cars, no trucks and no buses have crashed with SkyTrain, but it’s even more obvious that he’s selling something that’s not true.

At-grade transit systems are much more prone to accidents than grade-separated systems. By rolling at-grade and elevated into the same broad “rail” category, Vincent blatantly misled the viewing public during last week’s program.

And that unfortunately characterizes the AIA’s campaign for at-grade rail here. As noted in yesterday’s post, the AIA pooh-poohed the time difference between an elevated system’s speed and that of a relatively slow at-grade experience.

But there is absolutely no way a train operating on the ground and traveling on this map’s red route can move through the heart of Honolulu at anything close to the speed of an elevated train using the blue route on the map. There’s just isn’t.

The AIA would do us a public service by ending its semantic tricks about the speed, safety, reliability and capacity of its proposed at-grade train. One small group of architects apparently holds aesthetics above all other considerations. (See our January 29 post for the AIA’s internal poll’s remarkable results showing that elevated actually received more support from the AIA’s membership than at-grade!)

The rest of us surely want safety to rank much higher on the priority scale than how the rail system “looks.”

Monday, February 22, 2010

The ROTC Drill Sergeant Had It Right: ‘You Can’t March Your Platoon Faster than the Slowest Man’

Funny how things said to you decades ago can come back like pearls of wisdom to put current issues in perspective. Take the architects’ insistence that Honolulu’s rail system could be built both at-grade and elevated.

About a million years ago, ROTC cadets at my Iowa high school heard our program’s active-duty sergeant shout out this nugget so often I can still hear his voice:

“Gentlemen, you can only march your platoon as fast as the slowest man!”

The message was absolutely clear. Try marching faster than your unit’s capability and you’ll end up with disorder and chaos. With that as background, here’s an exchange during last Thursday’s “Insights on PBS Hawaii” TV panel discussion show on the Honolulu rail project.

We started our review of the program a few days ago and now pick up the program during a discussion on whether the partially at-grade system proposed by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects would have the same carrying capacity as the City’s proposed all-elevated 20-mile system between East Kapolei and Ala Moana Center. Host Dan Boylan directed a viewer’s question to Peter Vincent of the AIA's Rail Task Force:

Boylan: “Peter, someone wants to know: Does the light rail proposal change the per-hour capacity?”

Vincent: “Yes, somewhat, but it exceeds the demand. In other words, the persons per hour per direction in the EIS proposed by the City is 63 hundred. It was subsequently increased to 81 hundred. The (AIA proposal of) light rail transit – three cars of approximately 90 feet each running at 3-minute headways (the time between trains) – would be slightly over 9 thousand people. Maximum capacity if the headways were increased (sic) down to say a maximum of 2 minutes would go up to a capacity of 12 thousand passengers per hour per direction, so it exceeds the anticipation of the City.”

Councilman Gary Okino: “Logically it just doesn’t make sense. An (elevated) train that travels (an average of) 30 miles per hour, which can go 60 miles an hour, rather than a train on the ground that can average only 10 to 15 miles an hour, how can you say that has more capacity than the elevated system? Logically, it just doesn’t make sense.”

Vincent: “The system that was proposed by Phil Craig, the transportation consultant that we’ve been consulting with and (who) wrote a report that Kamehameha Schools, did quite an in-depth study, and his analysis – which requires further study, of course – it was detailed nonetheless, and based on 50 years experience and extremely detailed knowledge of transit systems across the world, recommended half elevated, half at-grade system. Most of the area that I showed in the picture earlier from East Kapolei coming into Waipahu could and certainly should be at grade. That’s going to run as fast as an elevated system because there’s virtually no interference there. Then the system in the highly congested area of Pearl City and going into the airport would be fully elevated and thereby traveling at the same exact speed of the proposed all-elevated heavy rail system, and then going at grade. So the difference in time going from East Kapolei to downtown is only 3 minutes more with the combination light rail elevated/at-grade system, and then it slows down a bit more – another 9 minutes going from in-town to Ala Moana Center."

City Managing Director Kirk Caldwell: “Councilman Okino said if you’re going at-grade in town and you go only 14 or 15 miles an hour, the rest of the system cannot go any faster than that, otherwise all the cars are going to be piling up against each other. The beauty of a grade-separated system, whether it’s elevated or underground, is no matter what’s happening on the ground, it can go consistently (an average of) 30 miles an hour. Every 3 minutes a train will come at rush hour, every 6 minutes non-rush hour and every 10 minutes during the very slow periods of time no matter what’s happening. But if you’re on the ground, you can go no faster than the slowest car in your system. Again, (what Vincent is saying) does not make sense. It sounds great, but when you think about it, it doesn’t make sense.”

Vincent: “It works in 34 other U.S. cities.”

Caldwell: “But it doesn’t go as fast. We’re paying for a system that’s fast and efficient. We’re trying to get (people) out of their cars who live in the ewa plain to come into town. If you don’t make it fast, if you don’t make it reliable and if you don’t make it efficient, they’re not going to get on it. They’re going to drive into town.”

Former Council member Gary Gill: “They’re not going to get on TheBoat (meaning a slow train) because it doesn’t run on time and sometimes it breaks down. So, let’s not do 'TheBoat thing.’”

Summary: Comments and claims made on a “live” television show come fast and sometimes furiously, and it takes transcriptions like this one to pick out the issues that require additional reflection. Peter Vincent’s assertion that at-grade rail’s headways (time between trains) could be 3 minutes or even only 2 minutes is one such issue.

Unlike architects, transit experts will tell you headways between trains driven by humans must be considerably greater than automated trains. Three minutes between trains with humans at the controls seems highly unrealistic, and Vincent’s suggestion that headways could be only 2 minutes for at-grade trains seems fanciful at best.

Another point Vincent made needs amplification – that at-grade trains could consist of three cars, each 90 feet long. Two hundred seventy feet (3 x 90) happens to be the approximate length of the shortest block in Chinatown, and an at-grade train can’t be longer than the shortest block to avoid blocking cross streets.

But the City’s elevated system can be longer than the shortest city block because trains would be completely unaffected by cross streets, so it’s obvious an elevated system with trains that each have greater capacity and operate with at shorter headways is much more efficient in moving large numbers of people than at-grade could ever be.
A third point is the proposal Vincent alluded to by New Jersey-based consultant Craig, whose suggested alignment of an at-grade system through the heart of downtown Honolulu and around the Iolani Palace-Capitol-City Hall complex would necessarily require slow-moving trains -- a point we made some months ago. Check out the map of Craig's proposed route at this link.

As Managing Director Caldwell said during the show, …if you’re on the ground, you can go no faster than the slowest car…. That's pretty much what Sergeant Phillip Spinabella was trying to get across to his ROTC cadets decades ago.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Advertiser’s Front Page Resembles a Puffy Shirt; Like Seinfeld’s Garment, Stories Are All Puffed Up

Elaine (to Jerry): “You’re all puffed up! You look like the Count of Monte Cristo!” (Seinfeld episode, 9/23/93)
We usually fill this space with commentary on which rail technology is best for Honolulu, ongoing discussions on costs, reliability, safety, etc. But today the focus is on two remarkably weak “puffed up” stories in today’s Honolulu Advertiser.

Their above-the-fold headlines shout skepticism about the project: Rail falls further behind schedule (that’s the main story) and Planned transit hubs luring few investors.

Read these stories and see if you reach our conclusion – that they amount to a whole lot of empty space. For example, the investment story is explained in one 24-word paragraph that quotes City Councilman Nestor Garcia:
“It’s just too early. Once (groundbreaking) occurs then you might see action after that,” he said. “Local people are like that – seeing is believing.”
That pretty much says it all. The other story on construction delays quotes Council chairman Todd Apo with this “de-puffing” observation:
“Overall, the project is not starting as soon as we would have liked, but this does not show that there is a problem with the project itself. The FTA has already committed $1.55 billion to it. They have a draft of the EIS and they consider it a good project.”
Circumstances beyond the city’s control have delayed the project, and that's that. So what’s with this “view with alarm” style of journalism in the Advertiser’s news hole? The paper’s editorial page seems to be on an entirely different track, as seen in a February 4th editorial that lauded the FTA’s commitment.

Rail coverage by Honolulu’s two newspapers reminds us once again why it’s important to be a two-newspaper city. One continues to splash rail stories that have remarkably little heft to them, while the other seems content to report on the process without contributing hysteria.

Friday, February 19, 2010

TV Show Highlights EIS Process to Approve Rail; Panel Disputes AIA Claim Change Would be Minor

******************************************************** 7:30 pm Update: One hundred years ago today Los Angeles citizens were concerned about train safety, urged "Subway or Elevated Solution for Railroads"
Local public television’s one-hour public affairs show “Insights on PBS Hawaii” aired last night and was devoted to the Honolulu rail project. Host and moderator Dan Boylan’s guest panelists were Gary Okino, City Councilman and Transportation Committee chair; Gary Gill, former director of the State Office of Environmental Quality Control and former City Council member; Peter Vincent, American Institute of Architects’ Transit Task Force; Kiersten Faulkner, History Hawaii Foundation, and Kirk Caldwell, Honolulu Managing Director.

We’ll focus on the numerous issues discussed – including at-grade vs elevated safety – over the next few days and start with an exchange on process and whether the AIA’s assertion that a change of technology from “heavy” to “light rail” could be accomplished with minimum delay. We’ve transcribed the telecast and have attempted to quote everyone accurately, while taking some liberties to paraphrase when possible without disturbing the conversation’s thrust.

Gill: “Car-based transportation on a small island is just not where we need to be in the future. It spreads out the city way too far. It takes way more land than it should. For those who are concerned about how a rail or elevated system might look, I’d just ask him, ‘Can you look at the Halawa interchange?’ Here’s hundreds of acres with nothing but a spiral of concrete going around, and that’s what a car-based transportation system looks like.”

Vincent: “AIA Honolulu is absolutely and unequivocally pro-rail, and some people have felt that we’re trying to get it stopped… we are for the system... rail is appropriate for the (entire) country and specifically for Honolulu due to its narrow corridor between the mountains and the ocean. We don’t want to see it stopped. …We have major reservations about the heavy rail system, which is inflexible and does not lend itself well to expansion…. It should be changed to a light rail system, as has been done in some 34 other U.S. cities since 1985. We’re proposing a light rail system that is far more expandable, can run elevated. It could be the entire elevated segment as proposed by the City, in fact, but light rail has not had its day in court….”

Caldwell: “We’re ‘this close’ to finalizing our final FEIS, and now a group of architects is saying let’s come back and review the entire system, let’s do it differently. That means we’re not proceeding. That means you go back and start all over again…. That means four years probably in terms of delay. That means the legislation, which is looking at almost a half billion dollars we’ve collected in the excise tax surcharge, maybe being borrowed or actually taken away, in which case the federal government says we will not commit the one point five five billion that the Obama administration just said they will be committing to us in 2011, and the federal money may go away. That means we’re back to status quo. We have more roads, more highways, more pollution, more heating…. This discussion was had, and this man right here (Council member Okino) heard the discussion, he was part of the vote on what type of system to do, and that took place in 2006. It’s too late to have that debate now.”

Boylan: (turning to former OEQC director Gill). “As a man who knows the EIS function, is it too late? Would it be four more years if we went back….?”

Gill: “Well, through the EIS process you would probably have to submit an entirely new document. It certainly could take years, but the document itself is just one thing. The laws leading up to a funding mechanism, the decisions that would have to be taken on the City Council, it would take years.”

Vincent: “No, I disagree with that. It depends on what the change is. If there’s an alignment change, it does require a supplemental EIS, and that could take 6 months or a year. There are systems we’ve researched that have gone through major changes in their DEIS process, have taken approximately a year and are now in construction…. What we’re proposing actually is just a change to light rail, which is not even really discussed in the DEIS, that specific technology. So that technology change could happen without any revision, and the project could start as planned.

Gill: “I’m sorry, Peter, I don’t think so. It’s not discussed in that document. You can’t just slip it in between the draft and the final. I’m sorry, that would not be allowed. The federal government would not allow it. The state would not allow it.”

Caldwell: “At the forum that was hosted by the Governor in which Mr. Vincent was on the panel, they talked about putting half the system at-grade. The impacts are dramatically different at-grade than with an elevated system, and that’s where they said it would only take 6 months. We went back to the FTA and asked them if that was true. They said what former Council member Gary Gill said. It would take two years at a minimum, and they said we would not recommend doing a supplemental EIS but a full-blown EIS because the impacts are so dramatically different.”

Vincent: “But we’re not talking about the change to going at-grade. What we’re talking about is going from a heavy rail system to light rail, and that technology change is very minor and does not require revisions to the EIS. Therefore, that change could be made, and then, if portions were to go at-grade, there would be ample time to study those and amend the EIS.”

Caldwell: “So are you no longer supporting an at-grade system? I just want to get that clear. You were at one point.”

Vincent: “Portions of it, but we think it could start elevated with the change to light rail, which would allow more flexibility with no delay. Jobs could start now. There’d be more local jobs.”

Caldwell: “There would be delay, Peter. You admit it yourself.”

Okino: “…through the federal process, this is not a good thing to do. The federal process is very vigorous, and it approves a project to go ahead. It’s based on…cost-benefit analysis. If you put a system on the ground, you dramatically change the benefits of a system. You put a train on the ground, you change the speed of the thing. You can’t put a train on the ground and go 60 miles an hour (as if it were) elevated. So it changes the capacity. The cost. They downplay the cost of putting something on the ground as being cheaper. That has to go through a total analysis. I disagree that it’s gonna be cheaper, not in Honolulu. It’s gonna change all of the factors. It’s gonna change operating costs of this thing, because now you gotta put drivers on the train. I mean, there’s a whole bunch of things. It’s practically a new project once you make it touch the ground.”

Caldwell: “(An at-grade train) can go no faster than the fastest car, and during rush hour, a car goes 14 miles an hour and a bus 7, and you can’t have (a train) going faster unless it’s grade-separated.”

Vincent: (Holds up a photo of open land on the ewa plain) “If you’re on grade here, where the project is proposed to start, how fast can you go? And a light rail train can travel at the same speed as a heavy rail vehicle in this condition, and there’s three miles of this going from the ag lands in East Kapolei to…..”

Caldwell: “It looks like it’s crossing a road, so I assume it’s going to stop at some point.”

Okino: “The train travels at three-minute headways (separation) and it has to pass through the middle of downtown Honolulu, and I don’t care how clear it is out (on the ewa plain), that section in downtown Honolulu will dictate how the whole system operates.”

Summarizing: Gill, Okino and Caldwell effectively refuted Vincent’s attempts to minimize the delay of switching to a different technology, and we’re likely to see more views to contradict the AIA when the City Council delegation travels to Washington to meet with federal officials.

Vincent’s display of the photograph showing a portion of agriculture land on the ewa plain was confusing. If that’s where the AIA believes the system could be elevated (with the in-town section at-grade), why would he show the photo and imply light rail (code words for at-grade rail) could travel through this area as quickly as elevated rail?

Historic Hawaii Foundation’s Faulkner was not engaged in this portion of the debate, and we’ll report her comments later.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Rail Planning Includes Prediction of Oil Price Rise

Moving on after yesterday’s “inside baseball” journalism talk, we’re pleased to see the Honolulu Advertiser editorial today focus so positively on Honolulu rail and the energy issue: “Future shock: Oil won’t stay this cheap

Bus ridership slipped 8 percent nationally and 2 percent in Honolulu in the third quarter of last year – in part, the reasoning goes, due to job loss during the recession and lower gasoline prices compared to the same period in 2008, when the price of oil price peaked at $147 per barrel.

Oil’s price today is about $79 and seems to be bouncing along in a high-70s/low-80s range, although the one-year trend is unmistakable. A year ago today, the price was in the mid-$30s per barrel.

Few serious thinkers about energy issues doubt that oil will eventually bounce back to much higher levels than today. Quoting from today’s editorial:

“China and India are slurping oil at a furious pace, just when global supplies appear to be waning. The latest warning on this front came this month from a British task force on energy security. In its report, ‘The Oil Crunch,’ the business group warns that supplies may start a serious decline in as little as five years.”

That will be about half-way through construction of Honolulu rail. The Advertiser concludes:

“So we need to keep our eyes on the prize: building a reliable transportation system that will serve the needs of our children and grandchildren.”

Less reliance on imported oil will mean a better life for our grandkids all around, including their commuting life.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Honolulu Weekly Shifts Rail Coverage Duties

Ragnar Carlson, editor of Honolulu Weekly, writes in the new issue out today that he no longer will be personally involved in the Weekly’s coverage of the Honolulu rail project.

That’s a shame. Ragnar’s a professional journalist and excellent writer, and his decision keeps him from covering the largest construction project in the state’s history and one of the most contentious issues here in decades.

But it’s the right decision. Ragnar is my son, and I’m a communications consultant to Parsons Brinckerhoff, the City’s prime contractor on the project. Although both of us have studiously avoided discussing rail, that’s not the issue.

The issue is an “appearance of a conflict of interest.” By taking himself off the story and assigning overall responsibility to Managing Editor Adrienne LaFrance, Ragnar has removed that appearance.

As he writes today, “The beat will be in good hands.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

California Family Narrowly Avoids Train Crash; Rail Safety Must Be Priority 1 for Honolulu Project

One can be easily be distracted by politics and other issues involved in the Honolulu rail project and its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) that is nearing completion. Aesthetics and the project’s integration in the urban environment are legitimate areas of discussion, and they have been discussed.

But we’re determined here to keep the focus on one particular issue – safety. If we’re going to spend billions on a new way to move people through the city, building it with the least possible potential to injure residents ought to have a pretty high priority, wouldn’t you say?

Residents of Phoenix, AZ are increasingly concerned about safety now that their year-old at-grade rail system has recorded 52 accidents in its first year of service. Honolulu’s system has the best possible safety factor already in its design; it will be elevated and completely separated from cars, trucks, bicycles and pedestrians.

Honolulu’s crowded urban environment would be an accident waiting to happen if commuter trains were running on tracks that travel along streets, through intersections and over pedestrian crosswalks. There’s no reason to believe Oahu residents somehow would be immune to the accident-prone experience of mainland drivers.

Which brings us to yet another car-train crash – this one in Folsom, CA. A local woman fell asleep yesterday while driving near light-rail train tracks. The car ended up stuck on the tracks, and bystanders pulled her and her two draughts, 10 and 7, from the car minutes before a train smashed into the car. No one was injured, including five people aboard the train, which was slightly damaged but continued in service after the accident.

So that’s the reality of at-grade rail. Human error can’t be erased from the human experience, and accidents like this one, the one-a-week crashes in Phoenix and last week’s bus-train crash in Houston, TX would be the inevitable result of building Honolulu’s system at ground level.

Not to mention that at-grade rail would be slower, less frequent and unreliable compared to an elevated system. But rest assured, we do mention that, too.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mayor’s Youth Summit on Rail Hits a High Note

In a word, SUCCESS! Today’s Youth Rail Summit at Leeward Community College attracted a couple hundred elementary, high school and university students, and if you can judge a gathering by smiles and enthusiasm, this one hit the jackpot.

They came primarily from the leeward Oahu -- neighborhoods that will be served by Honolulu’s rail system, but Waialua on the North Shore was represented, too. So was Kailua and places in between.

A lunchtime jam by Kolohe Kai was a big attraction, and so was the prospect of winning an Apple iPod Touch or HP Netbook, but the breakout sessions showed how committed these youth are to the concept of safe, affordable, reliable and frequent rail transit in Honolulu.

We’ll let the photographs tell the story of today’s Summit. To paraphrase the participants: Go Rail Go! Here's a YouTube video showing teens riding the Virtual Train.

Honowai Elementary of Waipahu showed up strong.
Tascha Kapu (left) and Chrstina Freitas get their entry "bracelets."
Kathryn Pagaragan of Farrington High School is congratulated by City Managing Director Kirk Caldwell for her 2nd place finish in the Student Art Contest.
Hello, Farrington!
The magic of "green screen video" gave students the thrill of a virtual train ride.
A little greenery here, a little techno trickery there, and suddenly these students are riding a train.
There's nothing "virtual" about this gang's enthusiasm! From left: Heidi Neidhardt, Tracy Humann, Janee Lee and Mickey Monis.
This quartet couldn't stop trying out the green screen moves.
Kolohe Kai was the noontime attraction.
Oh, to be young -- and famous, too!
Today's "Kolohe Kai Fan Club."
Kolohe Kai
Afternoon breakout sessions broke out tons of ideas to energize youth for rail.
All together now: Go Farrington Governors!
The day's last act -- lining up for backpacks.
And the lucky winner: Riana-Lynn Laa of Nanakuli High.
Riana-Lynn and her Nanakuli High classmates.

Keep reading below for Bob Nakata's full-on endorsement of Honolulu rail!

If You Read Nothing Else about Rail, Read This!

We know the typical Oahu resident is probably “up to here” with all the talk about rail. “I thought everything was settled” and “just build it already” are typical reactions when rail comes up among people who don’t have professional pride invested one way or another in the project.

So we’re trying to be helpful in encouraging you to read one more piece – just one more commentary on why Honolulu and all of Oahu will benefit from building the rail system.

Former legislator Bob Nakata, a minister and president of Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE), has a commentary in today’s Honolulu Advertiser. Nakata and FACE are well-known for their committed positions on numerous issues, development proposals and causes.

It could be significant that FACE publicly supports rail as the Governor seems aggressively hesitant to approve the project. Nakata’s high-profile pro-rail endorsement may help give the Governor the “cover” she needs to accept the Final EIS for the largest spending project in state history.

I hope we can put aside the momentary politics and move forward quickly,” Nakata writes, summing up the circumstances that threaten this project. And though Nakata doesn't address the at-grade vs elevated issue that seems to have captured the Governor's attention, any delay in building the system above ground as planned will surely kill it, for reasons we've mentioned repeatedly at Yes2Rail that you're invited to read by clicking on our "aggregation site" link, at right.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

76 Percent of State House Urge Governor Lingle’s Quick Acceptance of Honolulu Rail Project’s FEIS

Representatives Mark Takai (Newtown, Waiau, Pearl City, Waimalu), Tom Brower (Waikiki, Ala Moana), Sharon Har (Royal Kunia, Makakilo, Kapolei, Kalaeloa) and Joey Manahan (Sand Island, Mokauea, Kalihi Kai, Kapalama)
Thirty-nine of the 51 members of the Hawaii State House of Representatives have signed a letter urging Governor Linda Lingle to accept the Honolulu Rail project’s Final EIS when it reaches her desk.

A delegation of House members made the announcement at Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s rail forum this afternoon in the State Capitol’s auditorium. It’s the same venue used by the Governor three weeks ago when she invited local architects to make a case for at-grade rail in Honolulu rather than the City’s elevated system.

Even more remarkable perhaps than the overwhelming support of the House for quick acceptance of the FEIS was the 100-percent participation of neighbor island representatives. Hannemann (at right) said the neighbor islanders’ endorsement shows they understand the entire state will benefit from the Honolulu rail project.
Rep. Mark Takai lead the effort to obtain the members’ signatures and told the standing-room-only audience, “We can’t give up the opportunity to receive $1.55 billion in federal funds.” Federal Department of Transportation officials said last week Honolulu is virtually assured of receiving that amount in federal funds for the project.

Rep. Sharon Har, whose constituents live in communities near the western end of the rail system’s route, said the Second City concept on the ewa plain was conceived decades ago, but severe traffic congestion has burdened residents of the area.

“The dream of a Second City has become a nightmare because of government’s failure to build adequate infrastructure,” she said, adding that rail transit will be a crucial part of the required infrastructure.

Hannemann said Honolulu rail is the only shovel-ready project in the state that could add 4,000 jobs to the economy in 2010. That number would grow steadily to 17,000 within five years, he said, and he emphasized the significance of last week’s endorsement of the project by DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff.

The Mayor added, “Some who have been in the transportation business a long time say they’ve never heard such a strong statement and commitment” from federal officials for a transit project even before the FEIS has been formally completed.

House Letter’s Highlights

“We, the undersigned members of the Hawaii House of Representatives, strongly request that you review and accept the final Environmental Impact Statement for the Honolulu Rail Transit Project in a timely manner once the document is released by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
“Along with dealing with our transportation woes, the Honolulu rail transit project is the biggest economic stimulus project on the horizon that will provide thousands of jobs and create tax revenue for our state and county governments to fund essential services currently being cut.
“The Obama Administration, in its budget submission to Congress, earlier this month gave the Honolulu rail project a vote of confidence by requesting $55 million in federal funds for rail in FY 2011. Peter Rogoff, head of the (FTA), told the local media his agency will sign an agreement by next year to provide another $1.55 billion in construction funds….
“The FTA informed the city that if any decision is made to change the rail system from elevated to at-grade, the FTA would have to start the environmental review process again. Our rail project has gone through five years of extensive planning and environmental review. As the FTA stated, making changes to the project now would put it back to square one and possibly halt the project indefinitely.
“The bottom line is that the FTA and the U.S. Department of Transportation see nothing at this point to stop Honolulu’s rail transit project from continuing to go forward and are committed to continue working with the city to help make rail transit a reality for Honolulu.
“Ultimately, Oahu residents in November 2008 voted in support of the rail project. The people have spoken. There is no major construction project other than rail that is shove-ready. The longer you delay Oahu’s and our state’s economic recovery, the longer you will leave our workers unemployed and struggling during this economic recession. WE, the undersigned, therefore request that you act expeditiously in accepting the final Environmental Impact Statement once it is released by the Federal Transit Administration.”
Part of standing-room-only crowd in the Auditorium.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Human Factor Causes another At-Grade Crash; Bus Runs Light, Smashes into Houston Train; 12 Sent to Hospitals, Rail Service Halted for Hours

If you’re building a multi-billion dollar transit project, do you make sure safety is priority #1, or do you build it “on the cheap” on the advice of a small group of architects and virtually guarantee people riding the train and others will be injured?

That’s a key issue Governor Linda Lingle faces right now as she mulls over the merits of Honolulu’s proposed elevated rail system. The Governor would do well to take a few moments to check in with the Houston, TX news media about yesterday’s bus-train crash.

At least two Houston television stations (KHOU and KTRK) have video on their websites showing the aftermath of a mid-afternoon crash when a city bus ran a red light and knocked an at-grade train completely off the tracks.
According to news reports, 12 people were taken to area hospitals. Houston METRO implemented a “bus bridge” to shuttle rail passengers around the crash site. Service was disrupted for hours while METRO cleared the track.

This kind of accident happens everywhere rail transit systems are built at-grade. The Phoenix, AZ system recorded 52 accidents in its first year of service that ended in December – one a week.

Once the Final Environmental Impact Statement is delivered to Governor Lingle, it will be her legal obligation to ensure that the FEIS adequately covers environmental and historic preservation issues. What she is not tasked to do is determine whether an at-grade system would be more aesthetically pleasing, which from her public statements seems to be on her mind.

But if she does stray from her legal mandate, then she surely must also take safety into consideration, and there is absolutely no question that an elevated system will be safer than a partially at-grade system some local architects are pushing.

Elevated rail will be faster than at-grade rail, more frequent because automated trains can be spaced closer together than at-grade trains with human drivers, more reliable compared to accident-prone at-grade transit and safer for all concerned, including pedestrians.

The Governor must not forget this, and we citizens have an obligation to be sure she doesn’t.

Monday, February 8, 2010

It’s the City’s Turn to Talk Rail Transit in Capitol; Mayor Hannemann Will Connect Project to Jobs

The at-grade vs elevated rail transit debate highlighted the AIA’s session in the State Capitol three weeks ago, but our bet is that the focus will be on jobs, jobs and more jobs when Mayor Mufi Hannemann takes the same stage in two days.

There’s no denying that the sooner the project is underway, the sooner construction workers and the supporting economy will realize the benefits of building Honolulu’s transit system. Even the Governor, who seems unduly influenced by the architects and their at-grade rail proposal, can appreciate the jobs argument.

We’ve spent untold hours here documenting the inherent disadvantages of at-grade transit for a variety of factors – safety, efficiency, reliability and the rest. If all this is new to you, you might want to start reading here.

The program will run from 12:30 to 1:30 in the Capitol’s chamber-level auditorium. Call (808) 768-6136 to inquire about the limited public seating.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Accepting Rail EIS Would Put ‘Jobs on Track'

An editorial in today’s Honolulu Advertiser urges overhaul of State procurement procedures so federal stimulus money can be spent quickly and create jobs for an economy that could use them now. A few sentences jump out at you:

“But just meeting deadlines is not enough when the economy needs far more jobs, and more rapidly than the state seems capable of delivering.”

Then there’s the conclusion:

“Hawaii needs a boost in consumer spending, and that requires getting jobs on track. More than ever, that must be a fast track.”

Procurement reform is the issue, but you can’t read the editorial without thinking about a big job-creation project that could launch within a few months – Honolulu rail.

“Getting jobs on track” will happen if the State Administration erects no artificial barriers to the Honolulu rail project when the Final EIS reaches the Governor’s desk. More than a few observers already have identified politics as the major player in the looming confrontation between the City and the Governor’s office on acceptance of the FEIS.

Once the EIS is submitted in final form to the Governor with approval and coordination by numerous State agencies, her acceptance will clear the way for the Honolulu rail project to begin stimulating our economy. At that late date, it will be simply inconceivable for the Governor to cast about for an excuse to deny her acceptance, such as a belief at-grade rail would be a workable option for Honolulu.

If she still has doubts, let her Google “at-grade rail accidents,” including those in Phoenix, Houston and Los Angeles. The safety angle alone should be enough to convince her at-grade transit is unsuitable for our crowded city.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Los Angeles Tries ‘Sting’ Operation To Curtail Violations along Accident-Prone At-Grade Line

An officer cites LA pedestrian after a potentially fatal violation.
The at-grade vs elevated issue debate over Honolulu’s future rail system isn’t going away soon as long as Governor Lingle continues to verbalize a preference for a lower profile project. It’s therefore understandable that we’re going to keep the at-grade accident issue alive, too.

At-grade rail has a tremendously higher accident rate than elevated rail – not surprising since the former is in the mix of pedestrian and street traffic that the latter completely avoids.

A Los Angeles-based blog writes that LA sheriff’s deputies and police cited more than 300 violations in a four-hour period yesterday morning along the city’s notoriously dangerous Blue Line, which is described as perhaps the most dangerous in the nation. An online search finds ample evidence of crashes and fatalities involving this at-grade system.

Building Honolulu’s system elevated as designed will virtually eliminate the potential for injury and death here. As City Department of Transportation Services Director Wayne Yoshioka said two weeks ago:

“You’re elevated. You’re totally separated from the roadway. You’re in a protected environment and completely separated out…. What cars are flying at that level above the ground? And what people are flying through the air at that level above the ground? As opposed to an at-grade transit that’s crossing active streets with active vehicles turning in front of the train, with pedestrians crossing in front of the train. That (comparison) doesn’t seem to make logical sense to me.”

Los Angeles drivers and pedestrians have learned the hard way why elevated transit does make sense when the option exists to achieve grade separation. That’s what Honolulu intends to do, and that’s what the Governor needs to appreciate before she derails a project that will deliver safe, convenient and economic commuting to Oahu residents for decades to come.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Editorial Lauds FTA’s Support for Honolulu Rail; Former Mayor Fasi, Long-Time Advocate, Dies

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin continues its string of pro-rail project editorials today with “Feds’ rail boost reassuring” offering. The editorial focuses attention on the one issue that is growing larger each day because of its potential to actually kill the project – Governor Lingle’s skepticism. If she does not formally accept the Final Environmental Impact Statement, that’s what will happen.

The Governor was on her favorite conservative local talk show yesterday morning and did not waver in her skepticism even after federal officials essentially endorsed Honolulu rail by including $55 million in the Department of Transportation’s 2011 budget and signaling a full funding agreement that would bring in an additional $1.5 billion in federal support.

Federal Transit Administration leader Peter Rogoff noted the involvement of 13 state agencies that have been closely involved in the project’s environmental review process without sending up alarms. “I have to be honest,” he said. “We’re finding the process of involving the governor to be somewhat perplexing.” (That approximates the reaction of federal Department of Education officials to Hawaii’s ongoing Furlough Friday mess that has reduced public school days here to the lowest number in the country.)

Doing the Job Right

Presuming the Governor’s concerns about the project’s financial plan can be overcome by ongoing positive developments, a bigger obstacle could be what she feels inside – her emotional reaction to the proposed elevated rail line.

Will the guideway impact sight lines? Of course, especially up close, and the EIS acknowledges that. But the document also notes that the impact lessens with distance, and once that distance is at least a block or two, the guideway can’t even be seen in most instances because it will be hidden behind existing buildings and structures. The same can’t be said about high-rise towers that have walled off the ocean from many locations in Honolulu.

The essential point for the Governor and her advisors to appreciate is this: Only grade-separated transit completely avoids traffic congestion. Only this mode of transit gives users a predicted time of arrival at their destinations that is virtually guaranteed. That’s why grade-separated transit systems issue timetables; their station arrival and departure times are established and maintained, in Honolulu’s case, by computer control.

At-grade transit would not be as fast as elevated rail, wouldn’t be as frequent (due to greater time intervals between trains imposed by human drivers), wouldn’t be as reliable because of inevitable interference by other surface traffic and wouldn’t be as safe due to the inevitability of accidents. Phoenix’s new system averaged a crash a week in its first year of operation.

Both the Star-Bulletin and Honolulu Advertiser have spent decades following and studying this city’s various rail projects and have consistently endorsed their elevated alignment. The sooner the Governor reaches the same conclusions, the sooner construction can begin, people can be put to work and commuters will have an alternative to wasting hours each day sitting in traffic.

Frank F. Fasi

Frank Fasi, the long-time colorful mayor of Honolulu who repeatedly attempted to have high-speed grade-separated rail transit built here, died last night at his Makiki home, according to this on-line report at the Advertiser’s website. He was 89.

Fasi was mayor for all but four years between 1968 and 1994, when he resigned from office to run for governor, one of his four unsuccessful tries for that office (that ultimately resulted in the "Fasi resign-to-run law").

His attempt to build the Honolulu Area Rapid Transit project was derailed by his 1980 defeat for reelection by Eileen Anderson, who promptly scrapped the project. Back in office after Anderson’s single term, Fasi resurrected his transit planning and solicited bids in the late 1980s to build an elevated line from Leeward Community College to the University of Hawaii campus in Manoa and also above Kuhio Avenue all the way to Honolulu Zoo in Waikiki.

One year after a consortium of train manufacturers, construction companies and others was selected, the project died on a 4-5 City Council vote in 1992 to increase the general excise tax to provide the local share of the project’s $1.3 billion cost – 70 percent of which would have been paid by the federal government.

Had the vote gone the other way, the project was scheduled to have been completed by 2003 and would have been one of Frank Fasi’s numerous lasting legacies.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

FTA Slates $55 Million for Honolulu Rail in '11; Agency Says Transit Project To Get $1.55 Billion

We knew something better would come along to write about on Groundhog Day than those silly online opinion surveys – and something did:

The Obama Administration has proposed to award Honolulu $55 million during fiscal year 2011 as a head start on a Full Funding Grant Agreement that eventually will reach $1.55 billion.

The Honolulu rail project is one of 27 major transit projects across the nation that would receive funding according to the President’s 2011 budget.

“These projects, planned and developed are crucial investments that will boost economic vitality in cities and towns across the country," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (at right). "From New York City to Honolulu and areas in between, these projects will create jobs, diversify local transit options for consumers, and stimulate economic activity at a critical juncture in our continuing recovery."

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff (at left) said: “Projects like these are at the very heart of President Obama's agenda to clean up our environment, reduce our dependence on oil from overseas, and put people back to work. They will give our citizens a way out of punishing traffic jams and improve their quality of life."

Speaking to reporters after the announcement, Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann said federal support for Honolulu rail is clear and urged Governor Linda Lingle to set aside whatever concerns she has about the project’s financial plan:

We would really hope that she would start sending some positive messages and signals,” Hannemann said. “Whatever it is that’s holding her back, cast it aside for the good of the people. This is a train that will bring economic benefits for people for years and decades and generations to come.
"I’m very pleased that Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff with Department of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood has proclaimed this morning great confidence in Honolulu city rail transit initiative… Today’s show of financial support validates the financial analysis, the evaluations that have been put forward for many years, and certainly it could not come at a better time, especially when the chief executive of this state is expressing strong concerns and reservations about going forward.
“For the federal government to also say today that we are committing to one point five billion dollars towards that full funding agreement that we will sign by 2011 is the ultimate. It’s wonderful news. This is going to be one of the highest amounts or awards ever given to a city in America….
“The other news that I want to put out today again is that in the new criteria going forward for transportation projects under new starts funding, there’s going to be an emphasis on livable communities. There’s going to be a collaborative effort between (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) and (the Environmental Protection Administration) to identify those projects that will bring about green communities, livable communities and sustainability. And Honolulu will rank again very high, mark my words. Why? Waipahu, Pearl City, Aiea, Kalihi, Chinatown, eventually McCully, Moiliili will all be the recipients and beneficiaries of a transit-oriented development concept.
"They know this is an excellent project. If they didn’t believe that was so or if they believed that it was shaky, they would not have approved what they have approved and have announced today. So, good news for Honolulu, even better news for the state of Hawai`i, because this is going to benefit all of us in the state….
When asked how soon he would like the Governor to approve the FEIS, Hannemann answered: “It’s not on her desk yet, and we knew that, but the fact of the matter is, and Peter Rogoff reiterated it this morning, that 13 state agencies have already opined, have already given their comments and suggestions. We’re working very closely with them. We’ve been collaborating very closely with the Office of Environmental Quality Control, so the fact of the matter is there has been a lot of consultation going on. We believe it’s 99 percent done. We really would hope that she would start sending some positive messages and signals.
“You know how many states would love to hear what we heard today? This is unbelievable, that we got the good news even before the EIS was released from Washington, so that validates the fact that they know that we’re doing a good job and we brought it to this point that they’re willing to go out and say one point five billion. So I really believe the Governor, whatever it is that’s holding her back, cast it aside for the good of the people. This is not Mufi’s train. This is the train that will bring about economic benefits for the people for years and decades and generations to come….”

If It’s Another Meaningless, Unscientific Survey on Rail Transit, Today Must Be Groundhog Day

Call it further evidence that society and culture are on a dumbing-down track. Everywhere you look on the local media’s websites you find surveys – on Furlough Fridays, taxation, graffiti, rail transit, whatever.

“We really, truly, honestly, most assuredly do want to know what you think” is the message, but tiny type reminds you the results are not scientific and therefore are worthless. Example: A poll out there today gives visitors three options to vote on rail transit – two against and one for. Need we say more?

We will say more. The most recent scientific public opinion survey conducted on the Honolulu rail transit project found strong public support. We’ve mentioned the Q-Mark survey results several times, particularly on November 3 and November 6, and also noted how the media – which presumably are oh so interested in knowing what you think – incredibly have failed to report those results. The only mention the Honolulu Advertiser’s lead rail reporter has seen fit to give the poll was in a story that implied non-existent improprieties about the survey company.

Scientific polling is the only kind that matters, unlike these media surveys that attract hyper-active rail opponents like dogs attract fleas.