Friday, April 29, 2011

Oh, Canada – Thank You for Visiting Hawaii!

We can thank our friends from the snowy North – or maybe the weather itself – for a 35-percent increase in Canadian visitors and a 50-percent increase in their spending in March compared to the same month a year ago.

Or maybe it's the general improvement in the economy, another year into the recovery from the depths of the recession. Overall, tourism arrivals in Hawaii increased 4.2 percent and defied many predictions of a precipitous fall-off due to the tsunami tragedy in Japan, which is an exceptionally important market.

Visitors from that nation did decline by nearly 18 percent, and spending was down 4 percent. Hawaii has shown its Aloha for Japan and its citizens by sending millions of dollars in relief raised in numerous concerts and other venues since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Golden Week, the annual high point of Japanese tourism, is in full swing, and according to Barry Wallace, executive vice president for hospitality services for Outrigger Enterprises Group, it’s “a reasonably strong week. It’s the best week that we’ve had since 3/11 for Japan business. And summer looks to be a very strong time with lots and lots of interest.”

The health of Hawaii’s tourism industry is exceptionally relevant to Honolulu rail’s finance plan, since the local share of the $5.3 billion construction cost is being covered by a 0.5-percent increase in the general excise tax paid on all transactions on Oahu, including those by visitors. The increase began in January 2007 and will continue through 2022.

Finally, transit-oriented development also will be exceptionally important to Honolulu rail’s success. TOD planning has begun, but much remains to be put in place. However, some options have no chance of being adopted as part of the system, like the one shown below. Watch the video and judge for yourself.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

$6 Gas in Hawaii, and a Theory on Why Oil Prices Continue To Rise that Will Make Your Head Ache

We learned a truism about Hawaii 38 years ago when we put climate above other considerations and moved to the Aloha State: Everything costs more here, and the ironic anti-counter-balance is that they pay you less, too.

The truth about Hawaii's high prices is that they’re still the highest. Take the price of gas – please.

Premium grade is selling for more than $6.25 on the island of Maui, and regular is above $6, as shown in this photo posted at Civil Beat today. The statewide regular gas average hit an all-time high today -- $4.566, nearly a nickel above the mark set in 2008 when the oil price reached $147 per barrel.

Hawaii’s “metro areas” of Honolulu and Wailuku, Maui also post record prices for regular -- $4.455 and $4.932 respectively. Please note that Wailuku’s average price for regular will soon be $5 per gallon.

Everybody is asking why this is happening. Oil’s price today is still more than $20 below the 2008 record level. What other factors are playing havoc with our gas budget, a month before the summer driving season?

We’re the Speculators?

A staff member at the Natural Resources Defense Council contributes an answer today, and it can only make us worry. Summarizing an author's thesis, the staffer says the futures oil market has become a hot place for investors to place their money. These aren’t just the presumably wicked speculators but mainstream sources like commodity indexes that may be using some of your 401(k) money to place their bets.

According to the author quoted by the NRDC staffer, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 “opened the road for new commodity swap instruments to be created away from the regulated exchanges and over-the-country treading…and also paved the way for the sale and marketing of commodity indexes as an investment… Money seeks to buy, and only buy, oil through indexes. The other natural side of the futures trade is missing. The only way you can encourage people to sell something they really don’t wantto sell is to offer an outrageous sum for it.” This cycle, according to the author, is “oil’s endless bid.”

The staffer’s blog has more than enough links to background and supportive material to make your head ache. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

The tie-in with Honolulu rail, as usual, is the inevitable increase in transit ridership that accompanies increases in the cost of driving. If the author’s theory is right and nothing is done to upset the apparent influence of speculation in the oil futures market, Honolulu rail may have to reduce the headways between trains to meet rider demand.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How ‘I Won’t Ride’ Morphs into ‘Nobody Will Ride’

Those of us who follow Honolulu rail issues closely come across this anti-railer assertion over and over again: “Nobody will ride this train.” The Human Transit website, which also bears watching closely, discusses today (the 27th in Australia) how a personal preference or dislike can become a mistaken belief that everyone shares that particular view.

Jarrett Walker, Human Transit’s host and author, writes:

“Watching the larger mass of transit debates, it’s always striking how quickly ‘I would never ride a bus’ turns into an unverified claim that ‘most people would never ride buses.’ Most of us want to feel that we’re part of the majority, however invisible or repressed. At another point on the spectrum, you’ll hear the same pattern, ‘I feel x, therefore most people feel x,’ in claims that transit is an effete distraction from real people’s needs because real people (like the speaker) want to drive their cars.”

We don’t doubt that people are accustomed to driving their own cars. It’s what Americans are used to after decades of “car liberation” first enjoyed by our parents or grandparents. Gasoline may be in our DNA by now, but there’s no legitimacy in the “nobody will ride” argument just because rail opponents are convinced they never will.

In the end, we suspect they’ll jump aboard as readily as anyone else once they (begrudgingly) appreciate rail transit’s convenience and money-saving possibilities.

Gas Price Dips!

One day after this site proclaimedGas Hits Record Each Day….,” the statewide average for regular gas in Hawaii fell today – by all of one-tenth of a penny to $4.536. Honolulu stayed true to the trend, however, and added half a cent to set a new record for regular’s average price in the city -- $4.436.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Big Question on Honolulu Rail Project Answered; Gas Hits Record Each Day Despite Oil’s Retreat

All sorts of questions are asked about Honolulu rail at events such as this past weekend’s Spring Food and New Products Show at the Blasidell Exhibition Hall. “Where will the Waipahu station be?” “How many stations are on the line?” “Will it stop at the airport?”

But the question that’s asked more than any other is the big one: “When will construction begin?” It was top of mind among the hundreds (thousands?) of supportive visitors to the project booth from Friday evening through Sunday, whether they had a question or not.

The answer for all to read is in a page-wide headline in the morning Star-Advertiser – “Rail work kicks off in Waipahu” – and in the story’s first paragraph:

“Relocation of utility lines is expected to begin today as the city moves forward with work on its $5.3 billion rail transit system.”

Lanes will be closed on Farrington Highway in both directions six days a week from 8:30 am to 3 pm and 6 pm to 6 am to begin utility relocation while avoiding traffic disruptions during rush hours. Final approval of the federal funding portion to build the system is expected later this year, after which full construction can begin.

Those Gas Prices – Again

The charts at right are in a screen snapshot taken today showing the per-barrel price of oil as it has trended over the past month. Brent crude is always pricier than West Texas Intermediate.

The trend has been pretty much flat for Brent and more jagged for WTI, but note that the price two weeks ago was higher than it is today for both.

Now check out what’s been happening with the average price we pay at the pump for a gallon of regular gasoline. For the past 10 days, new record prices for regular gas have been set each day statewide ($4.537 today), in Honolulu ($4.431) and in Wailuku, Maui ($4.909).

Hilo’s average price for regular today ($4.551) still lags the all-time high for that neighbor island city by more than a dime (it hit $4.656 on 7/31/08). We’d like to know more about why Hilo is out of step with the rest of the state.

In fact, we’d like to know more about everything that’s influencing the price of gasoline, which clearly is out of synch with the price of oil.

Some analysts say pump prices can go up in a week that per-barrel oil prices decline because retailers have to recover their costs from recent purchases. The explanation seems plausible enough, but the price never seems to go down as fast when oil's price drops as it does on the up-tick.

Predicting Transit Use

This all is relevant to the Honolulu rail project, because cities across the nation are experiencing increases in transit use as the cost of driving a car increases.

Organizations like the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago are working to make alternatives to driving more attractive and “achieve a significant shift from environmentally harmful, sedentary travel to clean, active travel. We advocate for transportation that encourages and promotes safety, physical activity, health, recreation, social interaction, equity, environmental stewardship and resource conservation.”

Transportation equity is one of Honolulu rail's goals. Walking to and from the system’s stations will promote physical health. Grade-separated rail will enhance travel safety by being distant from congested surface traffic, where injuries and deaths occur.

We have to laugh when anti-railers insist “nobody will ride” Honolulu’s future system. Oahu residents allegedly have more of what is called the Aloha Spirit than other cities (although we find a lot of it everywhere we travel), but we’re no different in wanting to save time and money while eliminating the hassle of commuting than are people in Chicago or anywhere else.

People will ride this train, and now that utilities are being relocated prior to actual construction, residents have a sense that this long-delayed project is actually happening.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Energy Insider’s View on Gas Price Increases

The Star-Advertiser finally gives us a headline on page one today on a story we’ve been highlighting here at Yes2Rail for a couple months – the rising price of gas. The paper doesn’t take it to the next step like so many other publications have across the country. Pain at the pump is producing an increase in transit ridership. Maybe we’ll see that story soon.

Today’s Weekend Edition, Saturday show on National Public Radio has an interview with John Hoffmeister, former CEO of Shell Oil and founder of the non-profit group Citizens for Affordable Energy.

Show host Scott Simon asked Hoffmeister what’s driving up oil prices. He answered:

“Demand. If Americans need more oil and the rest of the world needs more oil and we don’t produce more oil, we get squeezed on price. Second, we have uncertainty, which oil markets detest. The uncertainty comes from the Middle East, and the big uncertainty is whether some of the contagion that seems to be spreading in political unrest spreads to the Persian Gulf. And so, that amount of uncertainty and the potential cut-off for oil supplies in the event of something leads futures buyers, called speculators, to raise the price in order to guarantee delivery.”

Hoffmeister goes on to mention the rise in Asian demand for oil and its potential to create fear among speculators about supply adequacy here in the states, especially in the West – and that includes Hawaii, which leads the nation in high gas prices.

“What we’re dealing with,” he continues, “is irrational fear, and that fear drives people who must have oil in the future to pay whatever price is being bid – six months, 12 months or longer from now – which always happens this way, it raises prices generally.” The economy’s recovery also has created more demand for oil, and that’s influencing the price as well, he says.

Eliminating the internal combustion engine will be a key step in reducing oil’s grip on the economy and family budgets, Hoffmeister says, but in the short term, supply must be increased to meet the demand in this decade and perhaps the next.

The interview is well worth the six minutes it takes to play on the NPR website.

Oil’s Highest Price

Today’s S-A story requires additional comment about its report on high gas prices in Honolulu and statewide, which reached record levels today, according to the AAA. The statewide average for regular is $4.532, and in Honolulu it’s $4.427.

What begs for comment is the story’s assertion that “In June 2008 the price of oil peaked at $134 per barrel.” Virtually all news sources on the subject peg the all-time high price for crude oil at $147/barrel. You can find this number cited in innumerable stories on the Internet; the July 12, 2008 story by The Guardian is but one.

Brent crude was trading just short of $124/barrel at the most recent posting. The $23 spread below the all-time high in today's rising market is enough to make us fear Hawaii will reach $5/gallon regular gas in the months ahead.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Strategic Thinker’s View of Honolulu Rail

How’s this for a concise description of Honolulu rail, in 50 words or less?

“It's an important strategic investment for our city and could substantially enhance the quality of life for the people of Oahu while alleviating a challenge we have in traffic as well as making an opportunity for social change by creating a new avenue for transit-oriented development.

That’s a quote from today’s Star-Advertiser profile of Don Horner, who was appointed this week to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) board.

Horner’s become a “hot media personality” in recent days due to his widespread civic involvement, with HART being his latest high-visibility post. The quote may have a clue of why Horner is in such demand – an apparent ability to grasp and articulate the essence of issues on his desk.

He’s done that in 46 words for Honolulu rail. The quote captures the project’s goals of providing a fast and reliable alternative to driving in traffic congestion for all citizens who chose to ride, especially those benefiting from transit-oriented development.

No ‘News’ in Higher Gas

Honolulu and the state have been in record territory for the average price of regular gasoline for 48 hours already, so it’s ho-hum time about today’s new record prices -- $4.422 and $4.527 respectively.

What’s truly alarming is that there’s so much upside on the per-barrel price of oil before it, too, sets a new record by surpassing $147. Today’s (fluctuating) price is around $124/barrel. Something else – or a combination of somethings – has made gasoline more expensive than ever even though oil itself is still more than $20 less costly than in 2008.

The President wants to look into those somethings, because there surely are other forces at work besides the price of oil. Whatever they are, they’re improving the public’s appetite for transit – even in west Texas!

Poor babies: The high price for regular gas in Lubbock today is $3.63. And to think they pump oil out of the ground right their in their own backyard. It's an outrage!

To grossly abuse a JFK quote: "Let them come to HONOLULU!"

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Honolulu Rail System’s Construction Cost Drops

The long-awaiting update to the City’s financial plan to fund the rail system has been submitted to the FTA and is available in all its detail at Honolulu rail’s website.

Space limitations forced the Star-Advertiser to leave out much relevant information from its report today, so in addition to providing a link to the plan, we’re highlighting material from the plan’s Summary about the system that’s often overlooked.

Rail provides the most cost-effective option for handling future transit demand. In part due to labor costs accounting for a smaller percentage of the Rail project’s cost structure than bus, the Rail project will handle larger volumes of passengers at higher levels of productivity. In 2030, the Rail project will move each passenger at a cost of $0.34 per mile, whereas bus will move each passenger at a cost of $0.72 per mile. Similarly, in 2030 rail will have a farebox recovery ratio of approximately 40 percent while bus will have a farebox recovery ratio of approximately 27 percent. This illustrates the fact that, once fully implemented, the Project is expected to carry a larger load relative to its operating and maintenance cost than bus. The combined farebox recovery ratio for bus and rail will be consistent with City policy.
Operating revenues are supported by the City’s farebox recovery policy. Historically, the City has achieved a balanced budget for transit operations. During the economic crisis of the last few years, TheBus has taken steps to ensure it is providing the most cost-effective and efficient services. This has resulted in the restructuring of services that did not meet performance standards. Additionally, the City recently increased fares to ensure that farebox recovery rates remain between 27 percent and 33 percent and keep pace with inflation. The Financial Plan assumes that fare recovery policy will be maintained through FY2030 and assumes periodic fare increases, which is consistent with historic trends.
The Project will enhance mobility for Oahu residents, workers and visitors across the island. The Project will provide enhanced mobility for over 77 percent of Oahu’s residents and over 88 percent of its workforce who live and work in the areas within and connecting to the corridor, and for its many visitors. In addition to the initiation of rail service, TheBus and TheHandi-Van services will be enhanced and the bus network will be modified to efficiently coordinate with the rail system. Some existing bus routes, including peak-period express buses, will be altered or eliminated to reduce duplication of services provided by the rail system. Buses removed from service in the study corridor will be shifted to service in other parts of Oahu, resulting in improved transit service island-wide.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Nation’s Highest Gas Prices Reach Historic Levels; Hawaii Drivers Have Never Had To Pay This Much

The old Honolulu TV tire commercial said: “Go now, Hawaii. Why pay more?” The answer, of course, is because we have to.

How does it feel to be paying more for gasoline than ever? According to the AAA, the average price for regular gas in Honolulu today is $4.40, and the statewide average is $4.512.

We’ve finally surpassed the prices reached in the summer of 2008, when oil topped out at $147 per barrel. But oil’s nowhere near that level today. Brent crude is listed at $122.36, and the price of W. Texas Intermediate crude is $107.63.

The difference between 2008 and today’s crude prices is yet another wakeup call for Hawaii residents. There’s something else going on that’s driving up Hawaii’s retail gasoline prices that isn’t apparent from the oil price alone.

We’ll leave the analysis to our friends at the University of Hawaii. But little analysis is needed to conclude that if the cost of driving continues upward so alarmingly, the Honolulu rail system has broken ground none too soon.

Cost and convenience are the two main reasons why people switch from driving their own car to taking the public’s transit, and they surely will influence ridership on Honolulu rail’s system a few years from now.

Barclays Capital forecasts $185/barrel oil by the end of this decade, just about the time Honolulu’s 20-mile system will be fully operational. Oil anywhere near that level combined with those influences on what we'll be paying at the pump will surely make Honolulu’s system a success.

“Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.” It was true for a baseball diamond carved out of an Iowa cornfield, and it’ll be true for Honolulu rail. People most definitely will ride.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

No Gas Price Record Yet; HART Members Named

The big Honolulu rail news this week isn't what we thought it would be.

We were convinced we'd see a new record price for gas* last week or over the weekend, both statewide and in Honolulu. But the rocket ride in that direction has slowed to a crawl, almost as if those unseen all-controlling forces are reluctant to push prices into unfamiliar territory.

That'll happen soon enough, so in the absence of big headlines about the price of gas, the biggest rail-related news this week has been the appointment of six individuals to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board that will run Honolulu’s system.

Mayor Carlisle and the City Council each appointed three members yesterday. The six represent the community on the board and are non-government members. The top transportation officials at the state and city levels are designated for board service by the City Charter amendment approved by Oahu voters in November.

These eight voting members will select a ninth voting member. The final seat on the 10-member board will be filled by the director of the city’s Planning and Permitting Department, an ex-officio and non-voting member.

Check back tomorrow to see if those record gas price headlines have appeared.

* If it's about high gas prices, it's definitely related to rail and future ridership.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Gas Prices Slow Upward Rise, and the Reason Is?

So what’s your best guess on what’s driving up the cost of oil? The experts can’t agree, so your shot could be as good as any other.

Is it the Middle East/North Africa unrest, or the rising demand in China/India, the reduced worldwide inventories, the summer driving season just ahead, international oil futures speculators, local retailers, all of them or something else?

Oil prices have actually leveled off and are down from their highs in early April, but gas prices continue to inch upward, although the curve is flattening.

Hawaii’s statewide average for regular gas had been rising 10 to 12 cents per week until this past week. On Saturday April 13, the price was $4.412; today it’s $4.482, according to the AAA.

So for whatever reason, the daily price increases haven't been as much in recent days, and our prediction of hitting a new Hawaii price record on tax day was off. Nevertheless, we’re only 2.5 cents below Hawaii’s all-time record of $4.507.

The local media have started reporting what Yes2Rail has been noting for the past month – that high gas prices push drivers to become transit and carpool riders. According to Oahu Transit Services, which operates TheBus, bus pass sales are increasing, and we’ll know the full extent in a couple weeks.

Need we keep repeating this? Honolulu rail will be a perfect fit for budget- and time-conscious Oahu residents with convenient access to the 20-mile system when it’s fully operational in eight years.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Surprise! Times Square Air Cleaner with No Cars

One of Times Square's no-car pedestrian plazas.
The Honolulu rail project is expected to reduce the number of vehicles on our streets and highways by about 18 percent when 30,000 drivers switch to daily train travel. Fewer cars will translate to less air pollution on those thoroughfares, and that’s why the above headline at the “grist” website (motto: “a beacon in the smog”) caught our attention.

Cars are banned in parts of New York’s Times Square where pedestrian plazas have been in place since 2009. The result is dramatically reduced pollution levels–63 percent less nitrogen oxide and 41 percent less nitrogen dioxide. This chart shows the Times Square air sampling for nitrogen oxide on the green line, before the plaza conversion (gray area) and after. Mayor Blumberg’s office issued a press release with the details.

Here at home, fewer internal combustion cars on the road after the rail system is operational will mean fewer movable pollution sources on our streets and highways. The rail system is expected to reduce regional pollutant emissions between 3.9 and 4.8 percent – less pollution out there for you and your family to breathe.

The project will reduce Oahu’s daily transportation energy demand by 3 percent. Hawaii imports the vast majority of the energy we consume, so reducing energy demand is an ongoing goal. Honolulu rail will help achieve it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Gas Price Rise toward All-Time High in Hawaii Will Increase TheBus Use Now and Rail in Years Ahead

Americans worried about so-called mission creep in the Libyan campaign have another worry that’s more immediate and personal – the unrelenting creep of oil and gas prices to near-record levels.

Oil’s all-time high price was $147 per barrel in 2008, and today’s price is still about $25 below that for Brent crude. But we’re closer to setting a new mark for gas than you might expect from today’s oil’s price.

The statewide average for a gallon of regular gas today is $4.452, only about a nickel below our high of $4.507. That’s up 4 cents since Saturday, and at that pace, we could break through to a new record within a few days.

What this will mean for our travel habits is predictable: Americans traditionally buy more fuel-efficient vehicles when it’s time to trade in the old gas guzzler, and we’ll also ride transit more when gas prices rise.

The American Public Transportation Association predicts 670 million more passenger trips on public transportation when the national average gas price hits $4 per gallon. Today’s average is $3.808, and analysts anticipate higher prices this year and for the next decade.

Hawaii consumers are payng the highest prices for gas the nation, far more California, Alaska and Illinois, the latest state to join the $4/gallon club.

Oil prices are predicted to be near $200 per barrel when Honolulu rail goes into full service at the end of this decade. Cost factors alone will make rail travel attractive, and when convenience of avoiding traffic congestion is also a consideration, rail will be an instant success.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Two Bidders on Honolulu Rail File Protests

Details are emerging on protests filed by two losing bidders on the Honolulu rail project. Sumitomo’s objections are detailed today at Civil Beat, the online subscription news service that’s available to “occasional visitors” without charge.

Bombardier also has protested, saying its disqualification from the selection process “at the eleventh hour” was improper.

Winning bidder Ansaldo went on the offense over the weekend with a commentary in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that cites its successes around the world.

Two City Council members will see for themselves by traveling to Copenhagen, Denmark, where Ansaldo’s system has won acclaim, and Los Angeles, where its performance has been criticized.

The City will evaluate the protests “according to procurement law,” according to a spokesperson for the mayor. And Director of Transportation Services Wayne Yoshioka told Civil Beat: “All the evaluation criteria, that was revealed to everyone. They had an opportunity to make comments and ask for any changes at that time, and no one did. It’s a little late to be talking about this stuff.”

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Hawaii Gas Price Shoots Toward All-Time High

Our prediction last Sunday is coming true: Gas prices in Hawaii are on a track to surpass the all-time high for regular gas of $4.507 in the coming week.

Today’s statewide average for regular is $4.412, up 10 cents in six days. California has moved into second place ahead of Alaska among the states, but their average regular prices are about 30 cents below Hawaii’s.

Someone used a speech this week to compare Hawai’s vulnerability to rising oil pries to the clueless frog in a pot that’s slowly being brought to a boil. Before he knows it, he's cooked.

Except – we’re not clueless anymore about oil and gas prices. We’re paying attention. Those price increases are hitting us where it hurts – in our family budgets.

Pay attention also in the weeks ahead to the passenger figures released by Honolulu’s TheBus. They’ll go up as the cost of gas increases; it’s a pattern seen over and over again as far back as the early ‘70s, when the oil embargo produced odd-and-even license plate driving restrictions here.

Oahu residents restrict our own driving to save money, and we’ll really watch our travel costs as the statewide average price zooms upward. Our prediction for a new record price: Friday, April 15th.

What a double whammy that would be on Tax Day.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Honolulu Contract Awards Found ‘Not Unusual’

Opponents of Honolulu’s rail system throw every conceivable anti-rail argument at the wall and hope something sticks. Civil Beat has just scraped another one off and sent it kerplopping to the floor.

One of their favorites is that Honolulu has awarded contracts to build portions of the elevated guideway and acquire train carios before it has received a full funding grant agreement (FFGA) from the federal government..

“It’s not unusual,” said Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff during his visit late in March. Civil Beat, the innovative online subscription news service, decided to do one of its Fact Checks, a regular feature on the site that’s unique in local journalism.

“Undderstand that more than a billion dollars (the amount of the anticipated FFGA) is a very large number,” Rogoff said, “but it’s a $5 billion project, so you’re talking about 20 percent. Importantly, for the FTA to see how costs are really coming in, we review those contracts. The greater specificity and certainty we have to the actual project cost, it gives us greater comfort to know that the project’s sponsor can afford the project. So I wouldn’t view (Honolulu’s pre-awards) as out of the ordinary at all.”

Civil Beat’s Fact Check found five such projects “where large portions of the contracts were awarded before the FFGA” ranging from just above 20 percent to 75 percent of the projects’ total costs.

So it’s not at all unusual to award 20 percent in rail contracts before the FFGA is assured, according to Civil Beat. Another anti-rail argument has been swept away into the dead-argument pile that's growing over there in the corner.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

As if On Cue, Public Radio Airs Transit Series

The negative tone that’s recently characterized local media coverage of the Honolulu rail project (see yesterday’s post) could use a counter-balancing shot of reality from cities where rail transit is an unqualified success.

Hawaii Public Radio provided it late this afternoon in the time slot reserved from 4 to 5 o’clock each Tuesday on KIPO-FM for Humankind, the syndicated program produced for National Public Radio by David Freudberg.

The first half of a two-hour audio documentary titled Passengers featured interviews with typical Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia transit users, including a man who accepted his county’s challenge to go car-free for a month. He and his wife both eventually switched from driving to work to commuting by the bus/Metro system and sold one of their cars.

Today’s time slot also featured a visit to the train car manufacturing plant of Ansaldo Breda, the company that won the “core systems” contract for Honolulu’s future grade-separated system.

You can download a free podcast of Passengers at the Humankind website. It’s definitely worth 60 minutes of your time.

Rail supporters will appreciate first-person stories on how transit has improved the quality of life for train and bus users. And rail opponents might just hear enough to shake their conviction that Honolulu residents won’t ride Honolulu's train. DC-area residents would scoff at the thought.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Media Rail Scrutiny Could Use Some Context

“Don’t pick fights with someone who buys ink by the barrel,” the adage says. Newspapers win those fights, but if it’s comment you offer, it shouldn't have to become combat.

A torrent of newspaper coverage has come down on Ansaldo, the company that won the “core systems” contract for the Honolulu rail project. Virtually all of it has a negative tone about issues the company has experienced in some of the cities for which it has provided rail cars.

“Cities frustrated by rail car marker” headlines today’s story. Having written quite a few, we know the challenge of getting across the essence of a story in a headline's few words. You risk leaving out too much – like that one does.

A more inclusive headline also noting company successes around the world wouldn’t fit and, frankly, wouldn’t fit the general thrust of the story. Another adage is that negativity sells, and there’s been a lot of it driving the rail story for years.

Who’s Who?

Today’s story relies a great deal on comments highly critical of Ansaldo by the “transportation deputy” to a Los Angeles County supervisor. We have their names and their quotes; we don’t have any context about their views on transportation in general and rail in particular.

Does the supervisor generally support or oppose rail projects? Are the deputy’s comments motivated by something not found in today’s Star-Advertiser story? In search of context, we did what the reporter undoubtedly did – used the Internet to find his sources.

One of the first things we found made us wonder: Is the supervisor’s enthusiasm for HOT LanesHOT Lanes, for Pete’s sake! – at the heart of his negative views about the train car manufacturer?

‘Ansaldo Critic Likes HOT Lanes’

And just like that, we have a headline that’s both true and misleading, because we don’t think for a second that the one has anything to do with the other.

We highlight the supervisor’s support for HOT Lanes, which Honolulu rail critics embrace as a preferred alternative, as an example of how easy it is to “report” a snippet of information and come to an erroneous conclusion.

The Star-Advertiser did allow this much: “Globally the company has seen some success,” but even the use of some looks like a begrudging acknowledgement of what Ansaldo executives would call “great.”

So let’s wrap this up with our own generalization: Media criticism of Honolulu rail will outweigh the positives you read, see or hear about the project. That’s just the way it is with journalism, and it’s worth remembering.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hawaii's Regular Gas Average Surges to $4.314, Could Pass All-Time High of $4.507 in 2 Weeks

A Honolulu gas station offered “cheap gas” in a promotion yesterday. "Cheap" it wasn't. The $3.95/gallon price for regular was higher than today’s average statewide price for premium gas in 41 mainland states.

Only Hawaii, Alaska and California are over the $4 mark, but Hawaii’s average is increasing at a faster rate than the other two.

Hawaii’s average for regular has jumped 9.1 cents in the past five days, while Alaska is up 3.9 cents and California 2.9 cents. At this rate, Hawaii could surpass our all-time high of $4.507/gallon of regular in a couple weeks.

Consumers are reacting with consternation, but transit planners and electric vehicle manufacturers see the trend differently.

Transit officials know high gas prices drive up passenger counts on their systems. The American Public Transportation Associations predicts hundreds of millions of additional rider trips if regular’s national average price hits $4. It happened in 2008, when the price of oil surpassed $145/barrel, and they’re predicting the same this year.

That’s what people do – switch to transit when driving becomes too expensive. And once they experience transit’s convenience factor, many riders stay with transit even after gas prices fall. Cheaper gas is not the long-range prediction.

Electric car enthusiasts see increased sales in higher gas prices. It’s not unusual to know at least one person in Honolulu with an all-electric Nissan LEAF already in the carport or on the way.

Oahu is increasing its reliance on renewable energy and preparing to build the Honolulu rail project. The wisdom of both will be seen by this and future generations.