Thursday, December 31, 2020

Honolulu Rail Project Ends 2020 Like Just about Everything Else Ends the Year – Side-Tracked and Delayed, but with Hope for the Future


                                       When will Honolulu's elevated rail project be completed?

Yes2Rail’s author has had an up-close-and-personal view of Honolulu’s rail romance since 1990. That’s when I first began working as a consultant to the French transit-building company Matra Transport, one of five firms that bid on Mayor Frank Fasi’s last major push to build an elevated rail alternative to sitting in at-grade traffic.

That effort ended abruptly in 1992 when the City Council failed to pass an increase in the GET to pay for the “local share.” The City wised up when it launched the current project more than a decade later. It handled the local share first, then obtained the federal portion, and then solicited bids to build the 20-mile line from Kapolei to Ala Moana Center. 


Like the current project, Mayor Fasi’s version would have covered 20 miles but would have ended at the University of Hawaii campus in Manoa. The cost: $3.2 billion compared to what now looks like a $11 billion-plus investment. Fearless Frank’s train would have been running since 2003.


That Was Then


I mention this little bit of history to show how badly the project has fared in its current iteration. Instead of already giving traffic-maddened commuters on Oahu’s south side a smooth trip to and from downtown for nearly two decades, the project still faces major delays and horrendous cost increases. 


The commuting facts of life remain unchanged in the southern corridor. One fact still justifies the project: Grade-separated transit is the only way to predict the time of arrival when you begin your commute -- on time, every time. There will be no Kapolei-to-downtown commuting alternative to sitting in traffic for the rest of this century if rail is not built as originally planned.

See the lower-right corner? Traffic will NEVER get better.

This anti-rail cartoon clipped from Honolulu Weekly years ago has multiple truths. Taxpayers indeed have had their tax burden increased to support the project. Also true is that the gridlock depicted in the cartoon has only gotten worse. 


The project’s four main goals will be as valid in 2021 as they were when originally created more than a decade ago. First among those equal goals is improved corridor mobility.  


As 2020 ends today, glimmers of good news shine through the gloom. The federal government has granted the city a one-year extension of the deadline it had set to devise a viable financial plan to complete the build-out. And, the newly appointed leader of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation has said she supports building the final five miles of the elevated guideway all the way to Ala Moana Center.


With 2020 behind us, rail supporters can at least take some measure of hope that 2021 will be a new beginning for the project – and for just about everything else.

Monday, March 16, 2020

HART: Despite COVID-19, “Right Now We Are on Our Schedule” To Begin Rail Operations Late this Year

                                                                     Honolulu Star-Advertiser photo

It’s way too soon to know for sure, but the head of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART) is sticking to his prediction that Honolulu’s elevated rail project will launch service late this year – coronavirus notwithstanding.

Andrew Robbins, HART’s chief executive officer, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser“We talked to our contractors. … They’ve all been advising their employees about hand-washing, safe practices, if you don’t feel well, who to call; but other than that, it’s been business as usual. They’ve been out there working.”

Hitachi Rail, the project’s contractor, has warned that its supply chain may be affected by the worldwide coronavirus pandemic and has thereby taken the position that it should not suffer “force majeure” penalties if it can’t stick to its schedule. As the Star-Advertiser story notes, HART doesn’t agree.

                                                         Platform safety doors (HART photograph)

In other “news” (that’s nearly 7 years old), Honolulu’s elevated rail system will be far safer than planned when we broke off writing Yes2Rail in 2012.

HART approved the addition of Platform Safety Screens back in 2013 that will prevent passengers from accidentally falling, being pushed, or deliberately jumping onto the tracks.

We had seen these safety doors in action in Paris when we visited more than a decade ago; the photo (below-right) was taken from inside a train car. Two sets of doors are visible in the photo -- doors on the train itself (the shiny chrome set) and doors on the platform (showing as white). The doors open simultaneously in sync with one another, just like the elevators in a building.

These doors were on the high-traffic Line #1, which runs east-west through the heart of Paris. The doors were added long long after the Paris Metro began operating.

The change to add doors on the Honolulu system is likely an under-appreciated feature by future riders. If you’re like us, you edge away from the tracks as a train arrives in a subway or metro station. The safety doors may even convince parents and grandparents that young school-age children in their families can ride Honolulu rail safely.

For now, stay safe by maintaining your social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis!

Monday, March 9, 2020

How Is it that Honolulu Isn’t Ranked in the Inrix Annual Traffic Study this Year? Our Eyes Tell Us Oahu’s Traffic Is Increasing, so What Gives?

The new international study is out today, and unlike every other year we can recall, Honolulu’s not in it. At least, we couldn’t find any mention of driving hours lost to congestion in Honolulu due to traffic in 2019.

That seems curious. The 2018 study ranked Honolulu #18 on the national list, with the average 92 hours lost to congestion. The ’18 report said congestion had dropped 4 percent from the year before, so Honolulu appeared “to be on the right track.”

But does anyone believe Honolulu’s traffic improved so much in 2019 that the city dropped completely off the list of America’s 50 most heavily congested cities?  

Not likely 

TomTom, a company that uses a different methodology, ranked Honolulu #9 just last year in the mix with mainland cities using its Traffic Index. As recently as 2012, Honolulu edged out Los Angeles for the infamous #1 rank among mainland cities for hours lost to congestion. In 2013, it was the second worst; 2015 had the city as 10th worst.

So for the city to slip completely off the list seems not likely. Maybe one of our media friends can figure out why Inrex's new ranking excludes Honolulu.** 

Or is it simply that congestion elsewhere is increasing so fast that Honolulu's been surpassed.

It sure doesn't feel like traffic's getting better in Honolulu. Maybe this is just another example of Hawaii being "left out" of the United States -- something that used to happen so often in mainland publications that it would drive Pacific Business News Editor George Mason to distraction!

** A local reporter saw my Twitter post (@DougNorCal) and responded: "I wondered about that too -- reached out to @INRIX this morning; haven't heard back yet..." Will be watching to see if he writes about a response from Inrix.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Defeat of Bay Area Rail Funding Measure Shows Why It’s So Important for the Public (and News Media) To Understand Rail’s True Purpose

San Jose Mercury-News headline on March 4:

Contra Costa County tax measure to tame traffic appears headed for defeat

The San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage of the vote noted the funding measure “drew criticism from government watchdogs who said the money would do little to unclog roads and freeways.”

The Mercury-News headline and Chronicle story may reveal a touch of media misunderstanding about why rail systems are built. If the news media don’t get it, the public may not have understood it either.

Rail projects don’t “tame traffic” or “unclog roads and freeways.” They provide the public with an alternative to road congestion. 

Tired of fighting traffic? Take the train!

Researchers have written extensively about the tendency of car drivers to fill any perceived open space on highways; you can read about it here. But enough Honolulu commuters will resist that tendency to make Honolulu rail a tremendous success.

Rail’s supporters would do well to keep reminding their friends and neighbors of the project’s goals. The train will deliver commuters from one end of the system to the other in only 42 minutes -- with no traffic congestion to slow the trip!

There’s nothing “government watchdogs” can say that will diminish rail's no-traffic appeal. 

Thursday, February 27, 2020

In Reporting the ‘Other Side’ of Rail Story, Honolulu Media Keep Publicizing Views of Critic Known for His Decades-Long Campaign to Mislead the Public and Obfuscate Facts

You can’t blame the news media for searching out rail critic Cliff Slater when they need a rail opponent’s views for an emerging story. He’s been fighting rail since the Fasi Administration and is always ready with a quote, as he was yesterday for KITV.

But you do have to wonder if reporters understand the depth of his misrepresentation of rail facts over the years. We’ve repeatedly documented his record here at Yes2Rail (see the Mr. Cliff Slater section of our “Aggregation Site”) and will keep at it as long as Slater continues to be the media’s go-to anti-rail talking head.

Reporters show no obvious awareness of Slater’s track record as Obfuscator in Chief. I’ve never seen a reporter put Slater on the defensive about his main talking point.

‘No Kidding’

Slater seemed to be prideful of that talking point when he spoke to Hawaii News Now in 2012: “We’ve been promoting the fact that the city says in the final EIS that traffic congestion with rail in the future will be worse (than it is today).”

Two years earlier, Slater used that point before the City Council, only to have Wayne Yoshioka, the city’s Director of Transportation Services, sarcastically put him in his place“No Kidding, in the future, traffic congestion will be greater than it is today. I don’t think that’s any earth-shattering news….”

Yoshioka’s point was that congestion will continue to grow along with the population and that it will be worse without rail than with it. Even Slater had to admit that point when pressed at the City Council hearing.

But have the media ever taken note of Slater’s deliberate obfuscation? Even the mission statement at his website hides the fact that traffic congestion is here to stay for reasons we’ve discussed here at Yes2Rail as recently as this month.

So reporters (if any of you accidently stumble across Yes2Rail), please stop giving Cliff Slater a free pass. Ask him straight out: “Will building rail slow traffic congestion's growth along Oahu’s commuting corridor?”

The honest answer is Yes!

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Rail Will Be a Choice! The truth about riding Honolulu rail is that those who do will experience ZERO TRAFFIC!

It’s almost impossible to read a week of media reports on Honolulu’s rail project without finding a reference to rail being an intended “solution” to Oahu’s traffic woes.

The media have gotten that wrong time and again, so it’s appropriate to remind the public (and the media) about why rail is being built.

Here’s a paragraph from this blog’s post on May 16, 2011

Rail’s True Purpose

Rail will restore MOBILITY to Oahu residents – the ability to move whenever you want and at any time of day through the length of the east-west urban core completely unaffected by traffic congestion. This fact is so critical it’s first among equals in the project's four goals. “Solving traffic” is not one of them! It’s also what is missing in nearly all media coverage of the project.

Readers in 2020 are invited to read that 5/16/11 post in full at the above link. 

Rather than focus on the dismal truth, that traffic will continue to grow along with the population, visitors, and car imports, let’s keep reminding the public of rail’s true purpose – increased mobility and traffic-free commuting through Oahu’s southern corridor. 

The only way to avoid traffic in Oahu's congested future is to remove yourself from the traffic by riding Honolulu's rail system – above the traffic.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Well-Researched Bloomberg Article on Honolulu Rail Project’s Financing Nevertheless Gets Something Wrong – Something That Needs Correcting

View of Hō‘ae‘ae Station that will serve West Loch, Ewa Beach, and Waipahu
illustrates how commuters will ride above street traffic. -- HART Photo
As a former reporter (and current media trainer), I tell clients it’s difficult for reporters to get every fact straight in their stories. That’s why (free tip) newsmakers have an obligation to help reporters get the facts right. 

A recent Bloomberg news agency story on the Honolulu rail project is a case in point. The story reported on Honolulu’s sale of general obligation bonds to help finance construction of the rail project. 

Reporter Joe Mysak noted: “There are two things you can say about building a rail transit project: They sure are expensive, and they sure are worth it.”

Oahu residents are learning about the former and are looking forward to the “worth it” part. Yes2Rail’s never-ending theme is that grade-separated transit – elevated in Honolulu’s case – is worth it because it’s the only way to completely avoid being stuck in traffic on the daily commute. The photograph above illustrates the concept; rail commuters will glide on rail tracks 30 or more feet above cars in the grind.

Mr. Mysak, who clearly understands the benefits of grade-separated transit, ends his article: “With the train financing, Honolulu is betting on its own future, one with fewer cars and buses. That’s a pretty good bet.”

And that’s where he goes slightly off the rails. Honolulu’s project never promised to “solve” traffic or reduce the number of cars and buses on the roads. The project’s #1 goal is to improve mobility for Oahu residents by providing an alternative to cars and buses – an alternative that will be completely unaffected by traffic.

It’s important to make that correction. Rail opponents tried for years to convince Oahu residents that if traffic will be worse after rail is built than it is now, the project would be for naught, and that’s just not true. The leader of the opposition finally had to admit the obvious – that traffic would be worse in the future if rail weren’t built.

So to paraphrase Mr. Mysak’s “pretty good bet,” Honolulu’s future will include a way for residents and commuters to move through Oahu’s southern corridor traffic-free. 

That’s a goal worth pursuing nearly everywhere, especially on an island with no room to expand the highway network.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Rail’s Messaging Has Changed? So Says a Star-Advertiser Columnist, but Nothing’s Changed about Rail’s Promise – Traffic-Free Commuting for Those Who Ride It

                         Honolulu's elevated trains will be true to a timetable.

Lee Cataluna’s column in Sunday's Star-Advertiser asserted that the Honolulu elevated rail project recently has changed its messaging.  

Maybe yes, maybe no. I personally couldn’t quite zero in on what she meant, but I do know what hasn’t changed:

Rail will provide traffic-free commuting to each and every person who chooses to ride it.

That’s it. That’s the unchanging promise of rail. Quibble about some messages if you want, but when this project is up and running (sooner than later, we hope), rail will be the sought-after alternative to being stuck in traffic.

Does anyone seriously doubt traffic-free commuting will appeal to south-side commuters? Do media pundits truly believe trains running between Kapolei and downtown during peak commute times won't be full?

The long wait for the rail project has pushed some observers to go all cynical, all the time (newspaper columnists require no time at all to get there). The delays and cost increases have been frustrating, but in the end, scores of thousands of daily commuters will praise the decision to build rail, and here’s why:

Grade-separated transit is the only form of transportation that guarantees a time of arrival at your destination. 

When you board an elevated train, you’ll know exactly when you’ll step off at the station of your choice.

That’s rail's main message, and it has never changed.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

We’re Mad about Trains. Specifically, We’re Mad about ELEVATED Trains – Like the System Honolulu Is Building

Click here for this classic Mad Men episode on why trains are better than cars for commuting -- especially between West Oahu and anywhere along the line all the way to Ala Moana Center.

If It’s True Bus Ridership Is Lagging, That Means Car Traffic Is Increasing on Our Streets and Highways, and That’s Why Rail Is Being Built!

I have to thank Facebook for its inquiry about whether I know Honolulu resident Randy Roth and for asking if I want to add him as a Facebook Friend. I hit “decline,” not because of any animus toward Professor Roth, but because I rarely add “friends” whom I don’t know reasonably well.

But Facebook’s inquiry peaked my curiosity about what Randy is up to these days. He and I were – and still are – on opposite sides of the elevated rail project; he’s against it, and I’m for it for reasons I described over four years here at my Yes2Rail blog. 

When I visited his Facebook account, I wasn’t surprised to find a post that took aim at elevated rail: Bus ridership in Honolulu is down by roughly 1.3 million rides per month since 2012. This affects rail because HART has long assumed 60% of all rail users will reach the rail station by bus. Why hasn't HART revised its rail ridership projections to reflect the substantial and continuing decrease in bus ridership?”

Professor Roth’s comment was prompted by an October 9, 2019 KHON2 report on the ridership decline. Mr. Roth asked in that story, “Well, if the number of people that are riding the bus has been coming down further and further every year, doesn’t that impact rail ridership?”

In light of the ridership decline, it must be asked: How are those former bus riders now commuting to work? They’re not taking a water shuttle or a helicopter. They’re driving. It’s the only logical conclusion based on the reduced bus ridership, and by driving, those former bus riders are inevitably contributing to Honolulu’s ever-increasing traffic congestion.

Traffic congestion is why rail is being built in the first place, remember? First among the project's four goals is Goal #1 -- “Improve Corridor Mobility.” 

I wrote about Goal #1 here at Yes2Rail back on January 3, 2011.

The drop in bus ridership isn’t surprising, because at some point, when traffic is worse than ever and the grind along Oahu’s southern corridor is almost unbearable, bus riders say to themselves, “If I have to sit in this traffic for 90 minutes, two hours or more, I’d rather sit in my own car, with air conditioning, my radio, my coffee, my solitude.”

Switching from Car to the Train

Commuters have been making that choice for decades. When I reported on City Hall for the Honolulu Advertiser in 1974, Deputy Transportation Director Roy Parker called the choice Parker’s Law: Until public transit is demonstrably faster and more convenient than driving a car, most commuters will choose “my car at my time.” It’s just what Americans do.

In 2013, researchers did an experiment that produced a remarkable result: People showed an irrational bias toward automobiles despite evidence that other modes of transportation would save them money.

Check out their report 

Once it’s running, rail will be so much faster than commuting in one’s own car that “hitting the rails” will be an easy choice. The project will move commuters from Kapolei to downtown in about 40 minutes, and it won’t take long for a significant number of car drivers who commute along the line's route to switch to rail when they look up and see a train speeding past their traffic jam.

It’s good to get my “rail juices” flowing again. I essentially shut down Yes2Rail when I moved to Sacramento in 2012 and turned my attention elsewhere. With the leadership of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation promising an October 10, 2020 start-up of the rail system, it might just be time to reenergize Yes2Rail. The naysayers are sure to be grabbing attention before 10/10/2020, and rail supporters would do well to balance the negativity with visions of rail's positive future. Of that,  I am confident.