June 19, 2008

Slow Train Coming: Will Honolulu Ever Have Rail Transit?

Honolulu’s proposed Rail Transit system has recently become a big-time public controversy here in Hawaii. Again. Haven’t we seen this movie before? The last attempt to build a mass transit system was shot down in 1992 and the one before that was killed in 1982. It seems like every Honolulu mayor in my lifetime (Mufi Hannemann, Jeremy Harris, Frank Fasi, Eileen Anderson and well, Frank Fasi during his first go-round) has had to deal with the question of rail. Even with its track record of failure on transit, the City is making another, perhaps final, attempt at building a rail system. Will history repeat itself once more or will things be different this time? Only time will tell. But so far, the latest endeavor has progressed further than any previous attempt.

PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILE GAMES
The City’s rail plans, officially known as the High Capacity Transit Corridor Project, overcame a huge hurdle in 2005 when the State of Hawaii (both the Legislature and Governor Linda Lingle) allowed Honolulu to collect a half-percent tax to pay for the transit project. Much to the frustration of rail opponents, Lingle changed her mind at the last minute and decided not to veto the infamous HB #1309, which set things in motion for the transit tax that is projected to generate more than $3 billion over a 15-year period. In 2006, the Honolulu City Council selected a fixed-guideway transit system extending from Kapolei to UH Manoa with a connection to Waikiki as the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA). Mayor Hannemann wants to begin construction on the rail project in late 2009. If everything continues as planned, the first phase linking East Kapolei to Leeward Community College would open in 2012 and the 20-mile route to Ala Moana would open in 2018. There are 19 proposed stops along the rail line, which is estimated to cost $3.7 billion. Extensions to the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Waikiki would have to be built later at an additional cost. For a more detailed timeline and cost summary, you can read this article from the Honolulu Advertiser or go to the City’s official transit website, honolulutransit.org.


Of course, all of this progress doesn’t mean that the project’s opponents are going down without a fight. Far from it. On most days, one can hear protests and dissent via the local papers, radio personalities (especially Rick Hamada of KHVH 830AM’s morning show) and Internet message boards from perennial rail resisters like lobbyist Cliff Slater, UH professor Panos Prevedouros (who is considering running for mayor), City Councilman Charles Djou, and the recently formed “Stop Rail Now” campaign. A quick browse through honolulutraffic.com, Slater’s prominent anti-rail website, reveals that there is still significant opposition to rail transit from pro-highway and anti-tax groups who are mustering up another last ditch effort to de-rail Honolulu’s transit plans as they have successfully done in the past.

Anti-rail groups like the Hawaii Highway Users Alliance (of whom Prevedouros is president), an organization of taxi and tour bus operators, car dealerships, road work contractors and other auto-based interest groups as well as the conservative Grassroot Institute of Hawaii (where Slater is a board member) contend that the solution to Honolulu’s traffic gridlock is not rail, but High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. HOT lanes would essentially add a 10-mile double-decker to the H-1 freeway so drivers could bypass congestion for a variable toll that would range between $1.38 to $2.76 each way depending on the time of day. The Grassroot Institute’s board also includes Dale Evans, president of Charley's Taxi and a member of the Alliance for Traffic Improvement, yet another organization Slater also helps to lead.

EAST VS. WEST?
The battle over rail continues to get hotter and yes, I think it’s going to cause even more controversy than the Hawaii SuperFerry did last year. Yikes! Even though the transit tax is already being collected ($211 million raised in the first 16 months), the route has been approved by the City Council and the type of technology (steel on steel) has been selected by a City Council-appointed panel of experts, the “Stop Rail Now” campaign is attempting to obtain 44,525 signatures by August 1st in order to put a city ordinance on the November ballot which says, “Honolulu mass transit shall not include trains or rail.” That’s it. No alternatives proposed. No mention of HOT lanes or a suggested criterion for a better rail proposal. Just NO trains and NO rail allowed in Honolulu… ever? If this 9-word ordinance does make it onto the ballot, voters would simply vote yes or no. Mayor Hannemann and others including the Advertiser's Editorial Board on May 7, have criticized the “Stop Rail Now” campaign, saying that it is “all about stopping a project and delivers nothing in the way of transit solutions.” Rail opponents counter by saying that they are just trying to give voters more of a voice in what would be the largest public works project in City history.


So who’s right? Has the time come for Honolulu to finally build a rail system? Or should the project be shot down once and for all in favor of HOT lanes? Is this just a case of East vs. West? Both sides agree that something drastic must be done to deal with Honolulu’s increasingly miserable traffic woes. The status quo of zipper lanes, new bus routes and a few widened highways here and there is not going to be any match for Oahu’s future population growth, particularly in West Oahu.

If you’re familiar with this blog at all, you might expect me to give a nuanced and complex answer to the rail question, something along the lines of “both sides are right, sort of” or “I just want to see the two groups understand each other.” Not this time. The choice is very clear: Honolulu needs a rail transit system. Because of all the friends I have who live in town, supporting the rail might be an unpopular position for me to take, but I am going to stick my neck out on this one. I realize that many of my friends and family, some who live in Hawaii Kai and Kailua, will probably disagree with me, but that’s where I stand, plain and simple.

THE FEAR OF RAIL
Resistance to new commuter options is nothing new for Oahu. There was a time not too long ago when the H-3 freeway was viewed as a sign that the sky was falling. It was hailed as “the highway to nowhere” and was predicted to bankrupt taxpayers and ruin the island’s scenic beauty forever. I recently found out that even though plans for the H-3 began in 1960, setbacks such as protests, legal challenges and a route that took it through culturally and environmentally sensitive areas prevented the 15-mile road from opening until 1997! These days, most Oahu residents can see that the H-3 was a worthwhile investment, not just for those who use it everyday to get to work, but also for those on the Pali and Likelike Highways who would have to fight even more congestion if there were no H-3.

For some people who have never lived in a city with mass transit, the idea of light rail might sound more terrifying than alien space invaders. If this describes you, take comfort in the fact that the rail is NOT going to eat your children or cause the sky to fall. No one is forcing anyone to give up their car. You can still drive everywhere if you'd prefer, but not everyone likes driving 100% of the time. Maybe some people will go 50/50 or 70/30 with car+rail use together. This would be a big improvement over 100% car use. We desperately need another option not only for rush hour commuting, but also for those pesky one-way trips where you're meeting someone in town and can carpool for another leg of the trip. If the rail system is actually built, there will no longer be the frustration of getting stuck with two cars after meeting up with someone at a restaurant, workplace, shopping mall, doctor's appointment, football game, Chinatown, concert hall, swap meet, parade, Great Aloha Run, art exhibit, beach park, tourist attraction or anywhere else between Kapolei and Waikiki. What a day that will be! Too bad it’s still at least 10 years away.

Many of the objections to rail are based on fear; the fear of government, fear of taxes, fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of mainland influence, fear of loud noises, fear of wasting money and the fear of losing your driving freedom among others. Much to the delight of the automobile and gas industry, a lot of people are scared of rail. Granted, there is a level of fear and skepticism that is healthy. But what about the fear of continued fuel dependence and air pollution due to car emissions? What about the fear of doing nothing? We've allowed the slow boil of car dependency to run its course. It's time for a change. Voting against rail is really just a vote for more of the same.

THE CASE FOR RAIL
There are many reasons why I support Honolulu’s proposed mass transit system, but I’ve tried to boil it down to 4 basic arguments for why rail is better than HOT lanes.

1. Rail will move people, not just cars. HOT lanes will move some cars (those who can afford the toll) without actually moving more people. Right now, there is no alternative to cars and buses, which are both affected by traffic congestion, road work, accidents, fallen phone poles, rubbernecking, road rage and any other factor that slows down our roads. Rail would provide consistent, reliable travel times that take the guesswork and stress out of commuting and parking.

The HOT lanes might help you skip over some of the congestion, but what happens when it’s time to exit back onto the city streets to rejoin society? Won’t this just make the bottlenecks worse by increasing the size of the bottle without doing anything about the neck? Where will all the cars park once they get off the toll-way? According to the City’s transit website, “One train can move 300 people which equals 6 buses or 300 cars! That means one rail line equals 6 lanes of cars.” Don’t ask me about the exact math there, but the idea makes sense.

2. Rail will help to limit urban sprawl. If you haven’t heard of urban sprawl or transit-oriented development (TOD), you will soon. Other forward looking cities like Portland, Calgary, Denver and San Francisco have pioneered the idea of TOD, which is essentially aimed at encouraging public transportation use so that many people can “live, work and play” in a busy urban areas. Many cities in Europe and Japan have been doing this for decades and it’s time that we learned from their experience. Studies have shown that automobile dependency tends to result in urban sprawl, a phenomenon where suburbs with cookie-cutter subdivisions, big box stores, fast food chains and parking lots multiply faster than rabbits in mating season. Other consequences of urban sprawl include increased rates of obesity, pollution and infrastructure costs like parking and utilities.

Transit-oriented development, because it uses space much more efficiently that car-oriented development, usually results in more face-to-face interaction with others as well as neighborhoods that allow small business, culture and the arts to thrive. Honolulu may never be as transit-oriented as Copenhagen or Amsterdam, but we’ve never really tried it either. HOT lanes, by contrast, will only result in increased car dependency which in turn will make the island feel even more crowded than it already is.

3. Rail will be environmentally and economically sustainable for the long term. We already know about rising gas prices and how bad automobile emissions are for the environment. For those who choose to use rail, they will save money on gas and car maintenance costs, not to mention stress from sitting in gridlock. Even though the rail system will use a lot of electricity, it’s not going to cause the air and water pollution that another major freeway would. The rail line will also help to “keep the country country” by encouraging economic growth near the transit corridor, which will help to keep rampant development away from rural and agricultural communities. From an economic standpoint, the city estimates that the rail project will create around 11,000 direct and indirect jobs annually or 90,000 person years of employment. “Person years” is an interesting way to quantify things. I wonder how many “person years” of employment are left on my odometer!

4. Rail benefits our island as a whole. Yes, you heard me right. Even Kailua, Hawaii Kai and the North Shore have something to gain from the rail system, even if it never passes through their backyards. Anyone who ever uses the H-1 freeway won’t be slowed down by the cars of rail and bus riders. This includes our emergency responders as well as loved ones who might live on a different side of the island (presently or in the future). It also includes people who deliver our goods, provide essential services and protect our streets. Every person on the train or bus is someone you won’t have to compete with for a parking space. Less time on the road means more time and energy for family and recreation, leading to a better quality of life for everyone. We all benefit from having more transportation choices. We all benefit from importing less oil. It’s important to consider future generations of Oahu residents, not just MY neighborhood, MY lifestyle and MY commute.

Granted, rail is not going to be an option for every single person. Neither is the bus, but the bus remains a good option for the 100,000+ people on Oahu who have a bus pass (I didn’t realize it was that many either). Obviously, the rail line won’t stop in everyone’s neighborhood. Neither does the bus, but everyone would agree that our traffic problems would be worse without the bus system. Does anyone remember the bus strike? It wasn’t just the bus riders who were affected. Having the bus system benefits our island as a whole, not just the individuals who ride it. Having the 3 freeways benefits our island as a whole, not just those people who drive on them. The same is true of rail. Like the bus, rail will provide an option for some, not all, which will actually benefit both drivers and transit riders.

OBJECTIONS TO RAIL
To their credit, the anti-rail campaign has done a remarkable job informing the public of their disagreements with Rail Transit. Here are my responses to the top 10 most common objections I’ve heard:


1. The rail is too expensive. What a waste of taxpayers' money. I won’t pretend that $3.7 billion is a small amount of money. This is an expensive project for sure, but at least it can be paid for by the transit tax and funds from the Federal Transit Authority’s New Starts program. The “Stop Rail Now” campaign thinks we should spend close to $1 billion on HOT lanes, but there is no tax or other public funding to pay for it. Doing nothing may sound like the cheapest plan of all, but that too is expensive in its own way. How do we calculate the cost of countless hours wasted in traffic that could have been spent at home, work, church, the gym or just plain old having fun? Of course, it would have been much cheaper to build the rail in 1992 when the state's congressional delegation had locked in more than $600 million in federal transit money, but that’s water under the bridge. You get what you pay for and the status quo needs to change. Both sides agree that we should spend money on something. The question is whether it should be on rail or HOT lanes.

2. The rail system won't reduce traffic. We often read statements in the local papers that say things like, “the proposed rail project won’t prevent traffic along the busy H-1 corridor from worsening.” Technically this is true, but it’s important to understand that NONE of the proposed solutions will prevent congestion from worsening. It’s not a question of “if” traffic will get worse but “how much” worse it will get. Transit critics like Slater, Djou and Prevedouros love to point out that even with rail, traffic in 2018 will be worse than it is in 2008. That’s like saying we shouldn't have mass transit because it won’t cure cancer or eliminate crime. Of course traffic will get worse! But it will get worse even faster if we do nothing besides add more freeways and HOT lanes. Traffic without the rail will be far worse than traffic with the rail, but you hardly ever heard it phrased that way.


3. Not enough people will ride the rail because people in Hawaii love their cars too much. We certainly do love our cars here, but apparently not as much as we used to. A recent Honolulu Advertiser article
reported that Honolulu’s bus ridership was up 3% in the first quarter of 2008 thanks mainly to rising gas prices. Some buses have been so overcrowded that they have had to turn people away! If people will ride buses, they will definitely ride rail which is faster and more reliable. More and more people are trying to save on gas, car wear and tear, driving stress and parking costs. Does anyone actually think gas will be any cheaper in 2018? On a national level, mass transit ridership nationwide is up to its highest point in 50 years. In the first quarter of 2008, ridership in Portland was up 11%, Seattle was up 28%, and Charlotte was up 43%. If places like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania can have a rail system, why can't Honolulu? Another recent article reported that the rail transit system "is expected to reduce daily vehicle trips by 45,000 on O'ahu." No matter how you slice it, I think we will be pleasantly surprised with how many people choose this option on a regular basis.

4. Rail will be too noisy because “steel wheel on steel rail” was the wrong choice of technology. This would be a valid point if the proposed technology was the same as the painfully loud steel-on-steel used by older systems like Chicago and New York. The City has made it clear that the proposed steel-on-steel technology is very different than those older rail systems. The noise level of Honolulu’s rail cars is expected to be comparable to Vancouver’s newer system, which is much quieter. The advantage of the steel wheel technology (besides being the most cost-effective and reliable) is that it keeps the loudest noise at ground level where the wheels contact the guideway. This noise can be easily softened by a 3-foot tall barrier wall which would reduce the sound by at least 5 decibels, making rail quieter than an accelerating bus. This is because the source of the sound on a bus is 8 to 12 feet up in the air. Yes, the train will still make noise, but will it be louder than noise of our cars, buses and freeways? I think not.

5. It would be easier to try other options such as changing work schedules or moving part of UH Manoa to Kapolei. Adjusting work schedules sounds easy in theory until you try to think of actual companies and schools that are willing to change their office hours from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm, Monday through Friday to say, 11:00 am to 7:30 pm, Wednesday through Sunday. I’m sure this would work wonders for soccer practice, bedtime stories and family get-togethers. Are any of the banks, law firms and doctor’s offices downtown interested in changing business hours? Alexander and Baldwin? First Hawaiian Bank? The physicians' offices at Queen’s Medical Center? These “solutions” would be much more difficult to implement than simply building a rail system as hundreds of other cities have done.

It’s one thing for the State to plan a new UH West Oahu campus in Kapolei which is a great idea. It’s another thing to expect part of the current Manoa campus to re-locate 25 miles away. Sure, everyone knows that UH Manoa generates a lot of congestion when school is in session. But which part of the school would get moved: undergrad or graduate programs? The Nursing School or the Law School? Maybe Punahou and Iolani are interested in moving their campuses to Kapolei while we’re at it. I’ve even heard other excessive alternatives suggested such as instituting population control restrictions reminiscent of China’s one-child policy! While I applaud the creativity of these solutions, they are neither realistic nor effective. Rail is a better idea.

6. Mufi Hannemann is a corrupt politician who is just using the rail money for his cronies at Parsons Brinckerhoff (the City’s primary rail contractor). He is not doing the will of the people. Sure, Mufi’s plans have not been perfect and there have been some problems along the way such as the shortening of the initial route and the exclusion of an Ewa Beach stop. Still, there is no evidence that Hannemann has done anything inappropriate in his dealings with Parsons Brinckerhoff, which by the way is well-respected firm that has actually built (get this) toll-ways and highways in major cities around the globe like Budapest, Dubai, Boston and Cincinnati in addition to a number of substantial rail systems. PB is a gigantic corporation that has worked on much bigger contracts that Honolulu’s rail line. This is the same company that built Britain’s railtrack, Cairo’s underground rail system, Singapore’s deep tunnel sewerage system and Madrid’s airport! They don’t need Mufi’s money.


Although his steadfast support of the project has made him any easy target for our local band of rail resisters, the Mayor seems to be keeping the project as transparent as possible through public forums, audits and press releases. Overall, it’s been a very visible process. While Hannemann has never been secretive about his support for transit, voters were aware of this when he was elected in 2004. If any corruption exists, I’m sure that Cliff Slater and his crew will be the first to inform the public!

Besides, it’s not just the Mayor who is behind this project. The majority of the City Council and all 4 Hawaii members of Congress (especially Neil Abercrombie) support rail. The State Senate and House passed the transit tax and Governor Lingle had the chance to veto it in 2005, but she chose not to. The City Council voted 6-3 to set up the panel of experts who chose the type of technology. Even after the experts made their recommendation, the Council still had the option of choosing something else but they did not. In other words, the City Council has had just as much of a say in this as the Mayor. They voted for a panel, voted for an audit and voted for studies to be done, but they have yet to ever vote against this proposed transit system. If Mufi was the only one behind the pro-rail efforts, the Council could simply vote the project down.

7. Rail only benefits people that live in West Oahu so why should we all have to pay for it? First of all, see my earlier point called “Rail benefits our island as a whole.” Second, the time to protest the tax was 3 years ago because it’s already gone into effect. Third, the very nature of local taxes is that they always help to pay for public works projects scattered throughout the island. Sometimes you help to pay for projects outside the area where you live, and sometimes other people help to pay for things in your area that they won’t likely use. We all helped to pay for the H-3 freeway, the widening of Kalanianaole Highway, the Pali tunnel and sewer work in Kailua. That’s the way taxes work. Fourth, it should also be said that since the general-excise transit tax (GET) applies to all sales transactions, the rail is being paid for, in part, by our many tourists and visitors who spend money here every year. Lastly, Kapolei and Ewa are the areas with the greatest projected population growth on Oahu, by far. Like it or not, there has to be a plan for dealing with this fact.

8. The route doesn't maximize ridership because it doesn’t include stops for Ewa Beach, Mililani, UH Manoa or Waikiki. This is a valid point. Personally, I wish that all these stops were included, but I think the City chose not to because it would have driven the initial costs too high. I think the Manoa and Waikiki extensions are still likely to happen, just not in the initial phase. The Ewa Beach stop has already been debated at length within the City Council so it’s unlikely to be revisited. People from Ewa will have to drive to Kapolei or Waipahu to catch the train. Of course, I’d love a Mililani extension, but we can’t get too greedy or else the cost will exceed the budget. Even with these flaws, I firmly believe that this route is still better than no route at all. If it ever gets up and running, there will be plenty of riders. We shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

9. We have a traffic congestion problem, not a public transportation problem. Actually, we have an urban planning problem, which is both a congestion and a transportation problem. Oahu’s car dependency will only cause congestion to worsen faster if we keep on killing the plans for rail. Road-based alternatives like HOT lanes are highly unlikely to ever get any public funding, at the State or Federal level. As I said before, we need to move people, not just cars. If there was truly enough support for HOT lanes or toll roads, the public would be asking to put those options on the ballot instead of just shooting down rail as we’ve done in the past. I’m sure the folks at Parsons Brinckerhoff would gladly build us a nice set of HOT lanes if the public truly supported the idea and was willing to pay for it out of their pockets.

10. What about all of the homes and businesses that will need to cleared to make way for transit stops their parking lots? Aren't we just paving more of paradise to put up parking lots? Is this how we repay longtime landowners for withstanding encroaching development? There's a big difference between putting up a parking lot for commuters to ride public transportation and putting up one for people that drive alone in their cars 20 miles to work. How is purchasing property for the rail line any different from displacing people to build HOT lanes, widen existing highway lanes or build more roads? If we are truly concerned about “encroaching development” in Kapolei, Ewa and Central Oahu, we should be in favor of rail because it is more likely to reduce urban sprawl. I would argue that a city without rail will actually result in the mass production of cookie-cutter suburbs faster than a city that is commuter-friendly and is easy to get around. Why is this? It’s because people don't need to "escape" to the wide open spaces of the suburbs if their lives in densely populated urban areas are convenient and sustainable. Transit-oriented development will actually to preserve the beauty, history and culture of "Old Hawaii."

NOT-SO-HOT LANES
It's always easier to shoot down someone else's idea than to suggest your own. This is why the “Stop Rail Now” campaign was careful not to include the HOT lanes (depicted at right) in their proposed ballot measure. They would much rather keep the focus on attacking rail instead of defending their HOT lanes proposal. If all the scrutiny surrounding rail transit was directed at the HOT lanes, we would see that rail is clearly a better choice. Here are my top 10 problems with the idea of HOT lanes:

1) HOT lanes don’t take any cars off the roads. They just relocate cars from one freeway to another.
2) HOT lanes don’t address the issue of parking.
3) HOT lanes are still affected by local road congestion once you get off the toll-way.
4) HOT lanes cater to a higher income class who can afford to pay the tolls ($30 or more per week not including parking).
5) HOT lanes would have very limited on and off points similar to the current H-1 zipper lane. Rail, on the other hand, would have many more stops for passengers to get on or off.
6) HOT lanes would only cover a 10-mile stretch between Pearl City and Iwilei. They would not alleviate any traffic between Kapolei and Waipahu or between Chinatown and Ala Moana.
7) HOT lanes would only be open during the day time, whereas rail service would continue until midnight every day for those who work different shifts.
8) HOT lanes would leave commuters still dependent on imported oil and rising gas prices.
9) HOT lanes would promote more car dependency which causes air pollution and urban sprawl.
10) HOT lanes could never be paid for with Hawaii’s transit tax because current law prevents this money from being used on road construction or bus lanes. In addition, the federal government has very little funding available for the construction of new roads compared to rail systems.

My final complaint with HOT lanes is the intrinsically snobbish way they operate. By their very nature, HOT lanes don’t work unless they are empty enough for cars to move quickly. No one is going to pay a $3 toll one way if it only saves them 10 minutes. Even if everyone started paying the $3 toll, the HOT lanes would become too crowded, which would mean that the toll would have to be increased to $4 in order to discourage drivers from hopping on. Can you imagine if we took this approach with buses and charged riders a higher fare if the bus was too crowded so that they would be forced to walk or ride a bike? What about low-income families that depend on public transportation to get around because they can’t afford the cost of owning a car? This is why rail and buses are considered forms of mass transit, but HOT lanes are not. HOT lanes are inherently exclusive and elitist private roads. By comparison, rail and buses are inclusive and work best when more people use them, not less.


WHY I'M HOPEFUL
While it's easy to get bogged down in all the political mudslinging, I remain optimistic about Honolulu’s rail transit debate. More discussion will lead to more information which will lead to a more educated public. I believe we should give proper scrutiny to every public transportation idea whether it's the rail, HOT lanes, Superferry or H-3 freeway. Fear and ignorance often go hand in hand. The more information, the better.

So by all means, let’s take a closer look at everyone involved in this debate whether it’s the City Council, Mayor Hannemann, Cliff Slater, Parsons Brinckerhoff or Panos Prevedouros, a possible candidate for Mayor this November. Let's discuss and examine urban sprawl, transit-oriented development and HOT lanes. While I think the “Stop Rail Now” petition is frivolous, I’m not scared to take a vote. If there are so many people who don’t want rail, why is it such a struggle to get 44,525 signatures in city this size? Maybe it’s because some people actually like the idea of paying two bucks for train ride from the Airport to Waikiki instead of $35 for a taxi. Maybe it’s because people don’t want to see the auto industry and oil companies profit from more congestion. Maybe people have underestimated the frustration of those who commute every day from Central Oahu, the Ewa Plains, and the Leeward coast.


Maybe something is different this time around.

4 comments:

luckypopo said...

May the rail happen soon! Maybe it'll get going before Theo goes to Kindergarten. Wouldn't that be great!

Inquiring Mind said...

Great blog - you put out a lot of facts. I'll definitely pass this along to my friends that support rail too.

a said...

Eh. I'm not exactly against rail per se, but your unfortunately your HOV arguments vary between somewhat circular and totally flawed.

Responses in no particular order:

9) Air pollution and urban sprawl.

Something like 90% of Oahu's electricity needs are met by burning oil. Switching from gas-based cars to oil-based electricity unfortunately has minimal gain. We would only produce gains from the renewable portfolio mandate, which is quite optimistic at this point. And regarding urban sprawl, the rail promotes sprawl among the entire Western Oahu corridor that it services.

2) Parking.

I'm not sure why this matters. If a person has a problem with parking downtown, that particular person has chosen to drive rather than catch the bus. That was that person's choice.

5) Rail stops and hov exits.

As someone who has taken the bus for 14 years of his life, I can point out that the greatest inconvenience is not from direct routes; it's from transferring routes in a hub-spoke system. As fixed-rail is well, fixed, you will still have a hub-spoke system, which will deeply reduce it's attractiveness.

This is compounded of course by the Salt Lake route debacle.

4) Elitism

Eh, you're missing the point of tollways. If I take the tollway, I make everyone else go faster, because I'm no longer on the H-1. That's why traffic is a problem; my driving on the road doesn't only affect me, it affects everyone I share the road with.

The idea of raising the toll price is a constructed straw man. If the tollway gets "too crowded" at $3, that means it won't provide enough of a time-savings, and certain people will take H-1 instead.

*) The whole bus substitution thing.

You are right, fuel consumption is down and bus ridership is up. But this fact is fully orthagonal to the debate.

The correct question is: "how many _more_ people will ride rail who currently drive?" which is deeply related to "what makes rail so impressive that it will attract people who currently avoid the bus?"

The Common Loon said...

Thanks for commenting, a. You’ve raised some interesting points. Here are my responses:

1) Air pollution. You are correct in noting that the “green-ness” of the rail will depend on ridership and the type of energy used to produce the electricity. While it's tough to predict exactly what the circumstances will be in 10 years when the system finally opens, I think it’s reasonable to expect that traffic will be worse, gas will cost more, ridership will be strong and HECO will be producing energy more efficiently than they are now. Common sense seems to suggest that 300 transit riders in a rail car will cause less air pollution than 300 private automobiles crawling slowly in gridlock.

2) Urban sprawl. I think you’re confusing “sprawl” with “development.” Not all development is the same. Urban/suburban sprawl is very low-density and eats up tons of space thanks to culdesacs, backyards, private driveways, lots of parking spaces etc. Transit-oriented development, by contrast, is high-density with the goal of creating “live, work, play” communities that minimize the need for car use. Transit experts almost universally agree that car-oriented development leads to urban sprawl much faster than TOD.

3) Parking- why does it matter? Parking matters because it is a key component of car-based commuting. Increasing road capacity without increasing parking capacity is like developing suburbs without allocating space for schools and hospitals (something we’ve seen before on Oahu). Sure, you could still say, “people have a choice about whether or not to buy a home in that development” but it’s still poor urban planning. Rail will decrease car-dependency, which alleviates parking demand, whereas HOT lanes will escalate what is already a very high demand for a limited parking supply. This is closely related to the problem of HOT lanes not taking cars off the roads, a point that you didn’t respond to.

4) Rail stops and HOV exits. As far as hub-spoke goes, this is a feature of almost any bus/rail system. The attractiveness of rail is based on reliability and cost-effectiveness, which varies from person to person. If the transfers cost you too much time, by all means, take the car. I acknowledge that rail won’t be everyone’s choice. No one will be forced to ride the rail, just like no one is forced to ride the bus. But transit ridership is on the rise not by force, but by choice.

Transit helps a wide variety of users, not just rush hour commuters from point A to B. HOT lanes, like our current HOV zipper lane, are only helpful when the trip requires the length of the lane. If you’re only going from Kapolei to Aloha Stadium or from Pearl City to the Airport, the zip lane offers little benefit. Rail, although fixed, would be flexible enough to accommodate these shorter trips and remove those people out of congestion.

5) Elitism. My point about the exclusive nature of tollways is that they work best when few people use them. In other words, they can never be a mainstream form of transportation for the general public. Similar to luxury cars, box seats, first class plane tickets and Rolex watches, the premise is that you are able to get something better than what everyone else is getting. This model of helping those who can afford to pay for it is not what we need to solve our local transportation problems.

Your argument of “if I take the tollway, I make everyone else go faster” fails to acknowledge what happens when it’s time to exit back onto the city streets to rejoin society. The tollway has to end somewhere and there are only so many extra lanes and major arteries that can be widened. Again, it’s a case of increasing the size of the bottle without doing anything about the neck.

You also asked a couple of terrific questions that are central to this controversy. 1) How many more people will ride rail who currently drive? and 2) What makes rail so impressive that it will attract people who currently avoid the bus?"

I would contend that rail is more appealing than the bus because it will be faster and more reliable. Even though Honolulu’s bus ridership is up, I think many people still avoid buses because they are affected by unpredictable road conditions such as traffic congestion, road work, accidents, fallen phone poles, etc. These factors make the bus too unreliable and too slow to attract certain riders, especially during off-peak hours.

Personally, I don’t ride the bus too often, but I would use the rail for those pesky one-way trips where I’m meeting someone in town and can carpool for another leg of the trip. This would include going out to restaurants in congested areas like downtown, McCully, Kaimuki (one of my townie friends could pick me up), Pearlridge or events at Aloha Stadium like football games, the swap meet or the Great Aloha Run. I would also visit the historic/cultural sites of the Capitol district and Chinatown more often if I didn’t have to worry about traffic or parking. That’s just me, but I’m sure other people would use it for other activities.

How many will ride? No one really knows, but according to the article I cited in my original blog post, the transit system is expected to reduce daily vehicle trips by 45,000 on O'ahu.

In any case, it's good to finally be discussing rail vs. HOT lanes instead of just the same old "rail vs. no rail" debate. The HOT lanes discussion is an important one that the public needs to have.