June 23, 2008

Music Review: Viva La Vida by Coldplay

Coldplay describes their musical style as "very heavy soft rock." A peculiar description, although I suppose the band has earned the right to define themselves that way after selling upwards of 32 million albums since their acclaimed debut, Parachutes, was released in 2000. In less than a decade since songs like "Yellow" and "Trouble" first put them on the map, Coldplay has gone from obscure students at University College London with band names such as Starfish and Pectoralz to become one of the most recognizable acts in mainstream music. Their fourth album, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, was released last week in the U.S. amid all kinds of hype, having already opened at #1 in 10 other countries from Norway to Korea.

While commercial expectations are very high for Viva La Vida, the English foursome (comprised of frontman Chris Martin, guitarist Jonny Buckland, bass player Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion) has also set a lofty bar musically with their past work. The quiet, folksy Parachutes was considered an innovative post-alternative rock record and even made it onto several "top British albums of all time" lists. Acoustic piano became a suddenly trendy rock star accessory again.

The band's second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head perfected Coldplay's signature ambient sound and was thought by most critics to be an even more brilliant achievement than its predecessor, winning a place on several prestigious "greatest albums of all time" lists including those put out by Rolling Stone magazine and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Four Grammy's and a massive world tour later, Coldplay was being hailed as the second coming of U2 with fans eagerly preparing for the 2005 release of the group's third album, X&Y. Even though it sold over 10 million copies, X&Y was more of a play-it-safe B+ than the third straight A+ album people had come to expect. The first single, "Speed of Sound", was a bit too similar to "Clocks" and some feared that Coldplay was a one-trick pony that had run its course. The post-Rush of Blood comparisons to U2 now appeared premature and the group's window of influence as postmodern soft rock pioneers seemed to be slowly closing. It was time for a new direction. It was time for Viva La Vida.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly leading up to its release, Martin said, "We're slightly terrified about this record, because we've thrown away all our tricks. The truth is, we tried to find new ones." After enthusiastically purchasing and listening Viva La Vida (Spanish for "long live life" or "live the life"), I can't say they've thrown away all their tricks, but they've definitely discovered some clever new ones. Between the 10 tracks, there's more experimentation and musical variety than on any previous project. The results are delicious. Listening to the entire album from start to finish is a scrumptious feast for the ears; familiar and unexpected at the same time. The intro to "Yes" made me think of late OK Computer-era Radiohead, while parts of "Violet Hill" reminded me of Queen. As a U2 fan, I couldn't help but think of how "Lovers in Tokyo" sounds like a cross between "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "City of Blinding Lights." In other words, it's a catchy arena anthem that will be a staple at Coldplay shows for years to come.

Lyrically, there are plenty of new complexities and metaphors open to interpretation. As the album's title suggests, themes of life and death are recurrent throughout. In addition to being at their imaginative best, this might also be their most spiritual album so far. The fact that some of the songs were recorded in churches in Spain and Latin America may have contributed to the religious and supernatural imagery that is prevalent on many of the songs including "Violet Hill" (Priests clutched onto bibles · Hollowed out to fit their rifles · And the cross was held aloft), "Cemeteries of London" (I see God come in my garden · But I don’t know what he said · For my heart it wasn’t open), "42" (You thought you might be a ghost · You didn’t get to heaven but you made it close), Death and All His Friends (No, I don't wanna battle from beginning to end · I don't want a cycle of recycled revenge · I don't wanna follow Death and all his friends) and the title track (I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing · Roman cavalry choirs are singing · Be my mirror, my sword, and shield · My missionaries in a foreign field).

Viva La Vida is simply a stellar concept album with no wasted 'filler' songs. Vibrant and fearless, it's far superior to X&Y, which at times tried to squeeze too much out of the good thing that was A Rush of Blood to the Head, a landmark record that could forever be seen as Coldplay's definitive work akin to U2's The Joshua Tree. True to what they do best, this new release is still very Coldplay-ish; layered and colorful, introspective without being narcissistic. Although Viva La Vida is still characterized by the band's unmistakable sound, nothing about it makes me say "This idea has already been done better" the way that "What If" and "Talk" from X&Y did. (To clarify, I still love X&Y, particularly "The Hardest Part" and "Fix You." It just wasn't a 5-star album.)
With their latest effort, the Coldplay gents remain loyal to themselves, just not as predictable. There are still plenty of short, melodic guitar riffs and echo-laden synth backdrops. You'll still hear Chris Martin floating his falsetto while padding piano chords from time to time, but not as the bread and butter modus operandi any more. Instead, Martin explores a much lower register vocally which proves to be just as haunting, if not more so. The crown jewel of this project is "Violet Hill", which strikes the best balance of emotional ebb and flow the band is known for pulling off so well.

So how does Viva stack up against Coldplay's better work from Rush of Blood and Parachutes? Very well, I think. While it remains to be seen how these songs will define the band over the long term, my initial impression is that their new direction is an outstanding leap forward. Fresh musical and lyrical avenues are playfully explored with refreshing optimism. The effect is 45 minutes and 53 seconds of beauty that far exceeded even this fan's expectations. Coldplay is growing up and so is their expanding audience. It looks like they've found a few new tricks.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

June 13, 2008

This Is My Father's World: Reflections on a Hymn

Don't ask me to choose a side in the tiresome "worship wars" between 'traditional' and 'contemporary' church music. I've heard all the arguments and I think we need both old and new. Sure, I'll concede that hymns are not trendy or seeker-sensitive. They often employ awkward phrases like "here I raise my Ebenezer" and "thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray." Most hymns don't always lend themselves well to 4/4 time signatures or video projection screens.

But the older I get, the more I appreciate the 'old school' hymns as expressions of essential truth about God's nature. One of my favorite hymns is "This is my Father's World", originally written as a poem by a pastor from upstate New York named Maltbie D. Babcock (pictured at left). Rev. Babcock is said to have been an avid hiker who was inspired by his walks in the woods near Lake Ontario to write "This is my Father's world", which became a hymn when it was set to music after his death in 1901.

So what's so great about this hymn? It doesn't have the name recognition of classics like "Amazing Grace" or "Holy, Holy, Holy." It has not been modernized and adapted for guitar and drums the way that say, "Come Thou Fount" or "When I Survey" have been David Crowder and Chris Tomlin-ized in recent years. The melody to "This Is My Father's World" is not particularly unique or memorable, just standard hymn fare if you ask me. I don't think you can buy a minus-one performance track edition at your local Christian bookstore (never say never). There's nothing about it that screams "special music" or "hit single." Even so, I have yet to come across any other song, ancient or modern, (outside of the Scriptures of course) that so perfectly describes the balance and tension between the "already" and the "not yet" of God's rule as King of creation. Babcock's words refuse to take sides in the false dichotomy that entangles so much of Christendom these days: the promise of a heaven "up there" vs. the imperative to bring about a heaven "down here."

With that balance in mind, I would like to reflect on some of the most poignant phrases found in the words of this beloved hymn. I have included the full lyrics so you can sing along if you wish!

Verse 1:
This is my Father's world, and to my list'ning ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father's world! I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas- His hand the wonders wrought.

"All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres" God is an artist, a musician. His music fills the universe. The great "spheres" of sun, moon and planets display his artistry in motion. In creation, we will always discover Him conducting a majestic concerto as long as we have the "listening ears" required to hear it. The music sung by nature points to the creativity, imagination and originality of the Creator. It's fascinating to think that these words were written 100 years before evangelical environmentalists coined the language of "creation care" and "stewardship" of the Earth's resources.

Verse 2:
This is my Father’s world- the birds their carols raise;
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world! He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass- He speaks to me ev'rywhere.

"He shines in all that's fair" Given that this hymn was written in 100+ years ago, I'll assume that the word "fair" is being used here as a synonym for "beautiful" or "pleasing in appearance." Anything that we find to be truly beautiful is reflecting something of the Divine. All truth is God's truth. Richard Mouw's excellent book of the same title eloquently defends the doctrine of common grace, the idea that even though non-believers do not participate in God's saving grace, they do participate in a form God's grace that is common to all of humanity. Christians do not have a monopoly on truth, beauty and artistry. The eternal state of one's soul is not a litmus test for great ideas, great art or even great friends. Not only does God shine in all things bright and beautiful (now I'm mixing my hymn lyrics), I would contend that He also shines in all that is just, another meaning of the word "fair." When fairness, wholeness and justice are restored to the world's brokenness and dysfunction, we catch a glimpse of the Kingdom.

Verse 3:
This is my Father’s world- O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world! The battle is not done;
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied, And earth and heav’n be one.

"Though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet" This is my favorite line of the entire hymn. The world is dark place characterized by greed, superficiality, oppression and violence. Yet, it still belongs to God. It's still His world and it's not beyond redemption. Despite child slavery, genocide, tsunamis, famine and war, He is the ruler yet. Psalm 24:1 says, "The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it." The problem of pain is not a riddle to be solved or an equation to be balanced. Christ Himself promised trouble and affliction for those who sojourn on the path leading to His cross. But by that same cross, Christ has overcome the world.

Although most hymnals only contain three verses for this hymn, I was excited to find (thanks to the Internet) several additional stanzas that are rarely sung. I shall end my reflections by giving way to their words...

Verse 4:
This is my Father’s world, dreaming, I see His face.
I ope my eyes, and in glad surprise cry, “The Lord is in this place.”
This is my Father’s world! From the shining courts above;
The Beloved One, His Only Son, came- a pledge of deathless love.

Verse 5:
This is my Father’s world- Should my heart be ever sad?
The lord is King- let the heavens ring. God reigns- let the earth be glad.
This is my Father’s world! Now closer to heaven bound,
For dear to God is the earth Christ trod. No place but is holy ground.

Verse 6:
This is my Father’s world- I walk a desert lone.
In a bush ablaze to my wondering gaze, God makes His glory known.
This is my Father’s world! A wanderer I may roam
Whate’er my lot, it matters not, my heart is still at home.

June 4, 2008

Lakers vs. Celtics: A Rivalry Renewed

I realize that this is not supposed to be a sports blog, but my Lakers fever is boiling over this week! If you didn't already know, I have been a Los Angeles Lakers fan ever since I watched Magic Johnson on TV at a babysitter's house in the mid-80's. While my San Francisco-raised dad passed along his childhood affection for Y.A. Tittle's 49ers and Willie Mays' Giants (imparted to me in the form of Joe Montana and Will Clark), he was never really into basketball. Thus, I was free to love the Lakers.

I never knew I was mispronouncing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's name up until the 4th grade when he retired, but I loved to watch Magic run the "Showtime" fast break with James Worthy, Byron Scott and A.C. Green. If my Lakers license plate holder and 5-disc DVD box set are any indication, not much has changed in the past 20 years in terms of my NBA allegiance. I still haven't grown out of my childhood loyalty to the purple and gold, although you won't find any Eddie Jones or Nick Van Exel posters on my bedroom wall anymore (yes, the mid-90's were pretty dark days for Laker fans).

More recently, things were looking pretty gloomy last summer. The Lakers had just suffered their second straight first-round exit by the order of the Phoenix Suns. Kobe Bryant, forever the moody superstar, blasted the team's front office for poor trades, draft picks and personnel decisions. He then publicly demanded to be traded, but changed his mind a few days later after a conversation with Phil Jackson, the Laker's head coach and "Zen Master." As trade rumors swirled, everyone in Laker-land was pointing fingers in an attempt to explain why the once-powerful franchise had fallen into disarray ever since Shaquille O'Neal was traded to Miami after the 2003-2004 season. Laker fans were bracing for another lackluster season at best, and at worst, the loss of their most talented player. No one expected the team to improve at all in 07-08, much less get all the way back to the Finals.

Nine months later, fate has birthed a scenario that even the most optimistic of Laker fans did not anticipate. On America's opposite coast, the Boston Celtics have gone from miserable cellar dwellers to championship contenders by adding superstars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to go along with Paul Pierce to form the new "Big Three." An ESPN commercial humorously explores other names for this trio including The Parquet Posse (a reference to the parquet floor on Boston's home court), The Three Basketeers, Barrage A Trois, and The Boston Three Party. With the 3 stars sharing the load, the Celtics have improved from a 24-58 record last season to a league-best 66-16 this year, the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history.

The last time the Lakers won the NBA title was in 2002, the same year that one of my sisters graduated from High School. My other sister graduated from High School three days ago which could be a good sign considering the Lakers begin their NBA Finals duel with the Boston Celtics tomorrow night. David Stern, the NBA's longtime commissioner (read 'CEO') could not have asked for a more appealing product than a Lakers vs. Celtics matchup in the Finals, a showdown that promises to renew the storied rivalry that dates back to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 80's as well as Jerry West and Bill Russell in the 60's.

The hype for the 2008 NBA Finals will likely make it the most watched series in the 10 years since Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls. ESPN has been re-playing nostalgic Lakers-Celtics games from the 80's all week long. Bryant is increasingly being compared to Jordan. Casual fans who haven't followed the NBA since Air Jordan's retirement are starting to catch the fever again. Even some of the NBA's detractors and basketball "purists" who once boycotted the league in protest of the highly commercialized, superstar driven, one-on-one oriented, hip hop image of the Association are finding that they can't help but pay attention to the Finals this year.

But it's more than just the superstars who are generating interest. It's also the tradition, the rivalry, the nostalgia and... good old fashioned teamwork. Both teams have gritty veterans, role players, 3-point specialists and lock-down defenders. Both clubs are actually playing excellent team basketball. The Celtics and Lakers are passing well, rebounding, making their free throws and playing solid defense. So what is the NBA coming to? Two teams that share the ball and play tough defense are also interesting and fun to watch? Yes, that was a swipe at the "good but boring" style of the Spurs and Pistons. It's been a special year for the NBA.

To be clear, I will always love college basketball. As I said in a blog post back in March, I still maintain that the NCAA tournament is my absolute favorite sporting event of the year. Nothing can match the teamwork, hustle and emotion of the college game. Duke and North Carolina have the best rivalry not just in college basketball, but in all of North American sports (I'm careful not to include the futbol/soccer, cricket and rugby rivalries found on other continents). Still, if you want to see the game of basketball played at its highest level, there's no match for the NBA with its great dynasties of Celtics, Lakers, Bulls and Spurs teams. So without further ado, here is my admittedly biased analysis of the 2008 NBA Finals in a nutshell.

What I'm looking forward to: The matchup of Kobe against Paul Pierce is going to be top-shelf entertainment. Both are terrific defenders, but they'll have to save their energy to take the big shots at the end of close games. It will be interesting to see how much they have to guard each other one-on-one. Either player can score 45 points if he's in 'the zone.' Another key matchup will be Kevin Garnett vs. Pau Gasol, the Lakers' recently acquired 7-foot Spaniard. No one plays harder than KG, but the Big Ticket has yet to show a real killer instinct in the playoffs so far. The Lakers will need Gasol, who can also be too laid back at times, to play very aggressively in order to win the series.

Why the Celtics should win: The 3 Amigos are all hungry to win their first championship, especially Kevin Garnett, who was the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year. If all three bring their A-game, they will win. The Celtics have gotten better as the playoffs have gone on. They were shaky in the first two rounds, but have peaked at the right time. In the only two games played against each other during the regular season, the Celtics won pretty convincingly over the Lakers. To be fair, both games were played before Los Angeles obtained Gasol, but neither game was very close. The Celtics also have home-court advantage, with the first 2 and last 2 games set to be played in Boston assuming the series goes the full 7 games. Boston has a 10-1 record at home in the playoffs this year and the Lakers will need to win at least one road game. If the Celtics win every home game, they win the series. It's as simple as that.

Why the Lakers should win: Everyone knows about Kobe Bryant. He's the league's reigning Most Valuable Player and by far the best at closing out games in the clutch. There are no weaknesses to his game and the comparisons to Jordan (which we've been hearing for the past 10 years) are actually starting to hold some water. If the Lakers pull off a series victory, it will be Kobe's 4th championship, just two less than Mr. Space Jam. At the ripe old age of 29, Bryant still has plenty of time for two more, especially since the rest of his team is so young. Paul Pierce and James Posey will play spirited defense against Kobe, so the biggest Laker advantages are their coaching experience (Phil Jackson has won 9 titles) and their deep bench of 5 reserves who can all play starter's minutes if needed. Derek Fisher usually plays well in big games and the Lakers underrated defense did a fine job dismantling the Spurs' exceptional trio of stars (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili) in the Western Conference Finals.

Fearless Prediction: It will be a fantastic series with at least one overtime game. The Lakers will win one of the first two contests in Boston, but the Celtics will steal one from Los Angeles at the Staples Center. The series will head back to Boston with the Lakers up 3 games to 2. The NBA's two greatest franchises will then battle it out in a Game 6 for the ages. The score will be close the entire way, but L.A. will prevail thanks to some late-game heroics by a Laker not named Kobe. Will it be Luke Walton, Jordan Farmar or Sasha Vujacic? Only time will tell. When it's finally over 2 weeks from now, the Lakers will have their 15th championship, just one behind the Celtics' all-time total of 16. Buckle up and enjoy the show!