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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 1, 2004

Criticism of BRT doesn't match reality

Cheryl D. Soon is director of the city's Department of Transportation Services.
By Cheryl D. Soon

In his most recent commentary opposing Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), Cliff Slater spins a tale to twist facts and create what is essentially a fictional account of what's going on.

What is BRT? A simple description of BRT is getting the most out of buses and roads working together, and it is done all around the world. The Honolulu BRT system includes BRT treatments in-town, plus a regional system.

The in-town system has three routes running in an east-west direction for 12.8 miles.

The regional system is for town-bound commuters from Leeward and Central O'ahu. It includes a 2.8-mile extension of the morning zipper lane, and it adds a new 6.6-mile afternoon zipper lane on H-1 Freeway. The analysis shows, and Slater knows, that the regional BRT/zipper lane system for buses and HOV is a very viable project that can be ready to use faster than any other option.

It's time to admit that there have been no "congestion-relieving options" except BRT put on the table for over a decade. The BRT plan came about after a wide-reaching and intense public outreach program called Trans2K. BRT still has all the advantages it had when the plan was selected in 2001 by the City Council and then included in the OMPO Regional Plan.

  • It builds on and improves an already excellent bus system and the H-1 zipper lane.
  • It joins frequent service with predictable travel times.
  • It can be built within existing resources; said another way, no new taxes are needed.
  • It is compatible with and does not pre-empt any future options.

The governor's Transportation Task Force came together in early 2003 to seek lasting consensus on O'ahu's traffic problems. Everyone agreed we have to work together, and the city and state transportation departments now work closely together on safety, congestion and technology projects.

On more than one occasion, the governor acknowledged the city's intention to move forward with BRT. No surprise there. On the other hand, ideas for rail projects were seen as long term, whereas BRT can be done now.

An update of the O'ahu Regional Transportation Plan is required in one and a half years. There are two practical choices: Build the regional BRT and use it until there can be a new rail or highway project, or build it without the prospect of a future project.

Not building anything would mean congestion in that corridor will grow to at least 1.5 hours each way within five years. This will seriously undermine the value of the designated regional growth plan for Leeward O'ahu.

Slater's interpretation of events is particularly wrong when it comes to the in-town BRT. The city always felt this portion needed to come first. The logic was simple: if people were coming into town without their vehicles, then they would need a fast, efficient set of lines to use while they were in town doing their daily business. Therefore, rapid in-town lines were selected between downtown and UH and among downtown, Kaka'ako and Waikiki.

These lines would connect shopping, businesses and schools with travel times rivaling or beating the automobile.

The in-town BRT system was considered critical because projected growth patterns showed daylong congestion from more and more cars. Widening and double-decking all the roads in town was simply unrealistic. The time to introduce a transit alternative is now, and it becomes more urgent with every new building erected.

Slater is most wrong when it comes to the reasons for choosing Iwilei to Waikiki as the first segment to construct. Our reasons are these:

First, this route has logical start and end points and it is to be built through the Kaka'ako district in time for the opening of the medical school. Second, it will be used as a stimulus for the revitalization of two important roads in Waikiki — Ala Moana Boulevard and Kuhio Avenue.

The record shows this segment enjoyed broad support from the affected neighborhood boards, from the Kaka'ako Improvement Association and the Waikiki Improvement Association. Early concerns by tour bus companies resulted in an agreement to share the BRT lanes with them.

The City Council approved the Iwilei-to-Waikiki segment as the first segment for construction. There was no "scurrying around."

Slater erroneously interprets both history and good fiscal policy when he implies there is something wrong with doing a project in phases. In fact, this was seen as an enormous advantage of BRT — it could be built in segments, according to the availability of funds. Each segment is part of the overall system and yet brings its own benefits.

The Federal Transit Administration approved the first section (naturally called the "initial operating segment") for a Record of Decision because it recognized its benefits and readiness to go forward.

The city budget ordinance required a Record of Decision on the environmental review before construction could begin. Thus, when the Record of Decision was received late last November, we took the necessary steps to obligate the city funds before they lapsed in December.

The federal funds have already been appropriated by Congress and earmarked for the Honolulu BRT project. The next steps are to place it on the state Transportation Improvement Program and then submit an application to the FTA.

Those actions will be requested of the City Council and the OMPO Policy Committee in the weeks ahead.

In summary, BRT can make a difference and it can be done quickly. We should not have to wait another generation to do something, when improvements are at hand. Build BRT now and keep looking for more projects to relieve congestion.