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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, June 13, 2005

Transit: What is happening elsewhere?

By Cliff Slater

Normally if you are going to invest in a new business, you want to know how that type of business is faring in other communities. Strangely, we fail to do that for rail transit proposals.

Yes, our elected officials go to other cities and kick the tires, so to speak. However, they do not then undertake the laborious examination of operating and financial results that a proper investment decision requires.

Texas Transportation Institute, which monitors the nation's traffic congestion, has said that, "To accomplish a goal of maintaining a constant congestion level in these areas by only adding transit riders (would require) expanding transit systems by more than one-third of the current ridership each year."

That's a 250 percent increase every three years and clearly, this is not happening here, on the Mainland or in Europe. Everywhere the percentage of commuters using public transportation is in decline.

Here's what they are talking about:

Honolulu has 400,000 commuters and, of these, 8 percent, or 32,000, use public transportation. If we do not increase this percentage, it means that for each 10 percent increase in commuters, or 40,000, we will have 3,200 new commuters using public transportation and the rest, some 36,800, using other means, with the vast majority of them driving alone.

That means increased congestion.

On the other hand, if we set ourselves the goal of keeping level the number of those commuting by automobile, then we have to double the percentage of people using public transportation for each 10 percent growth in commuters. This would keep traffic congestion at the same level it is today.

What is the likelihood of that happening?

If you examine the U.S. Department of Transportation's analysis of America's commuting habits, you find that between 1980 and 2000, no metropolitan area with rail succeeded in increasing the percentage of commuters using public transportation. One area, San Diego, held level, but all others experienced declines.

This is why from 1990 to 2000, despite federal, state and local operating subsidies and capital outlays for public transportation totaling over $200 billion, it lost ground. The national increase in commuters driving to work was 13 million; those commuters using public transportation declined. It is also why all rail areas saw significant increases in traffic congestion.

Are there any answers?

Given the reality that we are not getting out of our cars — no matter what — and given our inability to fund expansion of our regular highway system sufficiently, then we have to turn to some form of congestion pricing. This is the only tool that will allow us to manage a highway for the maximum throughput of vehicles. It should not be surprising since the variable pricing of resources for which there is too much demand is how we manage everything from housing to clothing to food.

Honolulu's best initial move could be High Occupancy Toll lanes, or HOT lanes, between Waikele and Iwilei in the form of an elevated reversible two-lane highway on which buses and vanpools would have priority and automobiles pay a toll.

If anyone knows of any other method that has reduced traffic congestion in practice (and not just in theory), please let me know.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater.

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