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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 21, 2006

Much more must be done before transit vote

 •  Our future rides on big-picture thinking

By Panos D. Prevedouros

TIME magazine chose you the blogger, the citizen activist, the mom who testifies once in a lifetime, the senior citizen speaking eloquently and passionately on government finances, the informed citizen who acts as Person of the Year.

What has been billed as the final rail vs. managed-lanes decision at the City Council chambers tomorrow requires fax, phone, e-mail and public testimony from citizens like you. Will you be zipping around elevated roadways like the H-3 Freeway or waiting for a train to arrive?

Sadly, the pro-rail and pro-managed lanes debate was canceled because of the city's refusal to show up. So, I take a moment to discuss some of the myths circulating on this issue.

Myth: Rail will reduce traffic congestion on O'ahu.

Fact: Rail will worsen traffic congestion. More congestion is a heavy price to pay after spending billions on rail. Remember that nationally only 2 percent of the trips in cities with rail are made by rail. Even if 10 percent of trips in Honolulu are made my rail, for every 1,000 future trips, 100 will be by rail and 900 will be by car. Rail is not a solution to congestion. Only highway solutions mitigate traffic congestion. This is why no U.S. city has reduced its traffic congestion building a rail line. The opposite is true; those with rail have the worst traffic congestion.

An elevated three-lane reversible managed lanes facility zooms buses at 60 mph and allows private vehicles to zip along at the same rate after paying about $4 in peak period. There are many successful deployments on the Mainland, and managed lanes are at the forefront of national transportation policy for solving traffic congestion.

Myth: The City's Alternatives Analysis was about solving traffic congestion.

Fact: This never was the case. "The purpose of this report is to select the mode and general alignment alternative for a high-capacity transit service on O'ahu." The purpose of the Alternatives Analysis was to "sell" you rail transit, the mayor's election campaign promise.

Myth: Rail is fast.

Fact: Rail is slow. Trains will move at an average of 25 to 30 miles per hour over the 28-mile route. The train is like an elevator that stops on every floor. It will always take more than an hour from Kapolei to the University of Hawai'i, plus transfers and wait times. Recall that today this takes less than 40 minutes by car outside of three morning hours on weekdays.

Myth: There is plentiful federal funding for rail's $6 billion expense.

Fact: Even if Honolulu's high-cost, low-ridership rail system were to capture federal funds, the funding would amount to around $450 million for a first operational segment and with great luck, an additional $450 million could be obtained for the second and final operational segment. If all this federal funding comes through, it will amount to about 15 percent of the projected costs. In contrast, highways are federally supported at the 80 percent level, and there are additional special funds for deploying managed-lane variable-pricing projects and for public-private partnerships for highways.

Myth: The general excise tax increase from 4 percent to 4.5 percent is enough to pay for rail.

Fact: It is nowhere near enough. In fact, there is no credible financial plan with a long-term horizon, and there is no financial impact plan. Ask the mayor how much rail will cost the average taxpayer and the average family per year for 30 years. No one knows and no one wants you to know. Not only will the shortest rail line cost way more than $3 billion, we will be at least another $3 billion short after collecting the 4.5 percent excise tax for 15 years!

Myth: The decision has to be made by tomorrow.

Fact: This is an arbitrary deadline that the City Council set for itself, and the decision can wait. The legislation says that the tax surcharge can't start before Jan. 1, 2007. It doesn't preclude starting it later, after a wise decision has been made. A wise course of action would be to follow the advice from many, and solve the traffic problem with multi-modal solutions before pressing ahead today with a "rush to rail" that precludes real traffic congestion solutions.

In my opinion, the City Council needs to take three actions before the end of December:

  • Delay the start of the tax increase.

  • Investigate the absence of traffic congestion solutions in the Alternatives Analysis.

  • Insist that the Alternatives Analysis is corrected and enriched with the council's new alignment and it investigates whether express buses on busways or HOT lanes are a better alternative. All these must be done before a Locally Preferred Alternative should be adopted and taxes collected.

    So, it's up to you The Time Magazine Person of the Year.

    The City Council members will meet at 10 a.m. tomorrow in council chambers. I'm sure they would like to hear from you.

    Panos D. Prevedouros is a professor of transportation engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.

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