Why rail would be wrong for Honolulu
Each week Editorial and Opinion Editor Jeanne Mariani-Belding hosts The Hot Seat, our opinion-page blog that brings in elected leaders and people in the news and lets you ask the questions during a live online chat.
The next two Hot Seat sessions will focus on the rail transit debate.
On The Hot Seat last week was rail transit opponent Cliff Slater, a founder of Stop Rail Now and chairman of www.HonoluluTraffic.com.
Here is an excerpt from that Hot Seat session. To see the full conversation, go to The Hot Seat blog at www.honoluluadvertiser.com/opinion and click on "The Hot Seat." (Names of questioners are screen names given during our online chat.)
Mike Chang: Ridership is at all-time highs on rail systems across the country. TheBus is full as people look for relief from gas prices. Doesn't it go against common sense to say people won't ride rail?
Cliff Slater: Ridership is only up 3 percent over last year across the nation despite what the city says. Go to APTA.com for the official figures.
Over the long haul, transit continues to lose market share.
Tony: I've heard you say that public transportation is losing market share to cars and trucks. Please back that statement up with some facts. From the local news stories I read, TheBus and TheBoat are at all-time highs for ridership. And I read national news stories about how bus lines and commuter trains are breaking ridership levels in cities across the country?
Slater: Both locally and nationally ridership has been drifting sideways while the population keeps increasing. Check APTA figures and the Census data for population. Or HonoluluTraffic.com.
Mike: Mr. Slater blindly refers to APTA statistics as supporting his position that ridership increases are minimal. Yet the actual first quarter 2008 statistics from APTA show San Francisco's Muni up more than 12 percent; Baltimore, St. Louis and Minneapolis all up more than 16 percent; and Philadelphia up more than 54 percent. Tony asked for figures, not smokescreen.
Slater: You can't just pick and choose from isolated lines. The overall as reported by APTA in their recent letter is 2 percent. As for these fanciful "up 54 percent" numbers, that is typical city spin. Check that out with APTA.
Hannah: Baltimore, St. Louis, and Minneapolis are not "isolated lines," but representative of new LRT systems in cities previously dominated by automobile use, connecting the central business with suburban areas. Some commuter rail lines — Seattle, for example — have reported even larger growth since November 2007. These figures show that Americans will switch to rail transit when fuel costs rise — if it is available. Growth has been more modest in rail-dominated cities like San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Boston, because they already have strong customer bases for rail and bus transportation.
Mike: The APTA figures that apply to this argument are those that relate to light rail, the technology selected for Honolulu. Light rail ridership at SEPTA is up more than 54 percent; the overall SEPTA ridership increase is their average including extensive bus and commuter rail services. The 7 percent increase in the older heavy rail commuter line from New Jersey (PATCO) is not insignificant, either.
Mark: "Light rail" technically refers to at-grade (non-elevated) rail. Mufi's train is actually heavy rail. In our city's case, "light rail" is nothing more than an attractive-sounding buzzword used only in promotions and ads, never in official city documents.
Garry: It is my understanding that the federal government has already promised $900 million dollars in funding for the rail project; why would we want to miss out on that kind of money coming into the city?
Slater: Honolulu rail is not on the federal list of new transit starts for 2010, so there is no guarantee whatsoever for rail funding, despite the mayor's claims. Certainly the federal government looks favorably on HOT lanes and federal funding is likely — but we don't need nearly as much since this project is one-sixth the cost of rail and would be significantly funded by toll revenues.
Richard Quinn: The majority of the corporate supporters of your nonprofit organization Sensible Traffic Alternatives and Resources Inc. are private ground transportation companies, such as taxi, limousine, and trolley companies. As such, is it the primary goal of your organization to act as a lobbyist for private transportation interests to stop or reduce potential competition from convenient public transportation systems?
Slater: We are not funded (by) the transportation companies. We showed our income statement to the media and it is virtually all local folks with no vested interest other than their common sense.
Pam: I've lived in 'Ewa Beach for more than 30 years and traffic has never been worse. We need something to reduce the traffic on Fort Weaver Road so we can get into work without taking an hour. Rail should help us alleviate traffic congestion, so I am for it.
Slater: You would be much better off with HOT lanes both for travel time and your future taxes. The city's own forecasts in the Alternatives Analysis will show you that traffic congestion in the future will be much worse than it is today even with rail. You have been greatly misled by the city on this issue.
Kaleonani Williamson: You've been out front in opposing rail for years with your column in the Advertiser and on TV and radio. Every poll shows the public wants rail transit. And the latest Advertiser poll shows support for rail is growing. Why do you persist in obstructing a project that the vast majority of the public says they want?
Slater: The problem is that 73 percent of the public believe that rail will reduce both traffic congestion and their commute times. However, none of the city officials or council members believe it, nor do the Parsons Brinckerhoff studies say it. We believe that when people understand that it will lead to worse traffic congestion and higher energy consumption than their cars, they will not favor it.
Matthew: Global warming is caused in large part by exhaust from cars. Don't you worry about rising sea levels caused by global warming? We are an island, and it seems like more cars and HOT lanes will only accelerate global warming.
Slater: Rail is not more energy-efficient than cars; that is a myth. Go to the Department of Energy Web site and check it out. And go to honolulu traffic.com and see its environment page for DOE info.
Daniel: It seems blatantly obvious that 300 transit riders in a rail car will cause less air pollution than 300 private automobiles crawling slowly in gridlock.
Are you trying to say that the private automobile driving on the HOT lanes with a solitary rider is "greener" than mass transit? Come on now!
Slater: You forget that full rail cars exist for a tiny fraction of the 20 hours they will operate in. They will go back out to Kapolei empty and during the nonpeak hours they will be nearly empty. Please see the Department of Energy data. Automobiles don't run around empty. They go and they stop. Vanpools use only a quarter of the energy per passenger mile than rail.
Robert Wiesel: Why do you support only solutions that perpetuate the use of oil, automobiles, rubber tires and asphalt? Seems like you are strictly for the status quo and old corporate interests.
Slater: The problem is not the cars but rather the lack of road space. Cars are here to stay. All over the world the automobile's market share of people's trips is increasing while the market share for public transportation is declining. On O'ahu, on the Mainland and all over the world, mass transportation is declining in favor of individual transportation. People are not dumb; individual transportation saves time and time is money. Policies trying to return us to an early 20th-century lifestyle are futile; it is not going to happen.
Bob: In the face of overwhelming support for rail shown by recent polls, has it ever occurred to you that you may be wrong on this issue?
Slater: This time back in 1990 the polls showed overwhelming support for rail. By the fall of 1992 when the subject had been fully aired in the newspapers, the polls showed 71.8 percent opposition. At the moment people just do not know that rail will do little or nothing for traffic congestion and rail is less energy efficient than the regular automobile. When they finally find out that, they will turn against it.
Craig W.: Urban Planners preach that HOT lanes encourage urban sprawl, while rail allows for higher density urban core growth. I've been on the Tampa HOT lane and (have) seen the urban sprawl it fosters. O'ahu creates more than 3,000 new households every year. That means we'll need to create more than 150,000 new homes over the next 50 years. How will HOT lanes help us protect our open space and ag lands? If we don't build on those ag lands then won't the prices of homes go up? You whine about the cost of a rail, but how can you say a few hundred dollars in GET is more than the $300,000 increase in house prices that have occurred in the last eight years?
Slater: The urban planners are wrong. HOT lanes provide real choices while the tolls act as a deterrent. If you get 150,000 new homes, you'll get them with rail as well.
Pualani: Slater has stated twice that "tolls act as a deterrent." So Slater and his group want taxpayers to subsidize new roadways that only the wealthy will be able to travel on while the rest of us sit in traffic gridlock with no other alternative? No thanks!
Stewart: If the rail question gets on the ballot and the results show that the majority of the voters want a rail transit system, what will be your course of action? Will you still fight against rail?
Slater: It depends on what the media does to cover the issue between now and then. If the public still believes erroneously that rail will reduce traffic congestion and save energy, then we shall have to keep educating them.
Daniel: Did everyone just catch what Mr. Slater said? He's flip-flopping on the promise he made back in a July 22 Advertiser article where he agreed to "bow to voters" if they supported rail. I don't recall that him making any qualifications to that promise such as "unless I think the media has misled voters, in which case I will continue to educate the public."
It's clear that Mr. Slater is trying to have it both ways: pushing for a vote to "let the people decide" but then reserving his right to throw the kitchen sink at rail if the vote doesn't obtain his desired results. Would you support a public vote where the choice presented to voters was either a) Rail transit or b) HOT lanes? In other words, how do we know that you want to implement a solution instead of merely killing rail to maintain the status quo? If we should vote on rail, shouldn't we also vote on HOT lanes?
Slater: Yes we would, but only after the voters have a thorough understanding of both issues. For example, people should drive the route and imagine the 30-foot-wide rail bed with 6-foot pillars every 150 feet in the middle of the streets with 75-79 decibel noise. Try that along Hale-kauwila Street, for example.
Jay: The city administration keeps us in the dark when it comes to the true cost of the rail project, to both build and maintain it. The $1 billion cost to fix our sewer system has been predicted to bankrupt the city. Building and maintaining a rail system costing multibillions of dollars seems like an irresponsible move by our leaders. Do you think lawmakers will ever work toward helping our congestion problem, really?
Slater: They will work on congestion when the public catches on that rail is all about campaign contributions. Once they understand that, watch out!
Keith: If toll roads are such a good idea, why didn't Stop Rail Now try to put a pro-toll-road question on the ballot, instead of trying to eliminate rail transit on O'ahu forever?
Slater: It's not forever; our initiative only stops rail for two years, then the council can change it. The current reality is that rail is the city official policy, so first we have to change that policy, then a real discussion of honest, effective alternatives can begin, including the need for HOT lanes, which are clearly superior to rail.
Reach Jeanne Mariani-Belding at email@example.com.