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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 13, 2008

Rail series sparked heated critique

By Mark Platte
Advertiser Editor

If anyone doubted the intense interest people here have in a proposed $3.7 billion transit project, they should check the online comment board following our publication last week of a three-day series on rail projects in other cities.

The 900 or so comments focused not only on the merits and deficiencies of the rail plan but also on The Advertiser's motivation in running such a series.

The idea was to approach the transportation writers of the newspapers in cities that had similar transit projects to what Honolulu is planning. Writers from the Charlotte Observer, the Oregonian in Portland and our own Gannett News Service in Washington, D.C., were instructed to shed light on the positive and negative aspects of those systems.

What emerged were solid overviews of the systems that looked at both sides of the issue. They were not intended to be exhaustive studies and we knew going in that no system was completely the same as Honolulu's. Some viewed the reports as too rosy and confirmed their suspicions that we are "pro-rail." Several posts labeled the stories as "propaganda," asked if the pro-rail forces (including Mayor Mufi Hannemann) were paying us and even suggested we were pushing rail to add value to our Kapolei property where our printing press is located.

The anti-rail crowd said we didn't look at the right rail systems or calculate the cost per mile. We didn't take into account that the systems we examined are mostly at-grade systems while the Honolulu model is elevated. We didn't have a graphic that showed how little of the overall cost of our system was being federally funded.

One man called to ask if we had written the stories because the Hannemann campaign was running advertisements in our paper. I wish that caller could have heard some of the heated discussions we have had with the mayor when he has been unhappy with our stories, which has been often.

As I have written in this space before, this public works project warrants our full attention and reporter Sean Hao, who has done the bulk of the reporting on this issue, has done an admirable job looking at all the angles. It's natural to look at other cities with new rail systems and to provide a balanced look at what has been accomplished there. Reporters from the Charlotte Observer, The Oregonian and Gannett News Service do not live here and are not steeped in the debate over transit so it's a stretch to say they would bring a "pro-rail" bias to those stories.

To be clear, The Advertiser's editorial pages have endorsed a transit system as one means of improving our transportation system. The news pages are separate and are in no way influenced by the editorial positions we take. Those on the editorial page were not even aware beforehand that we were publishing such a series.

Hao's marching orders have been to make it his job to look at every aspect of this project, including financing, route alignments, technology, consultant contracts, energy use, aesthetics, tax collections, public relations campaigns on either side and dozens of other topics. Many more are planned in the coming months, including more reports about rail in other cities. Some will appear to be critical or supportive of the project, depending on the reader's perspective.

I took the time to read through the hundreds of posts following the stories about the Charlotte, Portland and Washington, D.C., systems, and I found the level of discourse to be fairly intelligent, save for the sporadic name-calling that emerges when one has no facts. Readers are passionate about this project, and they debated costs, offered mathematical formulas, drew on personal experiences and raised legitimate questions all spurred by the series.

The two sides are clearly divided, but the more discussion we have and the more questions we can answer, the better informed we will be.

Mark Platte is senior vice president/editor of The Advertiser. Reach him at mplatte@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8080.