Public opinion has turned against the rail project, but proponents are working to reverse that trend.

The work has already begun, even before The Civil Beat Poll this week revealed the level of distrust about the controversial project. Rail backers have taken to the airways, and are promoting progress and benefits to Oahu’s radio listeners.

Two distinct — but related — commercial campaigns are under way.

The first set, produced by the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation and paid for with city tax dollars, is purportedly to warn residents about impending construction. The second, aired by the Pacific Resource Partnership, is to remind residents about the virtues of rail transit.

‘Slow Down For Safety’

HART began running a series of radio ads on Jan. 23. They’ll run for nine weeks, at a grand total of $145,000.

Spokesman Scott Ishikawa said HART needs to be proactive to let the public know in advance about the construction work for the safety of work crews and so commuters can alter their driving routes.

He provided the scripts for three commercials. Here they are, in full:

  1. The work on Honolulu’s rail transit system is now underway, and the construction of the elevated guideway foundations and pillars is about to begin. This comes after years of study and planning, voter approval, and project funding. And while every effort is being made to reduce the impact of construction, drivers should expect some delays and detours while construction proceeds. That’s one of the reasons HART — the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation — will be working to keep you informed and up to date throughout the construction process. When completed, the elevated, electrically-powered trains will run from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center, with 21 community stations along the way, providing public transportation that is fast, convenient, on-time, and never gets stuck a traffic jam. Visit HART’s website at HonoluluTransit.org for weekly traffic construction updates and more project information. A message from HART, paid for by Honolulu city taxpayers.

  2. The Federal Transportation Administration has given Honolulu’s rail transit project the green light to begin construction on the foundations and pillars for the elevated guideway. HART asks motorists to be alert for construction work along Farrington Highway between Kapolei and Pearl City, and to please obey traffic signs for the safety of the construction crews, as well as other motorists. To learn more, visit HonoluluTransit.org. for weekly traffic construction updates and more. A message from HART, paid for by Honolulu city taxpayers.

  3. Work on Honolulu’s rail transit project is now underway. HART — the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation — is asking all motorists to please be alert for construction along Farrington Highway between Kapolei and Pearl City, to obey posted traffic signs, and slow down for the safety of the construction crews, as well as other motorists. To learn more, visit HonoluluTransit.org. for weekly traffic construction updates and more. A message from HART, paid for by Honolulu city taxpayers.

The second spot’s mention of the FTA led anti-rail mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano to complain that the ad creates the “illusion” of federal approval when none exists.

“It is totally irresponsible for the City to begin using taxpayers dollars to start the building process without any guarantee that federal dollars will come through for the project,” Cayetano said in a Feb. 29 press release. “They say they are being transparent, but they continue to play these games with the public and leave out critical information about what is really going on.”

The critical information, Cayetano said, is that “only federal approval is for the City to use its own funds to start construction on the rail project.”

That’s true, and the HART radio spot accurately describes the current status. A Letter of No Prejudice from the FTA gave HART explicit permission to spend $185 million of local tax dollars on heavy construction on the first phase of the project. Civil Beat characterized that letter as a “green light” for rail construction, and a key step as the city works toward a Full Funding Grant Agreement with the FTA.

Cayetano’s objection aside, the ads’ total cost, including production and airtime, is $145,000, according to Ishikawa. That spending has come under fire.

Honolulu City Council Budget Chair Ann Kobayashi on Feb. 6 asked HART “why there are radio advertisements endorsing the project.” She wrote that the city spent more than $5 million on lobbying and public outreach before the 2008 election.

She wrote again on Feb. 23 to reiterate that her concerns were about the advertisement that went on the air before the Letter of No Prejudice — No. 1 above. That one has little to do with urging caution during construction.

“Since construction of the foundation and pillars for the rail guideway is about to begin, some of the work involves lane closures and/or will be done at night,” Ishikawa told Civil Beat in an email. “We need to be proactive and do everything we can to let the public know in advance about the work.”

‘Rail Is Our Only Alternative’

The other set of rail ads on the radio right now is from the Pacific Resource Partnership, a carpenters’ union advocacy group. PRP spent about $40,000 last year to fly 18 Hawaii officials and residents to Washington D.C. for an annual national rail conference, and threw a party celebrating progress at an upscale French bistro near Capitol Hill.

PRP provided audio from four new commercials to Civil Beat. You can listen to the MP3s here:

Here are the transcripts from the 30-second versions:

  1. Mayor Carlisle has acknowledged bumps in the road and promised more open and diligent oversight of Honolulu’s rail transit project. Construction has begun, so let’s take a deep breath and recommit to a plan thoroughly reviewed at every level of government, and approved by Oahu’s voters. After decades of delay, rail transit is finally on the way, the right way, the smart way. A message from the local builders, and all Oahu families in support of rail. We are the Pacific Resource Partnership.

  2. Traffic is only getting worse. You’re probably stuck or heading for a bottleneck right now. Imagine five, 10 or 20 years down the road if we fail again on rail transit. Rail is our only alternative to reduce travel time, traffic, pollution and dependence on foreign oil. Not just for West Oahu, but for everyone, because it’ll keep more cars off the highways. Rail is a smart investment — for all of us. A message from the local builders, and all Oahu families in support of rail. We are the Pacific Resource Partnership.

PRP Project Manager Cindy McMillan told Civil Beat that the spots started running Feb. 29, and she declined to share how much the group is spending on them. She said the length of the run will be determined later.

“PRP has been a proponent of the project for a long long time now, and we just felt it was time to connect with rail advocates and remind everyone here in Honolulu that there are long-term benefits for the project,” McMillan said.

She defended some of the questionable assertions in the spots, saying, “That’s what you get to do in paid advertising, you get to express your opinion.”

The first spot is full of opinion, and little verifiable fact. But the second spot is rife with factual-sounding claims.

First, let’s look at the idea that rail will “keep more cars off the highways.” That’s correct, if we’re comparing the number of cars on the road in 2030 with rail versus the number of cars on the road in 2030 without rail. It won’t reduce traffic from current levels.

In a previous Fact Check, Civil Beat determined that Mayor Peter Carlisle‘s statement that rail will take 40,000 cars off the road was “Mostly True.” But we noted that Carlisle would have been clearer if he had used the word “trips” somewhere in his statement, and retired engineer Ben Ramelb argued that the correct grade should have been “Mostly False.”

Second, let’s look at the sentence claiming that rail is the only alternative to reduce travel time, traffic, pollution and dependence on foreign oil.

Again, rail will not reduce traffic from current levels, but will reduce traffic versus a no-build future. McMillan said PRP agrees with that interpretation of the word “reduce” and did not have enough time to be explicit on that point in the commercial itself.

“I think with 30 seconds, you’re limited in how clear you can be on anything,” she said. “With 30 seconds in a radio ad, what you’re trying to is provide the context, overall.

“If you’re trying to dig really deep into content, there’s just not enough time to do that,” she said. “You’re left providing an impression that this organization believes this is a good project for us.”

Asked specifically about the idea that there are other possibilities for traffic relief — toll lanes and bus rapid transit, to name two — McMillan said those don’t qualify as alternatives, yet.

“I would argue until you have a completed EIS on that project, you can’t compare the two,” she said. “It’s not a real alternative at this point.”

The city completed a Final Environmental Impact Statement for its bus rapid transit plan about a decade ago, but the project was abandoned when Mufi Hannemann became mayor after the 2004 election.

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