UPDATED 10 a.m. 5/31/12

Honolulu officials abandoned a bus rapid transit system nearly a decade ago after public support waned and a new mayor took office.

Now, mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano is pointing to a 2003 environmental study as his plan to relieve Honolulu’s terrible traffic problem instead of building a rail system. But what was supposed to be a 32-mile network through urban Oahu was never fully implemented. And a 2006 federal evaluation of the project offers lessons about the importance of community buy-in if the public is going to give up its road space to buses.

Cayetano, a leading opponent of the Honolulu rail project, says a BRT system is a better choice. He continues to cite the 10-year-old Federal Environmental Impact Statement as the basis of what his bus alternative to rail would encompass. But he has declined to divulge details on how it might differ today.

Certain components of the proposed BRT system were considered crucial to effectively address growing traffic demands a decade ago. But residents rejected dedicated bus lanes through some of the most congested parts of town, among other elements.

When city officials chose to implement some of the more controversial measures in the face of opposition, the routes were either modified or ended soon thereafter.

Publicly, Cayetano and his campaign team have said the BRT would likely need to be elevated at some points, require some new parking on Beretania and King streets, and a bus-on-shoulder system would be used in addition to zipper lanes.

During a televised mayoral debate May 24, Cayetano said the bus system would need better traffic synchronization, more express buses and dedicated lanes.

Civil Beat has asked Cayetano since March for more information on his bus alternative, even offering him an opportunity to present it in his own words. But he’s simply pointed to the presentations at his campaign events as supplying details of his plan.

Other media outlets, rail advocacy groups and his opponents in the race — Mayor Peter Carlisle and former Honolulu city manager Kirk Caldwell, both of whom support rail — have also called on him to share specifics.

The candidates confronted Cayetano during the May 24 debate.

“We’ve asked again and again, what are the specifics?” Caldwell said. “They haven’t gotten answers.”

Then on Tuesday, although Cayetano was absent from a forum hosted by the Hawaii Hotel and Lodging Association, Carlisle twice brought up the issue without naming his rival in the race.

“That’s somebody who has been complaining about a problem but hasn’t been willing to give us a solution,” Carlisle said. “We’ve asked for that over and over again.”

Specifics of Cayetano Plan Murky

It remains unclear where the BRT envisioned by Cayetano would deviate from the proposal in the 2003 FEIS and what he’d do to alleviate the concerns community members identified during the public review period in 2002.

At public meetings featuring free chili and rice for the whole family, Cayetano’s campaign team displays artist renderings of what an elevated rail system might look like running through downtown. And Cayetano talks at length about why the city’s $5.2 billion rail project would not improve traffic.

UPDATE Cayetano says in a Wednesday post on his campaign website that he would implement an “enhanced” version of the 2003 FEIS, but provides few specific details.

He says he would implement measures that would improve island-wide mobility, such as state-of-the-art computerized traffic signals. And he says within the first year he would increase the number of express and direct-route buses, but doesn’t say which ones. He also adds that he would “significantly increase” the number of point-to-point routes, including UH-Manoa campus and Waikiki.

Cayetano’s website says he’s “mindful of the criticism” of dedicated BRT lanes on Kapiolani and Ala Moana Boulevards in the Harris plan and that he’ll focus on instead using King and Beretania Streets.

But although he touts his support for a BRT system like the one he signed off on as governor in 2002, specifics must be gleaned from the old study he references.

The 2006 federal report found that taking away existing roadway space for transit purposes was not popular in the community. The public was concerned about “impacts on traffic congestion and vehicular mobility.”

Still, travel time improved by 33 percent on some routes, and people who rode it gave it high ratings, the report said.

The prevailing public input in the 2003 environmental report shows residents opposed a multi-level transit system because of visual blight, cost and community divisiveness.

BRT Less Expensive Now?

At a campaign event earlier this month in Hawaii Kai, a slide in Cayetano’s presentation highlighted what he said was a $10 million final environmental impact statement which estimated the BRT project would cost $1 billion.

Cayetano said during the May 24 debate that he didn’t “envision” the project costing more than $1 billion, but didn’t explain why he projected it would cost less 10 years later. He did not respond to a message this week asking him to elaborate.

Cayetano has said he would fund the bus project with rail money, giving the state “at least $1 billion” for its own use and returning leftover funds to taxpayers. He would have to get state legislators to revise the law to use the general excise tax surcharge revenues because they’re earmarked for rail.

The estimated cost to operate and maintain the BRT system was $151 million, in 2002 dollars, according to the FEIS.

Civil Beat looked at the cost of BRT versus rail last year and found that BRT could accomplish virtually the same objective as rail at a lower cost.

The Honolulu City Council backed the BRT alternative on Nov. 29, 2000, and two years later then-Gov. Cayetanto approved the state FEIS.

In 2002, the council appropriated $31 million for the 5.6-mile initial operating segment from Iwilei to Waikiki. The feds ponied up another $20 million in New Starts money.

This cash was intended to fund the initial phase, except for $5 million for 10 hybrid diesel-electric BRT vehicles. Construction was to take two years, with service to begin in 2005.

The estimated capital cost over the 23-year analysis period contained in the EIS was $955 million, in 2002 money.

Embedded plate technology — key to reducing noise impacts and alleviating environmental concerns — would have added $83 million. The FEIS found that implementing this technology would have required excavation along the alignment, likely uncovering archaeological resources.

In the EIS process for BRT, which started in the late-1990s, light-rail transit was considered as an alternative. This is not the same as the elevated steel-on-steel rail in the current project.

Residents were concerned over the costs and methods of financing the BRT alternative; traffic and transportation issues; community and social concerns; and anticipated ridership.

The BRT plan called for 32 miles of improvements and 31 planned stops. It was estimated to serve 46,000 passengers daily.

By contrast, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit expects 116,300 weekday passenger trips by 2030 on the 20-mile rail line from east Kapolei to Ala Moana Shopping Center.

Pitfalls and Potential

The Federal Transit Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation issued a report in 2006 that evaluated Honolulu’s BRT project. By then, some routes were already abandoned and no exclusive lanes had been implemented as envisioned due to community concerns.

The feds found that the limited system proved effective at reducing travel times and improving service for riders, but public resistance didn’t allow it to realize its potential.

The federal report also says more benefits would be possible with greater investment as long as the community backed the project.

A route from Honolulu’s central business district to Waikiki resorts, which was discontinued, was the only “true rapid transit corridor,” according to the report. It was implemented in 2004 despite council concerns and the rescinding of federal funding.

Both the previous BRT system as well as the Honolulu rail project have struggled to find a cost-effective way to serve Waikiki.

In 2006, Honolulu’s BRT routes carried 13 percent of overall ridership, according to the federal report. A 2012 fact sheet for TheBus, as the city service is called, shows the four “rapid” bus routes in operation carry 32,000 weekday riders; annual ridership is 74.5 million.

The broader BRT plan was scrapped when Mayor Jeremy Harris left office in 2004. Mufi Hannemann narrowly defeated Duke Bainum, putting Honolulu back on track for rail. (The city had pursued rail decades earlier.)

A member of Cayetano’s “Truth Squad,” Malcolm Tom, who served as budget director in the Harris administration, declined to comment on BRT — either the previous system or Cayetano’s plan.

Political experts suspect Cayetano is simply waiting for the primary to pass, riding on a train of anti-rail opposition. The more details that he releases, the more he exposes himself to criticism from his opponents in the race.

John Hart, a political analyst and professor at Hawaii Pacific University, said he saw a few eyebrows rise during the debates when Cayetano’s opponents went after him over the vagueness of his plan, but no fall-out from it.

“So far, I don’t see a lot of impact on the campaign about him not being specific,” he said Wednesday.

Once a specific plan is out there, Hart said, rival campaigns can tear it apart bit by bit.

“It’s much easier to attack than defend,” he said.

In the middle of a political campaign, Hart said, he does not expect to see a reasoned discussion about what mass transit option is best because those plans are tied to specific candidates.

Meantime, Honolulu is recognized as the city with the worst traffic congestion in the country while having one of the best bus systems.

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