Instead of being a candidate running against something, Ben Cayetano is now a candidate running for something.

On Thursday the mayoral hopeful and former Hawaii governor unveiled a comprehensive traffic solution plan that includes as its centerpiece an express bus rapid transit system, or BRT.

The plan, called FAST — “flexible, affordable, smart transportation” — also calls for added traffic lanes on two major arterials, improved synchronization of traffic signals, short underpasses at three Kapiolani Boulevard intersections and a two-mile elevated, reversible Nimitz Highway flyover.

You can read the full plan here.

Cayetano’s support for BRT is not new. He’s been singing its praises for months now, and he blames local media for not paying enough attention. Nor is his campaign platform solely focused on ending the $5.26 billion Honolulu rail system.

But Cayetano’s FAST plan shows the candidate shifting his campaign into a new and perhaps final phase that he hopes to ride to victory Nov. 6.

Cayetano plans 10 community presentations about FAST over the few weeks, and he will no doubt talk up his plan during televised debates Wednesday on KITV (co-sponsored by Civil Beat) and Thursday on PBS Hawaii — the only televised debates between Cayetano and opponent Kirk Caldwell before the election.

With the rail project stalled because of a lawsuit and with federal funding on hold until after the election, the FAST plan gives Cayetano something fresh to talk about and the edge in leading political dialogue. In fact, the candidates have already begun to talk more about things like sewer and water systems.

Cayetano is both looking backwards — BRT has previously been seriously considered by Honolulu mayors — and to a future that he says is moving away from fixed rail systems and toward things like driverless cars. The plan will be coupled with what Cayetano calls “common sense policies” like telework programs, staggered work hours and greater flex time.

In a sign that Caldwell is concerned, his campaign released a statement Thursday that called FAST “a last minute, half-baked plan that is driven more by politics than by trying to solve Honolulu’s serious traffic congestion.”

Panos Onboard

The rail project has been picked over by critics and the media for years now, and Cayetano’s FAST plan will receive similar scrutiny.

Caldwell himself plans to review the plan over the next few days in greater detail, but he’s already made a few barbed observations. He said FAST will add congestion downtown, force more cars onto fewer lanes, punish businesses near the proposed underpasses and have a “significant environmental impact.”

“In addition, there are no federal funds for BRT, Honolulu taxpayers would be responsible for the entire bill, and we are not allowed, by law, to use the state funds that have already been collected for rail,” he said in his press statement.

He continued:

“Ben Cayetano has had months to present a BRT plan in detail to the public. I asked for it in May. Coming forward only weeks before the election, with little time for experts and the public to give it the thoughtful and thorough review it requires, is disingenuous at best.”

Caldwell has a point. But, on its surface, the FAST plan appears to have been crafted with a lot of expert help.

It was formed with the input from officials from past mayoral administrations, engineers in private practice that don’t wish to make themselves public and the very visible help of Panos Prevedouros, the University of Hawaii civil engineering professor who twice unsuccessfully ran for mayor on a platform similar to Cayetano’s.

Prevedouros — who said he is not seeking a job in a Cayetano administration — and Sam Callejo, Cayetano’s campaign manager and an engineer himself, sat with the candidate as he plowed through a video presentation of the plan at his Nimitz headquarters.

Cayetano and his team have been studying other transit systems, and he and Callejo recently visited Los Angeles to see how its BRT Orange Line works. Cayetano also pointed to a Civil Beat Fact Check that said federal transit officials have embraced BRT plans in other locales.

“We have a problem with traffic management in this city,” said Prevedouros, adding that Honolulu has “fallen way behind” other cities with their transit practices.

Cayetano pointed to driverless cars, which have been getting a lot of media attention.

“This is going to be the future 15, 20 years for now,” he said. “It will make cars more attractive and make rail so rigid and inflexible.”

Faster, Better, Cheaper, Prettier

Whatever its actual merits, Cayetano said his FAST plan also has a number of advantages over rail:

• It will cost just one-fifth what rail is projected to cost;
• Traffic congestion will begin to ease in just six months rather than having to wait until 2015 for rail’s first leg;
• It will serve more areas than rail, including Mililani, Ewa Beach and Wahiawa;
• A “college express” could link UH Manoa, Honolulu Community College and Hawaii Pacific University;
• The plan is aesthetically more desirable because only one part is elevated;
• Average commuter times will be reduced from 29 minutes to 20 minutes; and
• The entire FAST plan could be done in four years versus seven for rail.

One can easily imagine seeing some of those points in Cayetano campaign commercials, his response to critics like Pacific Resource Partnership. And, in spite of Caldwell’s view that Oahu’s GET cannot be used for BRT, Cayetano believes it can.

“This is our answer to World War III,” Cayetano joked, referring to U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye‘s contention that only such a conflict can stop rail from going forward. (Inouye is a strong rail supporter.)

The FAST plan is not without its holes.

It’s unclear how it would be paid for by the city and federal government, and exactly how the state would be involved, or how long those underpasses would be delayed if burial remains were uncovered.

But Cayetano expressed confidence in the plan, and he said his long and close friendship with Gov. Neil Abercrombie — two experienced politicians in their early 70s, as he observed — would make for a powerful city-state partnership.

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