So what did the city get for the $2 million spent on public outreach for the proposed rail project?

All Honolulu Hale had to show for it was an armful of binders and a $204,000 DVD.

Ten companies were awarded $2 million worth of contracts for work described by the city as covering community outreach, presentations and public information for the city’s planned $5.5 billion rail-transit project. But most of those companies could not be reached for comment, and those that were contacted were reluctant to talk about what they were contracted to do for the city.

The city has come under criticism for its spending on public outreach. With newsletters featuring articles entitled “Rail: It’s now or never,” some have suggested the city spent money to build support for the project under the guise of informing the public. Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi has criticized the city for what she called lax oversight of the contracts.

After three requests to review records of how the money was spent, city spokesman Bill Brennan responded that he had some materials for us to look through. Nalani Dahl, whose company Dahl Consulting received the largest of the 10 subcontracts, greeted us at the city’s Rail Transit Division in downtown Honolulu and laid out five binders containing newsletters, brochures, hotline inquiries, DVD copies of television spots aired on public access TV and press releases.

To be sure, measuring participation in neighborhood board meetings and community workshops doesn’t lend itself to paper reports. But two of the binders contained submissions for public relations awards and the thickest binder was about a symposium for high school students only tangentially related to rail.

Dahl said she is an interim public information officer for the Rail Transit Division. During the first six months of this year, she explained, the public outreach group held 25 “community update meetings” and workshops that drew anywhere from five to 300 attendees. They presented 80 updates at neighborhood board meetings and aired 39 television and radio spots.

One of the five binders held copies of the glossy monthly newsletters sent out to 15,000 “subscribers” between September 2006 and June 2010. The single-page tri-folds were colorful and on average seemed to have about 300 words. No mention of who wrote or edited each issue.

All but one of the newsletter issues had the title, “Honolulu on the Move,” while the June 2010 issue was titled, “Honolulu Rail Transit” coupled with a green and blue graphic of a train on an elevated track.

The newsletters all were written with a pro-rail tone with main articles such as: “Rail will fight recession” (February 2009), “Rail construction will employ 10,000 workers a year” (March 2009), “Rail: It’s now or never” (March 2010), and “Transit-oriented development 101” (May 2010). The city said the newsletters were mailed to 15,000 subscribers in 2009.

Another binder held materials from a series of community workshops about the rail station planned for Pearl Highlands, including print-outs of PowerPoint slides and renderings. Similar design workshops were held in six other communities, Dahl said.

The thickest binder contained information from the “Mayor’s SMART Youth Summit 2010” held at Leeward Community College in February. (SMART is an acronym for Save Money And Ride Transit.) Approximately 300 students from 30 high schools attended the free event, which included a virtual train ride, youth poster contest and “moderated discussions.” But other than the virtual train ride, it had nothing to do with rail.

The last two binders were project submissions for PR awards — a curious choice of materials for the city to keep on hand. One for a rail transit symposium held in June 2009 (submitted to a special events category) and another on an informational DVD explaining the draft EIS (submitted to a “creative tactics” category).

The DVD was the single most expensive component. It cost $204,000 to make — $200,000 for scriptwriting and production, and $4,000 to mail the disk to 1,000 residents and organizations (which represent less than a half-percent of Oahu’s population) along potential rail routes.

The disk contained a 22-minute video guide to the 400-page draft EIS, a PDF of the actual document, two animated so-called “fly-overs” of the Salt Lake and airport routes, and an interactive feature for computer users to click on each of the 19 planned rail stations to see a basic design and general location.

The fly-over segments resembled scenes from The Sims computer game, with a 3D aerial view of the proposed rail line. A female narrator in monotone highlights each of the planned stations along the rail line, starting in Kapolei and ending at Ala Moana Center, with white text identifying high schools and main street names appear.

If you’re prone to motion sickness, you might want to skip the fly-overs.

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