Honolulu lacks the conditions that make transit authorities necessary in other cities, transportation scholars tell Civil Beat.

But local rail proponents say the charter amendment on the Nov. 2 ballot would benefit the project by removing politicians from key aspects of the project.

“The charter amendment is necessary because it takes the decision-making out of the hands of politicians,” City Councilmember Ikaika Anderson said. “Some politicians are weak when it comes time to make decisions. They’ll do it based on what’s good for their career versus what’s good for the people they represent. This way, we leave the decision to those folks who may have more expertise to make that decision, and have no reason not to make the necessary decisions.”

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation would be responsible for planning, construction, operation, maintenance and expansion of the project. The agency’s board members would be responsible for setting fares, buying and selling land and entering into contracts. Its proposed organizational structure mirrors that of several transit agencies in municipalities across the United States. But there are some differences, too.

“The most common and most justifiable reason to (create a transit authority) is that you have multiple jurisdictions,” said Brian Taylor, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA. “The Bay Area Rapid Transit system serves four counties in 14 cities, so because of that you create the joint powers authority.”

The City and County of Honolulu is the only municipal jurisdiction on Oahu. While the city has entered into intergovernmental agreements with the state as it moves forward with rail, Taylor said it’s “puzzling” that Honolulu officials see the creation of a transit authority as necessary.

Most Authorities Serve Multiple Jurisdictions

“One of the unique organizational structures of Oahu is that the city and county serve one government structure,” Taylor said. “The city and county are coterminous, and the political configuration will never involve moving to another jurisdiction. The principal reason for forming one of these authorities doesn’t apply, so it isn’t obvious to me why they would pursue this.”

Taylor said he casually follows Honolulu’s rail development through online news reports — he even lived temporarily in Honolulu for about 10 months in 2005 and 2006 — but he hasn’t kept up with the latest progress, or the political undercurrents beneath support and opposition.

The next most common reason Taylor cites for the creation of a semi-autonomous transit authority is also absent in Honolulu. He said in some of the world’s biggest public transit systems, an added layer of bureaucracy improves efficiency.

“Sometimes it’s such a giant organization, like in New York,” Taylor said. “In L.A., we have 16 and a half million people (but) Oahu has something like 900,000 people. In most cases, you’re not going to have an organization so giant that you’re going to be benefited from breaking it up.”

But city officials argue the insulation from city politics will serve to make for a more efficient process with regards to rail.

“It’s very easy as a semi-autonomos entity,” said Wayne Yoshioka, director of the Department of Transportation Services, who would serve on the authority’s 10-member board. “Everything is isolated, not mixed in with everything else.”

But that segregation from other divisions in the city’s transportation department — Traffic Engineering, Transportation Planning, Traffic Signals & Technology and Public Transit — represents another anomaly about the proposal in Honolulu compared to transit authorities in other parts of the country. It wouldn’t integrate management of TheBus, at least not without a subsequent charter amendment.

On one hand, the separation may quell concerns that rail planners would raid TheBus’ coffers. On the other, it means discussions on fares, service routes and how the two systems overlap will take place in separate places.

“This raises an eyebrow a little,” UCLA’s Taylor said. “I am having trouble seeing what the rationale for this would possibly be. You’re going to need close coordination with the bus system, and that’s going to be more difficult if you have two authorities. To be honest, to isolate this project in this way sounds like a lot of political ambition. It’s not shady but it is a bureaucratic move to essentially kind of privatize the particular project. It leaves me to think they want to not allow second guesses.”

More troubling to another academic is the power semi-autonomous agencies have to make – then keep private – agreements with contractors.

“It’s a question of public accountability,” said Hiroyuki Iseki, an assistant professor in the Department of Planning & Urban Studies at the University of New Orleans. “The one drawback is this kind of authority has sometimes too much autonomy. In the city of New Orleans, we have the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, and they started contracting many aspects of running transit services and systems to a private contract. There is a problem with transparency because they are private contracts, and I am having a hard time obtaining contracts from private agencies. I feel there is something wrong with this.”

Questions About Transparency

City transit officials, who say gripes about a lack of transparency are unfounded, insist that all city contracts are public record. But for the public to get a copy of those contracts isn’t so straightforward.

Government agencies, including the City and County of Honolulu, regularly refuse to fulfill requests unless the full, proper name of a document is used in a request. Without knowing which contract agreements are made, the public doesn’t always know which documents to request. When reporters request large swaths of information in an attempt to get at some of those documents, they’re often denied for making too broad a request.

City officials, though, say there’s a larger reason to support the charter amendment: To create stability for a long-term project amid regular personnel changes. Honolulu elected a new mayor in September, and will hold another mayoral election in 2010. In the coming months, five of the City Council member’s nine members will be replaced.

“We do not know what this council will look like in 10 years or 20 years,” Councilmember Anderson said. “We have no idea. And none of us will be here then because we are term-limited. So all of these current councilmembers, even the ones who are being elected right now, in 2020, they’re all gone.”

By then, transit officials hope the first portion of the rail line will be built. Construction has been stalled for more than a year since the planned October 2009 groundbreaking, but the creation of a transit authority may be a catalyst. That’s what happened in Los Angeles about 15 years ago.

“They created a separate construction authority so that they could fast track the construction,” Taylor said. “It was so they could get it built.”

Taylor said haste to move into the construction phase of major public works projects is ubiquitous in American cities. But he also notes that people in his field are trained to believe that expanding existing public transportation systems should be considered before building new ones.

“In general, public officials tend to be more enthusiastic about rail and its benefits than cost-benefit analyses would justify,” Taylor said. “Put it this way: You can’t have a media event and cut a ribbon in front of expanded bus services. But if you have a gleaming new airport or a gleaming new freeway or a gleaming new rail line, you can.”

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