UPDATED 9/15/11 5 p.m. Readers raised questions about Civil Beat’s assessment of this claim as true. We’ve updated our bottom line to explain which criteria were analyzed, and which weren’t.

Editor’s Note: Four well-known opponents of rail published an opinion piece in the Aug. 21 edition of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Civil Beat has identified seven claims worthy of a closer look. This is one of those Fact Checks.

Rail critics say that steel-on-steel is not the best way to solve Honolulu’s traffic woes, and one of the sources they point to in support of that argument is a study prepared for the city a decade ago.

In their Aug. 21 op-ed, four well-known opponents reprised the claim. Under the heading “Stacking the Deck,” the four make the following statement:

When Jeremy Harris was mayor, Parsons Brinckerhoff said Bus/Rapid Transit (BRT) could accomplish virtually all of the objectives of rail at substantially less cost.

Asked for support documents, one of the piece’s authors, Cliff Slater, provided the following statement to Civil Beat, directing us to an environmental impact statement from Honolulu’s old BRT plans:

“The LRT was dropped because subsequent analyses revealed that BRT using electric-powered vehicles could accomplish virtually all of the objectives of LRT at substantially less cost.” MIS/Draft EIS August 2000, pp 2-2 & 2-3.

“Given that the Final EIS for the BRT program forecast more transit riders than they are currently forecasting for the current rail project, that would seem to be a good judgment.”

We checked out the section of the EIS for the BRT system that Slater described, and found the paragraph he quoted. Indeed, the study cites information from Parsons Brinckerhoff in demonstrating why BRT was at the time the locally preferred alternative. UPDATED Parsons Brinckerhoff, of course, is the same city consultant that has produced the analysis arguing that the elevated rail project is the best solution for Honolulu.

It’s important to point out the distinctions between LRT — or at-grade light rail, which lost to BRT as the locally preferred alternative about a decade ago — and the elevated rail system that the city is now building.

The EIS for BRT describes extensive analyses producing a “strong and credible case” for grade-separated transit investments (like a subway or an elevated system). But the study’s authors explain that elevated rail was too costly, and its visual and physical impacts too great.

“While an elevated guideway would be less costly than a subway, such a system would still be substantially more expensive and visually more obtrusive than an at-grade system,” the study reads.

It goes on to give the example of one portion of the proposed route.

“A 12.8-mile elevated rapid transit system along the presently proposed InTown BRT alignment would cost on the order of $1.95 billion in 2002 dollars. By comparison, the In-Town BRT costs are estimated at approximately $240 million in 2002 dollars, assuming hybrid diesel-electric technology and approximately $325 million assuming embedded plate technology.”

So the claim that Parsons Brinckerhoff said BRT could accomplish virtually all of the objectives of rail at substantially less cost checks out.

But did the city really stack the deck for elevated rail? It’s understandable that someone might think so. When the BRT proposal under former Mayor Jeremy Harris fell apart, his successor vowed not to repeat the Harris administration’s mistakes.

KITV quoted former Mayor Mufi Hannemann saying, “bus rapid transit is not an option” for his administration the month he took office in January 2005.

“This is the part of the first series of major steps that I will take to make it clear that bus rapid transit is not an option for the Hannemann administration,” the mayor said, according to KITV.

But rail spokeswoman Jeanne Mariani-Belding told Civil Beat that the city “has not ignored BRT” in formulating the current rail plan.

“From the FTA’s perspective Honolulu has implemented some BRT services,” Mariani-Belding wrote in an email.

A November 2006 report prepared for the city by Parsons Brinckerhoff explained that because aspects of BRT had already been implemented, the remaining still-unbuilt components of a BRT system would be incorporated into other alternatives to be studied.

In other words, instead of having BRT as one of the final alternatives analyzed, the city says it took aspects of BRT and peppered them throughout the alternatives it explored. Part of the reasoning is that the city characterized BRT as a mode of operation, not necessarily infrastructure in and of itself.

“Bus rapid transit” is explicitly included in the city’s concept of a Transportation System Management, which was one of the four alternatives it explored in its alternatives analysis. (The other alternatives included not building anything, a managed-lane highway toll road and the fixed guideway that the city is now planning to build.) Here’s the description from an October 2006 Alternatives Screening Memo provided by the city:

The Transportation System Management (TSM) concept was designed to respond to the transportation issues in the corridor. These improvements are in lieu of major capital investment (i.e., fixed-guideway transit). The different types of projects in this alternative include contraflow lanes for high-occupancy vehicles (HOV) and buses on the H-1 freeway, regional bus rapid transit and major upgrades and improvements to the bus system

The Hannemann administration was not the first to link BRT and TSM. The earlier BRT plan “built on the TSM Alternative,” according to the final EIS produced during the Harris administration.

As for the idea that the BRT would have accomplished virtually all of the objectives of rail, the two projects had substantially similar goals and objectives. For example, the No. 1 goal of the Harris-era project was to “increase the people-carrying capacity of the transportation system in the primary transportation corridor by providing attractive alternatives to the private automobile.” The No. 1 of goal of the Hannemann-era project is to “improve corridor mobility,” as measured by transit ridership.

We checked the claim Slater made about a higher projected ridership on BRT, and he was right on the most basic level: The city projected 312,570 daily trips for the earlier BRT system, using 2025 as a target date. The city projected 282,500 daily trips for its current rail plan, using 2030 as a target date.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The city says that a number of variables that go into those projections changed between planning for the BRT and the train. It pointed to islandwide employment and population, as well as population in the primary urban center. UPDATED To clarify, this means that the projects had different baselines — known as “no-build alternatives” — because expectations for the already-existing transit system changed in the years between BRT planning and train planning.

The city said a better comparison would be how many transit trips would be added as a result of either project. Civil Beat did the math, using the figures provided in the Environmental Impact Statements for the projects. For the BRT project, 51,440 daily trips would be added vs. the no-build alternative. For the rail project, 56,200 trips would be added vs. its different no-build alternative.

Using these numbers, rail will add about 10 percent more daily transit trips than BRT would have. Of course, using the raw total ridership figures, BRT would have more daily transit trips by about the same percentage.

So, did the city stack the deck for rail? Not necessarily. There are reasons that elevated rail won out in the end.

One major factor: Where BRT would displace existing lanes of traffic, elevated rail would not. Removing a lane of traffic would — and did — pose its own political problems.

UPDATED

Bottom line: The rail opponents claim that BRT could accomplish virtually all of the objectives of rail at substantially less cost, citing a Parsons Brinckerhoff-produced study.

To reach our conclusion for this Fact Check, beyond confirming the contents of the Parsons Brinckerhoff study, we looked at the stated No. 1 goal for both projects — increased transit ridership — and found that the projections for each were substantially similar. We did not evaluate all of the other stated and unstated objectives for the two projects, so cannot pass judgment on whether virtually all of rail’s objectives would be accomplished by BRT.

Furthermore, the headline of this Fact Check should not be construed as saying that BRT is equivalent or superior to rail. Many factors go into that assessment. But on the most important measure, ridership, data indicate that the impact of both would be roughly the same, with BRT offering a lower price. That is why we gave this Fact Check a “true” grade.


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