Four distinguished Hawaii leaders have taken a two-pronged approach to try to stop Honolulu’s rail project. The first is legal. They have filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming that the city, state and federal government did not follow the law in producing the project’s Environmental Impact Statement. The second is a public campaign to draw attention to what they see as deception by city leaders and a lack of media coverage holding those leaders accountable. Critical of Civil Beat’s Fact Checks of their claims in an op-ed in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, they said there would be a greater public benefit if we examined how the city had misled people about rail’s impact on congestion. Given our respect for former Gov. Ben Cayetano, Walter Heen, Randy Roth and Cliff Slater, we’ve done exactly that.
That the public has been misled about rail is the central thesis of the project’s opponents.
That was evident from the headline — “How the City Misled the Public” — over their op-ed in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser challenging the $5.3 billion system.
The worst example of deception, they say, involves rail’s impact on congestion.
They argue that the city has created the false impression that rail will reduce the current level of traffic congestion, which they are correct in pointing out is not the case.
The opponents cite a statement by the city’s transportation director in the Final Environmental Impact Statement as a gotcha moment, where the city finally had to admit the truth that they believe is little understood: that “traffic congestion will be worse in the future with rail than what it is today without rail.”
But did the city’s leaders make the case for rail as the best way to lower congestion from today’s levels?
That hasn’t been their overriding message, nor was it the way the project was routinely described by the leading newspaper reporter on the issue, The Honolulu Advertiser’s Sean Hao — the only one dedicated to covering the project full time until the paper folded last year. That said, yes, opponents can point to some examples of statements — especially by pro-rail groups — that could be interpreted to mean less traffic than today, at least by someone who gave the issue little thought.
For example, an Associated Press article about a rail debate before the November 2008 election quoted then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann saying, “The alternative-analysis report that we spent million of dollars on and done by engineers who know the subject said very clearly that light rail will reduce traffic congestion by 11 percent.” (We’ll get to more of these later.)
A Civil Beat examination of Hannemann statements from 2005 to today, as well as numerous city press releases and press reports, reveals that the opponents are misrepresenting his message.
Civil Beat didn’t exist for most of the Hannemann administration, but Civil Beat has closely covered the administration of Mayor Peter Carlisle since he took office last year. Reporters Adrienne LaFrance and Michael Levine both say they have not heard the mayor or key rail leaders present rail as a way to reduce congestion from current levels.
Officials do often say that rail would offer an alternative to highway congestion that is expected to worsen with population growth. In other words, any rail-related congestion relief would be provided to those who opt to use the system, not to those who stay on the highways.
For example, in a statement following the announcement of a $55 million grant for rail in June, Carlisle said: “These federal funds move us closer to achieving our goal of providing a transportation alternative to our congested roads and highways.” (See other examples at the bottom of this article.)
The project was presented by its chief champion, Hannemann, and the city as an alternative to roads, as a way to slow the growth of congestion — not as a way to reduce traffic from today’s levels. Here are a few key examples (More examples can also be found at the bottom of this article):
“It’s clear that we need to tackle the problem now by developing a multimodal transportation system that will efficiently carry large numbers of commuters, slow the growth of traffic (emphasis added) and allow for sensible development of Oahu in the years to come. In addition to better use of our roads and buses and the creation of a commuter ferry, rail transit offers the most promising solution.”
“O‘ahu’s population is expected to grow by 200,000 people by 2030, and an estimated 750,000 more daily trips are expected on O‘ahu’s roads. But a detailed Alternatives Analysis showed that a rail transit system could reduce future traffic congestion by 11%, while simply increasing the number of buses would reduce future traffic congestion by just 1.3%.” It also says, “Building rail transit now is the most cost-effective way to avoid even more congestion in the future.”
The word “future” is used four times in the four paragraph article.
As for the city’s former leading newspaper and how it presented the project, in many of Hao’s Advertiser stories he routinely included an explanation of the thinking behind rail.
Here’s one example: “Rail proponents, including trade unions, hope to convince voters that the rail project will provide a much needed boost to the economy by creating construction jobs. They also point to the rail as an alternative to travel on congested roadways and a way to reduce urban sprawl by encouraging dense growth near train stations.”
Here’s another: “The transit system is not expected to improve traffic conditions. Rather, the project is aimed at giving commuters another option and accommodating growth in the H-1 corridor.”
Neither the mayor, the city literature, or the leading reporter on the story expressly gave the impression that rail would reduce current congestion levels.
Opponents have an entire page of their Honolulutraffic.com website listing examples of what they consider to be “deception.” (One remarkable aspect of that page is that while they decry the visual blight of the elevated rail system, the image they use to illustrate a way to reduce congestion is an elevated highway, a double-decked road leading into downtown.)
Here’s just one example of their critique (others are examined at the bottom of this article):
However, in the Alternatives Analysis (AA), which very few people read, we learn that, “Traffic congestion on key corridor facilities is expected to continue to exist under all alternatives, particularly during peak travel periods.” (AA, p. S-3)
Even this statement does not really tell us how bad traffic is going to get. For that we have to go to the fine print in table 3-12 of the AA. Here we learn that the Volume/Capacity ratio for H-1 at “Kalauao Stream Koko Head bound” (H-1 regular lanes where they are abreast of Pearl Ridge Shopping Center town bound during the peak hours) is presently 15 percent over its capacity, which is why it is so congested. When we look in last but one column for “Kalaeloa – Halekauwila” rail transit alternative for 2030, we find that this V/C ratio increases to 1.81, or 81 percent over capacity. This is an amount of congestion that is difficult to comprehend unless you were caught in the H-1 traffic on Martin Luther King Day early in 2007.
This sounds really bad. However, what opponents leave out is the city’s projection in the very same table of that corridor’s Volume/Capacity ratio in 2030 without rail: 1.90, or 90 percent over capacity. Clearly the rail alternative reduces traffic congestion, though not by very much.
When talking about traffic congestion, one key question is how much alternative transportation will reduce traffic congestion after it is operational. And from a policy point of view, one major question is whether or not this predicted level of reduction is worth the expense and impact of the project.
But of course there are also other questions, such as whether the system will provide an attractive alternative to driving.
While Hannemann did say there would be “less cars on the road” in one example cited on the opponents’ website, even in that fragment they pulled from an article, he wasn’t wrong. Even a handful of people riding the rail system instead of driving in the future means fewer cars, although that may not be adequate justification for such a project.
Hannemann’s pitch for the project was that it would provide an alternative for people stuck in traffic.
In response to a letter from a critic of the project posted on rail opponent Panos Prevedouros’ campaign website, Hannemann was clear that he saw rail as an alternative to driving.
“It is giving people the option to travel quickly and efficiently without spending their hard-earned money at the gas pump,’ he wrote.
Boosters always look to present projects in the best light. But even a group like Go Rail Go, when giving four reasons to vote for rail, included the caveat that it was talking about future congestion under the headline, “Relieves Congestion.” It wrote: ”
If you think congestion is bad now, wait a few years. By the year 2030 there will be an estimated 30% more travel on Oahu.”
Opponents can’t argue with the fact that any alternative, including rail, will reduce future traffic congestion. The question is by how much, and that depends on how attractive the alternative is.
Civil Beat has not taken a position on the rail project.
But the opponents’ longstanding focus on alleged congestion deception makes them seem unreasonable. They appear to be grasping for any fragment they can find to bolster their effort to stop the project, not to encourage a thoughtful, measured debate of the real issues before the public today.
There have been two public votes on rail. Politicians have staked their careers on voting for a tax increase to pay for the project. Those are all examples of the democratic process at work.
The opponents’ obsession with congestion deception today is a distraction.
They do raise numerous objections to the project, including the visual and environmental impact of large stations and elevated tracks. Intelligently debating the tradeoffs in the design of the rail transit system will lead to the best result for the community.
That may not be possible, however, if the opponents’ sole goal is to stop the project. In their earnest opposition, they have exaggerated the facts to paint rail supporters as misleading at best and liars at worst.
In this analysis, Civil Beat finds itself in the unusual position of defending the city against its detractors. We are accustomed to asking tough questions of government officials and holding them to account. Private citizens with concerns about government policies, like this group of opponents, add important voices to the public discourse. We value their engagement, and know it can come with a price. In this case that includes that by following the facts where they led, as the opponents requested, Civil Beat has found the opponents’ rhetoric wanting.
We simply wish that rather than insisting that the city lied to voters, they would tackle in a rigorous and measured manner important questions about the project, such as contracting practices, routes, zoning and planning. We wish they would focus on these points rather than continuing to insist that the project was based on deception.
Honolulu has years of decision-making ahead and these knowledgable and passionate citizens could be a constructive force when it comes to maximizing the benefits of the rail project and ensuring that the public interest is met.
While we do not agree with the opponents on the congestion deception issue, we believe they have raised important questions for the city and performed a public service through their involvement.
We will continue to try to serve the community to the best of our ability on this issue, too, informed by voices from all sides and committed to independent reporting — wherever our questions may lead us and whatever they unearth.
“The most significant benefit to the project is addressing its Purpose and Need. As stated in the Final EIS, the Purpose and Need were established with public input in 2005.
“Rail transit will deliver:
- More Mobility. We need to get from here to there – island-wide. The roads and freeways are often congested, limiting our community’s mobility. An elevated rail transit system could move up to 16,000 people per hour without taking away the already limited highway and road space we have now.
- Better Reliability. The elevated system will make travel times more predictable for all public transit riders.
- More Access and Infrastructure for West O‘ahu. It is vital that improved infrastructure is in place to support growth on the west side. It will help focus growth in designated areas, and away from areas where we don’t want it – helping “keep the country, country.”
- Fairness and Equity in Transportation. Rail transit is affordable for families, seniors, and students. Rides will cost the same as TheBus, come with free transfers, and like now, a monthly pass will work system-wide.
Final Environmental Impact Statement Explanation of Purpose of Rail Project