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.

The Opponents’ Case for Congestion Deception

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?

Actually, no.

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.)

Civil Beat Finds Opponents Misrepresent Hannemann’s Arguments

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):

  • In July 2005, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published a letter from the mayor with the headline, “We must take bold step toward rail transit.” His focus was congestion, which his first sentence says is “killing our quality of life.” But his argument for the project wasn’t that it would reduce current congestion.

“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.”

  • In November 2006, Hannemann said: “This is why I’m a strong proponent of rail. It’s all about connecting the west side with the east side.” This in a meeting with the now-departed Honolulu Advertiser’s community board. The west side, as we know from the latest census data, is where the fastest growth is occurring on Oahu.
  • Before the critical November 2008 vote on rail, the city put out a widely-distributed, eight-page, full-color brochure in an attempt to sway the public. A headline on the front page says, “How does rail transit help reduce traffic congestion?” It’s true that if people didn’t read any further, they might have been left with the impression that congestion would be reduced from today’s levels. But the text below the headline makes clear that the city is talking about future congestion.

“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.

  • Just before the 2008 vote, the city put out a press release about the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, with this headline: “Latest Findings: Rail Will Shrink Future Traffic Congestion by More than 20 Percent, Among Many Benefits.” The press release said: “Traffic congestion would be reduced between 21 and 23 percent island-wide in the year 2030 depending on the rail route, compared to the “No Build” scenario (emphasis added).”
  • In 2009, in a lengthy speech on the state of rail transit, Hannemann made clear that he saw rail as an alternative to driving: “Rail will give us choices that only an integrated multi-modal transportation system can provide. Rail will give our youth a better quality of life. Rail will afford working men and women a convenient and economical means of transportation. Rail will enable seniors to preserve their mobility, independence, and dignity. My friends, let rail be our legacy . . . to ourselves, to our children, to their keiki.”

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.

Analysis of One Example of ‘Deception’

Opponents have an entire page of their 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.

Rail as an 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 vs. Leaders

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.

Conclusion: In War of Ideas, Opponents Have Weak Position

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.

More Examples that Could Have Created Misunderstanding about Congestion

  • Hannemann is quoted in a 2005 article as saying “there’ll be less cars on the road.” However it’s a partial quote — a fragment — and it’s not clear what the context for the statement was. What is clear in the article, in the very first paragraph, is that opponents argue that “the plan won’t ease growing traffic congestion.” Which is not actually true, because rail will ease the rate of growth, not reduce the current level.
  • Opponents point to a July 2005 Pacific Business News article about a City Council vote over a transportation tax as an example of the congestion deception. But Hannemann isn’t actually quoted in the article. It just says he said “the city needs a rail system to alleviate increasing traffic congestion.” Again, alleviating increasing traffic congestion doesn’t mean reducing it from its current levels.
  • The previously mentioned Associated Press article about a rail debate before the election, which says: “‘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,’ Hannemann said. ‘When you talk about the managed lanes, you’re talking about 4 percent, and the reversible lanes that Professor Prevedouros prefers, it will actually increase traffic by 0.4 percent.'”

More Examples that Show Clarity About Impact on Congestion

  • A November 2008 post on the website Hawaii Liberty Chronicles says: “The city’s hired consultant, Parsons Brinkerhoff, found first in the alternatives analysis and then in the draft environmental impact study released 2 days before the election that rail will reduce traffic congestion — in 2030. (The study found that traffic will be 57 percent worse in 2030 than it is today, but that with a rail project, it will be 23 percent less worse than without it.)”
  • The Rick Hamada show held a debate before the November 2008 election. During that debate, a key official with the rail project had no problem acknowledging that the reduction in congestion would be over what it would be without rail.

More Examples of How Hannemann Sold the Project

  • An October 2008 press release from the mayor’s office doesn’t mention reducing congestion. “It’s very clear that people are seeking alternatives to clogged freeways and high fuel prices,”
    Mayor Hannemann said, according to the press release.
  • Another press release from July of that year about four former state transportation directors coming out in favor of the project also doesn’t mention reducing congestion. It says: “There is no room to build additional freeway capacity into downtown Honolulu from West Oahu, where most new development is taking place, said Kazu Hayashida, State transportation director from 1994 to 2000 under then-Governor Ben Cayetano. Adding a second deck to the H-1 freeway would raise serious concerns about visual blight, and would simply funnel more cars onto streets that don’t have the capacity to handle them, Hayashida said.”

Examples of How Fight Over Deception Claims Isn’t New

  • Hannemann spokesman Bill Brennan wrote a piece in the Advertiser in 2005 in which he says rail opponent Cliff Slater “misrepresents just about everything Mayor Mufi Hannemann, Transportation Services Director Ed Hirata and other supporters of transit have said, from the timing of federal requirements to tax calculations, highway capacity and a rail system’s potential to ease traffic congestion.” In that article he doesn’t argue that rail will lower congestion. He says: “Traffic is the chief problem affecting quality of life on O’ahu. We are going to need something beyond more cars and roads to meet our transportation needs of the future.” In other words, he presents rail as an alternative.
  • In July 2008, the Advertiser reported: “If 65 percent of the people who favor believe it’s going to reduce traffic congestion, that’s an educational problem,” Slater said. “They’re not talking from a factual basis. They’re not going to get any traffic relief. The city has totally misled them.”
  • In an August 2008 interview with the paper, Slater went further, saying that rail “will lead to worse traffic congestion” and arguing that the people have been “greatly misled by the city on this issue.”

Other Examples of Statements by Carlisle

  • When the city broke ground for rail in February 2011, the first sentence of the statement about the event said: “Honolulu’s rail transit project will create thousands of jobs and provide a badly needed transportation alternative that will benefit Oahu for decades and generations to come, Mayor Peter Carlisle said at the project’s ceremonial groundbreaking and blessing today.”
  • In June 2010, the Honolulu Advertiser profiled the mayoral race after Hannemann stepped down to run for governor. This is what it reported Carlisle said about rail: “Traffic congestion endured by West O’ahu commuters is ‘unbearable and unacceptable’ and it’s their turn for relief, Carlisle said. Improvements have been done to Kalaniana’ole Highway to improve the drive for East Honolulu residents while H-3 Freeway has helped ease the traffic burden for Windward folks.”
  • In July 2010, at a mayoral forum just after he stepped down as prosecutor to run for the city’s top office, Carlisle spoke to Civil Beat about the rail project. “It’s unacceptable for us right now that people on the west side of the island have to suffer three-hour commutes in stop-and-go traffic. That’s no life at all. It will only get worse unless we take drastic measures to change it right now because growth is all going to that side of the island.”
  • In January 2011, when the Federal Transit Administration issued a Record of Decision for the rail project, Carlisle’s first statement stresses that rail is an alternative to congested roads. “This is one of the most significant milestones for the rail project,” Carlisle said. “We will soon be able to provide residents with a sensible alternative to our congested roads and highways and improve their overall quality of life. Rail transit construction will also create thousands of jobs and fuel our state’s economy – it’s time to get those shovels in the ground.”

Statement by City on Reasons to Support Rail

“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

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