Civil Beat has spent almost a month scrutinizing the most serious attacks on Honolulu’s $5.3 billion rail project by four accomplished residents of Honolulu — Ben Cayetano, Walter Heen, Randall Roth and Cliff Slater. We’ve published many thousands of words, far more then they wrote in the op-ed published in the Aug. 21 edition of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Even they have published many more words on Civil Beat than they did in their original article. In all, we’ve published a total of 13 articles on the subject.
Now it’s time to boil it all down.
Civil Beat published seven Fact Checks and one editorial, the subject of which was taken up at the urging of the opponents. Here’s a quick guide to our findings.
Overall Bottom Line: Two grades of “True,” two grades of “False” and three grades of “Half True.” In addition, our editorial found that the opponents’ characterization of city leaders’ case for the project was not accurate.
CB Bottom Line: Actually, no. That hasn’t been city leaders’ overriding message, nor was it the way the project was routinely described by the leading newspaper reporter on the issue at The Honolulu Advertiser. Rail is an alternative to getting stuck in traffic that will mean congestion on H1 will be better than if the city did nothing.
Opponents’ Response: City leaders realized that if the people knew the project would not improve traffic congestion from the current levels, they might have second thoughts about whether it would be worth the cost. They were not truthful or transparent.
The rail opponents are correct that a Parsons Brinckerhoff-produced study said that Bus Rapid Transit could accomplish virtually all of the objectives of rail at substantially less cost.
But beyond confirming the contents of the 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.
The claim about multiple stations being 10 stories high is categorically false. And blaming the error on a “typo,” as Slater did, isn’t an excuse that he would accept from the city.
As for the suggestion that stations will be aircraft carriers in the sky, the op-ed and Slater are careful to say that others have made those claims and they were merely repeating them. But they leave a distorted impression.
Opponents’ Response: “We are quite satisfied that our statement, ‘Some of the stations would be 10 stories high,’ is an accurate description should this project be actually fully built.”
It’s not true that “virtually every environmental group in Hawaii opposes heavy rail.” Civil Beat checked with 11 environmental groups and found one in favor, two opposed and eight with no position.
Opponents’ Response: “Environmental groups generally are not opposed to all rail transit projects. In fact, the Honolulu project is possibly the only one that environmental groups DO oppose. This unusual position is what makes their opposition to the proposed elevated rail project so important and why reasonable people should pay attention to the reasons for their opposition. Your characterization of our statement as false, is itself false.”
Opponents are correct that higher taxes, fees and/or fares will be needed to subsidize the rail system. But they exaggerate the size of the subsidy. In fact, in a representative year, they nearly doubled it.
In our estimation, the actual additional cost to Honolulu taxpayers is about half what opponents say it’s going to be.
Opponents’ Response: “Of course, the exact amount of the additional subsidy for the integrated system is unknowable at this time, but $100 million is a conservative estimate. The City says the increase in the first full year of their joint operation would be $119 million, and even that number assumes that actual ridership will not fall below the projections. The evidence suggests that the City’s projections are overly optimistic.”
For at least a year after new population projections came out, the city continued to use old figures that opponents say bolstered the case for rail. The city says it had a good reason for that, and its new figures include an increase in employment that leaves the ridership model largely unaffected.
While many large-scale rail projects often use a phased approach to burial surveys, there was nothing set in stone insisting Honolulu pursue that particular avenue. According to the Federal Transit Administration, the City and County of Honolulu chose the phased approach — it was not required to.
That makes Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources Director William Aila’s statement false. The opponents’ claim is true.
The opponents have some basis for saying the job creation estimates are exaggerated. They are correct that specific jobs haven’t been identified, but that’s an unrealistic expectation. The rest of their claims are not supported by facts. That is why our grade in this case is half-true.
Opponents’ Response: “We think Civil Beat’s analysis amounts to quibbling over the placement of the knives, forks, and spoons at a table on which sits an elephant nearly the size of an aircraft carrier. Our overarching points about the city’s jobs claims are unassailable: the city has led the public to expect that the proposed heavy rail system would increase the number of jobs in Hawaii by at least 10,000, and that number is extremely misleading.”
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