Honolulu rail’s planning and forecasting is suspect.

Now renowned professor Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University dares to reveal the bigger picture: The American Planning Association is suspect. Here are five passages from his assessment.

  • When Planners Lie with Numbers: Based on a sample of 258 transportation infrastructure projects worth US$90 billion and representing different project types, geographical regions, and historical periods, it is found with overwhelming statistical significance that the cost estimates used to decide whether such projects should be built are highly and systematically misleading.

  • Dr. Flyvbjerg’s study documents a cost overrun of 45 percent for rail projects, 34 percent for bridges and tunnels, and 20 percent for roads.

  • The implications of these findings are that (1) planners are doing an exceptionally poor job at costing major public works projects, sometimes perhaps intentionally, (2) this results in large scale waste of public money and violations of basic principles of democracy, and, (3) APA, as the main professional body for planners, has a responsibility to help rectify this situation.

  • Several planners have written to support Dr. Flyvbjerg: “After having been involved with APA for several decades he cannot recall a single example of a planner being expelled from APA for ethical violations” was said to Dr. Flyvbjerg by a former APA president. This is not because planners are uniformly well-behaved, but because APA is in denial about the possibility of bad planning and malpractice.

  • The APA is found to employ two well-known strategies for dealing with uncomfortable knowledge such as the revelation by Dr. Flyvbjerg: Denial and Diversion.

To recap: When it comes to very large infrastructure projects, rail projects in particular, planners tend to lie or use subpar methodology to estimate project costs and forecasts. They are not accountable to anyone for their errors, and the public is hurt by having to support poor projects. In some cases, planners help the client to deny opposition and divert the public’s attention from the facts and primary objectives. All of the above are in abundance in Honolulu.

Denial and diversion is what current elected officials and their predecessors have been practicing since 2006. Denial of pure, direct and unbiased facts presented primarily by Cliff Slater and myself. Diversion by avoiding the painful deficiencies of rail in ridership, congestion relief and cost (all of these were sugar coated by the project’s planners) and focusing on jobs, TODs and “the future of the island.” There are dozens of better ways than elevated rail to invest five billion dollars on Oahu to create more jobs, better housing and set Oahu on the path to long term prosperity.

The Honolulu rail project’s top-down, deceitful planning and environmental analysis in support of the project will be the laughingstock of the nation. If the project begins to make progress, the failure and ridicule (for elected officials and all the people of Honolulu) will increase proportionally.

About the author: Panos Prevedouros is a University of Hawaii professor whose areas of expertise include transportation engineering, traffic analysis and simulation, demand forecasting, and intelligent transportation systems. He has twice run for Honolulu mayor.

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