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It was the perfect storm. At 9:15 a.m. on Tuesday, a short-circuit within one of the state’s two ZipMobiles brought the traffic-management vehicle to a halt, making it impossible to continue lifting up the line of connected concrete blocks that divert traffic during rush hour.
State officials conferred with the ZipMobile’s manufacturer about the broken central processing unit. Should they spend an hour driving the second ZipMobile out to Waikele, or simply take its CPU and insert it in the broken machine?
They decided to do the latter. And what followed was a comedy of errors that forced many Honolulu commuters to sit in traffic for as long as five hours on Tuesday evening, earning the Twitter hashtags #Zipnado and #Carmageddon.
The incident revealed that state officials weren’t prepared to deal with the consequences of the broken ZipMobile CPUs. They had to fly in a technician and extra CPUs from the mainland on Wednesday, and still don’t know how much that will cost.
The traffic jam also underscored the consequences of Honolulu’s pattern of approving housing developments without ensuring there is adequate transportation infrastructure in place.
On top of that, with the Department of Transportation’s public information officer Tim Sakahara on vacation, the agency didn’t do enough to notify residents of the impending traffic problems.
“The timing was just unbelievable,” said DOT Director Ford Fuchigami said at a press conference Wednesday, explaining Sakahara’s absence and promising to do better next time.
“Yesterday was kind of a perfect storm in terms of everything falling apart.”
Although the state Transportation Department sent out news releases at 10:25 a.m., noon and 2:30 p.m. and held an afternoon news conference, that wasn’t enough to get the word out to residents commuting to the west side after work Tuesday.
The city’s emergency alert system, Nixle, which the police department uses to notify drivers about traffic accidents and road closures, didn’t send its first message until 4:17 p.m.
While motorists took to Twitter to rage about the traffic and the lack of notifications from the city and state, the state Department of Transportation’s account was mostly silent. The first of just three tweets came at 3:21 p.m. to notify drivers that a shoulder lane was open to those heading westbound. None of them used the popular hashtag #hitraffic that residents click on to figure out what’s happening on the city’s roads.
And while residents trapped in their cars desperately checked their phones for traffic update, Honolulu police ticketed 65 people on Waimano Home Road alone on Tuesday afternoon in a planned effort to enforce the state law against using a cell phone while driving.
The department said that it ended enforcement when officials were notified of the extent of the traffic jam. But both Sen. Will Espero and Rep. Matt LoPresti are trying to get the tickets dismissed.
Both city and state officials improved public communication on Wednesday, sending frequent traffic notifications. The state and city allowed salaried employees to leave work three hours early to beat traffic, and the state fixed the zipper lane by 4 p.m.
“The promise that we’re making to you is we’re going to communicate earlier, sooner and more effectively,” said Michael Formby, who leads the city’s Department of Transportation Services.
But it’s not the first time both of the state’s ZipMobiles have broken. In January 2014, the machines had mechanical problems and the state had to order an extra part from the mainland. But officials were able to swap out parts between the machines to get rid of the zipper lane and the traffic impact wasn’t as bad.
In the case of the CPUs that broke Tuesday, officials explained the state doesn’t have back-ups because the products have a 2-year battery life and the manufacturer recommends against keeping extra CPUs on hand.
Fuchigami from DOT said in a press conference that the agency is reviewing whether to upgrade the ZipMobiles or replace them altogether.
Both of Honolulu’s ZipMobiles are 15 years old, and only have a lifespan of 20 years. Fuchigami estimated it would cost about $11 million to completely replace both machines.
“$11 million is money well spent as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “A lot of people ended up staying in town last night… $11 million is nothing compared to rectifying the situation.”
Sen. Jill Tokuda, who leads the Ways and Means Committee, said she would consider an appropriation if approached about it. Both the House and Senate currently plan to set aside $921,000 in special funds in each of the next two fiscal years to repair and operate the machines.
“It would be a cruel joke if we didn’t include it,” she said.
On social media, pro-rail supporters leapt at the opportunity to point out that if highly controversial over-budget public transportation system is built, commuters won’t need to be stuck in traffic.
But Kem Lowry, a University of Hawaii professor of urban planning, said Wednesday that the city’s planned rail system is “at best, a partial solution” because it only ensures that traffic congestion will get worse at a slower rate.
He explained that Honolulu’s terrible traffic — among the worst in the nation — is the result of approving more houses than the city’s roads can accommodate.
“Transportation infrastructure has not kept pace with the growth of new developments,” Lowry said. “What we see is a consequence of that.”
He said that while other cities have passed laws limiting development in certain areas until transportation infrastructure is in place, Honolulu hasn’t done that.
Honolulu City Councilman Ron Menor from Central Oahu wants to put that kind of limit on D.R. Horton, a company that’s seeking rezoning approval to build a 11,750-home development in West Oahu called Hoopili.
Although a rail station would be located within the community, many residents are still expected to commute by car.
Menor said the developer’s current proposed unilateral agreement with the city doesn’t include any conditions that would require that some transportation infrastructure be completed before the developer can sell a certain number of units.
Menor is advocating for an amendment that would do so, and the Zoning and Planning Committee is planning to take up the proposal during a meeting on Thursday.
“I recognize that the development will provide benefits in terms of creating new housing and creating jobs,” Menor said. “If the development is going to happen, the city needs to ensure that there is going to be adequate infrastructure to accommodate the traffic impacts that will result.”
Lowry said that Hoopili would follow the city’s longtime pattern of approving new housing developments without first building the transportation infrastructure.
In the 1970s, a planning study of Central Oahu made the case for not overdeveloping the region but it was largely ignored because major landowners wanted to develop, Lowry said.
One developer, Castle & Cooke, built 16,000 homes in Mililani over several decades since 1958. The company is planning to add yet another 3,500 homes to the area in a highly criticized suburban development called Koa Ridge.
“It was politically difficult to say no to any one development that would have added substantially to the transportation load,” Lowry said, adding that not one but several planning decisions brought Honolulu to this point.
“It is not something that will be solved with rapid transit,” he said.