We recently pointed out that local taxes would have to be raised rather dramatically before rail could possibly be completed as planned, and suggested affordable alternatives that would reduce traffic congestion.

Rail supporters responded that the city cannot afford to stop rail now, because doing so would require that it repay the Federal Transit Administration the $600 million already received. The FTA has indeed threatened to take such action, but that is little more than an opening bid in a negotiation.

The FTA demanded that its money be returned if New Jersey canceled the ARC Tunnel Project. Yet when Gov. Chris Christie did exactly that, the FTA settled for only one-third of the $271 million they had demanded, even though the FTA had not been complicit in ARC’s failure.

HART Guideway waipahu construction Sugar Mill Farrington Hwy1
Though the Honolulu rail project is running short of money, federal officials say it must be built as planned, or they’ll require that their $1.55 billion investment be repaid. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Our negotiating position is much stronger than New Jersey’s was, because the FTA has been complicit in the Honolulu rail project’s problems. They helped the city mislead Oahu voters about rail’s likely impact on future traffic congestion, thus inflating the 2008 pro-rail vote.

Between the start of the FTA’s involvement in 2005 and the 2008 Hawaii vote on rail, Mayor Mufi Hannemann and other city officials continuously implied, and occasionally specifically stated, that rail would reduce traffic congestion.[i] The FTA knew about this because we told them. FTA officials warned each other in emails about our city officials’ “willingness to deceive the FTA with no remorse.”[ii]

Mayor Hannemann in his 2008 State of the City Address said, “I’ve said time and time again that traffic congestion is the most significant challenge to our quality of life … the fixed guideway present[s] the most effective means of relieving traffic congestion…”[iii]

The city spent millions of dollars on radio, television, and print versions of such propaganda deceiving the public about future traffic congestion and using rail funds to pay for it. They did this under the guise of “public outreach,” to justify its use. FTA apparently did not object to this blatant misuse of taxpayer funds, which also supported pro-rail mayor Hannemann in getting re-elected.

The FTA-approved Draft Environmental Impact Statement states, “Implementation of the project, in conjunction with other improvements included in the 2030 O‘ahu Regional Transportation Plan (ORTP), would moderate anticipated traffic congestion in the corridor.”

That kind of statement is misleading to many readers. They would not derive from it that traffic congestion would be slightly improved with rail but still be far worse than it is today. The statement is far from the “plain language” that the law requires. Similar statements were made throughout the Draft EIS. [iv]

Nowhere in the Draft EIS does the city discuss future traffic congestion relative to current levels.[v]

It was then not surprising that in a Honolulu Advertiser poll taken just three months prior to the rail vote, 73 percent of Oahu residents agreed with the statement, “We need a light rail system in order to reduce traffic congestion and commute times along H-1”[vi] The poll showed that Honolulu voters had not understood that traffic congestion was going to be worse in the future even with rail.

After the 2008 vote the city admitted, for the first time, in the 2010 Final EIS, “… traffic congestion will be worse in the future with rail than what it is today…”[vii]

In 2011, the FTA finally stated in plain English, as required by environmental law,[viii] that, “… the purpose of the [rail] Project is to provide an alternative to the use of congested highways for many travelers. This alternative to the use of highways is especially important for households that cannot afford an automobile….”[ix]

Had those two statements been made prominently prior to the 2008 vote, the 50.6 percent who favored rail would have been considerably fewer and rail would have been voted down.

The FTA is by law required to provide oversight on matters such as these. In this case it failed miserably. That makes it complicit, not just morally but legally.

Now rather than take back federal funds, the FTA should itself be held accountable for the billions of dollars Honolulu taxpayers wasted. But for the FTA’s malfeasance, rail would have been voted down before the first dollar had been spent for its construction.

A footnoted version of this article is at www.honolulutraffic.com


[i]      Following are a few examples of the many claims of prospective traffic relief offered by the City administration.

Mayor Hannemann, KGMB interview, 10/30/2008, “People are tired of being stuck in traffic and they want solutions.”

Bill Brennan, Mayor Hannemann’s press secretary, op/ed in Hawaii Reporter 6/26/08. “Cities with large, well-established rail systems have significantly .. , less traffic congestion … A comprehensive rail transit system can reduce per capita congestion delays by half, and even greater reductions probably occur on specific corridors.” http://www.hawaiireporter.com/story.aspx?6847fd0b-ddce-41c1-82e9-3dcd7335de50

Mayor Hannemann said, “Our residents, particularly those in Leeward and Central Oahu, are crying for relief from traffic congestion. A mass transit system represents our best near- and long-term solution to this worsening problem and I’d hate to see our efforts derailed because of disagreements over who-does-what …. any delays in implementing the tax and completing our planning will delay relief for tens of thousands of commuters who are squandering hours of precious time in traffic.” City Hall press release: Mayor offers compromise on transit tax impasse. June 21, 2006. http://www.honolulu.gov/refs/csd/publiccom/honnews06/mayorofferscompromiseontransittaximpasse.htm

This video of Mayor Hannemann and Rep. Neil Abercrombie’s city hall “Traffic sucks!” rally held on December 5th, 2005, typifies the grossly misleading statements emanating from our elected officials. http://mfile.akamai.com/12891/wmv/vod.ibsys.com/2005/0707/4695365.200k.asx

“[Hannemann] said the [rail] system will help all parts of the island, easing traffic overall because ‘there’ll be less cars on the road. ‘” http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2005/May/12/In/In02p .html

Mayor’s Press Secretary: “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.” http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2005/Aug/10/op/508100321.html

“We’re poised to break ground for a long-awaited fixed guideway system that will reduce the time commuters spend in their cars and away from their families … ” Mayor Hannemann, editorial, Honolulu Advertiser, June 29, 2008, Living Green section.

“Mayor Mufi Hannemann chided Lingle at the rally and said the city needs a rail system to alleviate increasing traffic congestion. U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, also blasted a possible veto and said that he and the rest of Hawaii have had enough of the traffic problems. He said commuters are fed up and don’t need any more “Lingle lanes” filled with traffic congestion.” http://www.bizjoumals.com/pacific/stories/2005/07/04/daiIy18.html?t=printable

“How does rail transit help reduce traffic congestion? … Building rail transit now is the most cost-effective way to avoid even more congestion in the future … This brochure is provided by the City & County of Honolulu as part of the public information program required by the Federal Transportation (sic) Administration.” City’s 8-page II” x 12″ full color glossy brochure inserted in the Honolulu Advertiser, Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the weekly, Mid-Week, circa. October 19, 2008.

“The [rail] project shrinks future traffic congestion by more than 20 percent.” Mayor Hannemann quoted in the Honolulu Advertiser on November 2, 2008, under a bold above the fold headline, “Study predicts rail to ease traffic 23%”. Honolulu Advertiser, November 2, 2008. p. A1

“Rail transit can improve the quality of life for residents across O’ahu by reducing traffic congestion … and will shrink traffic congestion by at least 21 percent as it matures … my hope is that this is an action we collectively take for the future — for the generations of children to come who deserve an island home where they can live, work and raise their families free from the grind of constant traffic gridlock.” Senator Daniel K. Inouye. Draft EIS bodes well for transit. Honolulu Advertiser, November 2, 2008. p. B1.

[ii]     http://www.honolulutraffic.com/Admin_Record/Administrative_Record_rev_2.28.12/Administrative_Record_Volumes_1-11/Vol011_AR00150667/AR00151149.pdf

Two events that demonstrate the City’s intent to deceive the public were as follows:

  1. In September 2008 DTS Head Yoshioka accused us in City Council of lying about rail. This was on video (http://olelo.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=9&clip_id=2857 1 hour 32 minutes in for 8 minutes). Subsequently, Yoshioka produced the “20 Lies” Councilmember Ann Kobayashi had asked him for. Lie #5 was that we had stated, “The city admits future traffic congestion will be worse with rail than it is today.” Yoshioka’s comment on this was, “ This is a cleverly crafted statement that knowingly uses only part of the information available. The Alternatives Analysis shows that a fixed guideway will reduce future traffic congestion between Kapolei and Honolulu by 11 percent.” We responded, “This is pure spin. He is not denying that traffic congestion will be worse than today only that rail will reduce congestion by 11 percent from what it would be without rail.”

It was amusing to find that Yoshioka used almost exactly those words in the Final EIS, see endnote #7.

  1. The Mayor’s behavior during the 2008 mayoral candidates’ debates exemplified the refusal of city officials and their contractors to admit that traffic congestion will get worse with rail. During the September 9 debate, Dr. Panos Prevedouros asked the Mayor, “Your own city studies show that traffic congestion in the future, with rail, will be far worse than it is today. Is that true? Yes or No?” The Mayor totally dodged this because he knows full well that the answer is “Yes” but the viewers did not know that traffic congestion will indeed get worse with rail. Watch him duck and dive during this video rather than admit that traffic congestion would get worse in the future even with rail.

[iii]     Mayor Hannemann’s 2008 State of the City Address, “I’ve said time and time again that traffic congestion is the most significant challenge to our quality of life … the fixed guideway presented the most effective means of relieving traffic congestion and accommodating the anticipated growth in West and Central Oahu…  The bottom line is the people of Oahu are tired of studies and being stuck in traffic. They want action and they want it now.” http://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/story/7906671/mayor-mufi-hannemanns-state-of-the-city-speech

[iv]     http://www.honolulutraffic.com/Total_DEIS_2008_D.pdf p. 1-19.

[v]     the Project would help moderate anticipated traffic congestion in the corridor. http://www.honolulutraffic.com/Total_DEIS_2008_D.pdf p. S-1.

[vi]     www.honolulutraffic.com/HADV_poll_p9.pdf

[vii]    http://www.honolulutraffic.com/City_Response_DEIS_comments.pdf pp. 24 & 25. The full quote is:
“You are correct in pointing out that traffic congestion will be worse in the future with rail than what it is today without rail, and that is supported by the data included in the Final EIS. In fact, projections suggest that traffic conditions will be worse in 2030 under any circumstances.”

[viii]    The National Environmental Policy Act requires that environmental impact statements “shall be written in plain language … so that … the public can understand them.” 40 C.F.R. § 1502.8

Following are some representative examples of the jargon used in the Draft EIS:

“The project would improve mobility for travelers who face increasingly severe traffic congestion.” http://www.honolulutraffic.com/Total_DEIS_2008_D.pdf p. S-2.

“Substantial benefits: moderate future traffic congestion.” http://www.honolulutraffic.com/Total_DEIS_2008_D.pdf   Summary Sheet

“The Build Alternatives would improve the operation of the roadway network as compared to the No Build Alternative by reducing congestion and would improve emergency response times.” http://www.honolulutraffic.com/Total_DEIS_2008_D.pdf p. 4-37

[ix]     The full paragraph reads: “Many commenters reiterated their concern that the Project will not relieve highway congestion in Honolulu. FTA agrees, but the purpose of the [rail] Project is to provide an alternative to the use of congested highways for many travelers. This alternative to the use of highways is especially important for households that cannot afford an automobile for every person in the household who travels for work or for other reasons.”

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