- Special Projects
Even if the Legislature gives Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell the rail funds he wants, even if somehow, somewhere, the city gets enough money to complete rail, the damage is done.
And this hurt will linger.
But it’s not what rail’s opponents consider damage, which involves ridership and revenue.
I am talking about civic damage. Instead of emerging from a comfortable cushion of trust, rail has reinforced an understandably entrenched pincushion of citizen cynicism. And that has bad consequences.
The woeful, bungling effort of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation has increased the public’s cynicism about government. This reinforces an already strong belief that when it comes to taking on any big government project, Hawaii is a can’t-do, doesn’t-know-its-okole-from-its-elbow state.
Nationally people trust the federal government about as much as they would trust a masked stranger lurking in their darkened doorway.
Less than a fifth thinks that the federal government can be trusted to do the right thing all or most of the time. Fifty years ago the percentage was close to four times higher.
Faith in state and local government is much higher, but fragile enough for a national research organization to worry about what it calls the “to know it (local government) is to hate it” syndrome.
Hawaii government is well along in its to-know-it-is-to-hate-it reputation. Rail makes and will continue to make this skepticism far worse.
Public trust is especially important in big public projects like rail. Without it, things that should be routine, technical and fixable instead become contested — always back to square one.
What the heck do I know about, say, the best way to relocate overhead wires or fix unforeseen construction glitches? I want people and a process that I can trust to make these decisions.
A project needs to reach a point where the public feels comfortable deferring to the technical people building the thing. OK, so there’s a glitch with the rail car construction, some cracks in the structure. Stuff happens. It’s a fixable problem, and we know we have folks who can do the fixing.
So any mass transit project has to be both technically and civically well-conceived.
Let’s not set too high a bar here. Like ours, every rail project has a bunch of opponents, and virtually every big public works effort costs more and takes longer than the original estimates.
But Oahu’s rail project was bad from the get-go. First politicians underestimated the opposition, assuming rail was a done deal.
Then there was that initial weak and whacky stab at getting legitimacy through a referendum asking voters whether they approved of steel train wheels. That’s like asking America’s Founding Fathers to vote on the Constitution based on how they thought Alexander Hamilton’s horses should be shod.
And it never got better. The cushion never developed even among many who supported rail and who now, as one pollster recently put it, are having “buyer’s remorse.”
The result? Every Oahu rail issue turns into a trust issue. Nothing is routine. Everything smacks of something more vital and serious. Can’t trust the numbers, can’t trust the fixes, and ultimately can’t trust the people involved.
A project needs to reach a point where the public feels comfortable deferring to the technical people building the thing.
And of course there are those poor legislators who are caught in a trap and can’t walk out thanks to Mayor Kirk Caldwell, whom they now trust as much as that masked, lurking stranger in your doorway.
Think of what a marriage would be like if every little problem, like whose turn it is to empty the dishwasher, turned into a trust issue, or if every time your teenager asked to use the car, you had to begin with the square one parental sermon about trustworthiness.
The rail process has reinforced distrust that will radiate outward to dampen our willingness to participate in civic life. Political distrust reduces volunteerism and the willingness to participate in civic life. Politically cynical people are less likely to make sacrifices for the common good.
The level of distrust alone does not affect the likelihood of voting, but add a sense of civic duty to this mix and something interesting happens. Turnout increases.
If you still believe, as I do, that there is no reason to trust Hawaii’s state or local government to build anything complicated, the state Department of Transportation’s ongoing stumbling at all levels on its airport modernization project offers plenty more grist.
But what about the future?
Here are two upcoming big projects offering trust tests: a new Oahu prison and the construction of a replacement for Aloha Stadium. Both are complicated and controversial.
Rail is a graphic model of how not to carry out those projects. The trouble is that right now there is no time-tested, trust-inducing blueprint in Hawaii for how to do them right.