Traffic congestion on Oahu is a chronic disease that plagues many of us. Not only is traffic worsening, but we can no longer take solace in the expectation that uncomfortable delays happen only during rush hour or on workdays.

Oahu’s roadways also have a terrible glass jaw vulnerability that grinds the entire island to a halt whenever a bridge gets clipped, a telephone pole collapses, a fatality occurs, a rock slide or some other freak accident happens. Traffic nightmares are a daily reality for Honolulu residents, and sometimes being stuck in traffic is something that can’t be avoided no matter what advance planning one does.

Over the years, state and county governments have tried or proposed various solutions to alleviate Oahu’s traffic problems, ranging from the implementation of the high occupancy “zipper” lane, to promoting public mass transit or paving more bicycle lanes, but by and large we have not seen any noticeable impact in the traffic situation.

The latest policy action being sought is a concept called congestion pricing. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and other neighbor island mayors are asking the Legislature for enabling mandates to move forward on it.

H1 Freeway Westbound Traffic.
Traffic is notoriously bad on H-1 heading west on pretty much any weekday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Congestion pricing is essentially a control mechanism that charges drivers a fee whenever they want to make use of a certain roadway or enter an area that is “fenced” with an access fee. During the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation under its Congestion Initiative awarded federal grants to a couple of cities to do congestion pricing pilot projects.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 1 and House Concurrent Resolution 4 which are part of the Council of Mayors legislative package, appear to be the first steps toward implementing congestion pricing in the Aloha State, as they ask for studies that would include current usage information as well as projected revenue.

The question that immediately comes to my mind – and should be a red flag for not only Honolulu but all Hawaii residents – is why are the counties starting with a discussion of how much money this will bring in and how to spend it? If they really want to deter traffic shouldn’t the study be about how and whether this idea will work? What we need is to address the root cause of traffic, not just a money-making scheme disguised as a traffic deterrent.

Law Of The Splintered Paddle

When construction of brand new, high-occupancy toll roads and expressways was being debated by the Legislature in the 2000s as an alternative to a rail system, some were concerned that a toll, even if it were levied on a “privately financed, toll to pay-off and later become public” road would be unconstitutional due to the Law of the Splintered Paddle.

A loose English translation of the Law, which is a binding part of the Hawaii Constitution, says “May everyone, from the old men and women to the children be free to go forth and lie in the road without fear of harm. Break this law, and die.”

Hawaii, it would seem in light of this, historically resents new taxes and fees, as even Frank De Lima, in his famous song, “The Hawaiians,” once joked that when Captain Cook told the indigenous locals to pay taxes, “they ate him with poi and rice.”

Surely if charging a toll for an optional private toll road is unconstitutional, one would think that congestion pricing for public roads – ones that taxpayers have already paid for and continue to pay for – would be even more reprehensible to the Law of the Splintered Paddle.

How It All Adds Up

Zuri Aki, a Mililani resident who commutes daily to his job at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs through H-1 traffic, says: “This congestion pricing scheme is tantamount to punishing residents, who are forced to commute, by way of poor city planning, to a job for their survival struggle under the highest cost of living in the country. It’s a bad, bad idea.”

Hawaii’s mayors might also want to coordinate with Gov. David Ige. With plans to raise the minimum wage to $13/hour to offset the cost of living, does it really make sense to turn around and charge those same low-income workers to go to their jobs in Honolulu? Let’s not forget that the other road pricing scheme, the Road Use Charge, is still out there as well.

There’s also the fact that charging a fee during purportedly “peak hours” is nonsense; if people know what time the fee will be charged, they’ll simply leave for work even earlier, creating a new rush hour. What this means is that the only way to make a congestion fee work is to charge it at all hours of the day, making it punitive to workers and businesses alike.

“Our lowest wage earners were given the news that they would make just a little bit more, followed by news that the counties were considering taking it away,” Aki says. “It’s ridiculous.”

Do state program staff really need to spend all day in a downtown office?

If traffic congestion was really the concern of state and county officials – not revenue generation – one has to ask why they haven’t already used their existing authority to cut down the number of public employees on the road by mandating telecommuting or distributing agency offices to satellite locations throughout the island.

With call forwarding, e-signature technology and video teleconferencing, do program staff really need to spend all day in a downtown office, sitting with Outlook 365 open in front of them, waiting for the next email or call to happen?

Honolulu residents also are keenly aware of the fact that whenever the University of Hawaii is not in session, traffic is noticeably lighter.

UH Manoa, in spite of its almost Trumpian “Article X, Section 6 lets me do whatever I want” stonewalling of legislative proposals, has a role to play in traffic reduction as well, and has been asked for years to consider changing the times classes begin, moving more sections to West Oahu, or even holding dual distance learning/in-classroom courses.

Many colleges since the 1990s have routinely allowed students to attend classes either online or in person. If UH Manoa were to leverage technology and shift to a digital distance learning model, not only would traffic be lessened, but it might even make money from more out-of-state students as well. As I have said many times before, Hawaii needs to look for wins.

The City and County of Honolulu, with its potholed streets, trashy public bathrooms and corruption-infested government, does not have the moral credibility in 2020 to come to locals with another fee when everything else it manages is in ruin.

Before reaching for the power of taxation, local leaders need to learn to use their existing authority to lower traffic in a way that is least disruptive to residents. Wage a war against traffic, not against people’s pocketbooks.

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About the Author

  • Danny de Gracia

    Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister.

    Danny holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and minor in Public Administration from UT San Antonio, 2001; a Master of Arts in  Political Science (concentration International Organizations) and minor in Humanities from Texas State University, 2002.

    He received his Doctor of Theology from Andersonville Theological Seminary in 2013 and Doctor of Ministry in 2014.

    Danny received his Ordination from United Fellowship of Christ Ministries International, (Non-Denominational Christian), in 2002.