Neal Milner: Honolulu Rail Officials Need To Just Cut The Crap - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Trust is a thing of the past when it comes to the woefully over-budget and behind-schedule rail project.

Now that Honolulu’s rail project is about to move forward, it needs a new standard of quality. That standard should be straight talk.  

Straight talk is not a cliché or simply a manner of speaking. It’s a serious method that up to now rail officials have regularly, you should excuse the expression, thrown under the bus.

There’s a big difference between straight talk and definitive talk. Straight talk is honest even if the news is bad or the situation is uncertain. It’s often informal, reflecting a comfort with revealing the situation as it really is. “I’m going to be honest with you” followed by really being honest.

Definitive talk, on the other hand, is phony. It sounds firm and confident but is often hollow and dishonest — fever dreams masked as hard reality. 

It panders to peoples’ fantasies that their world is more certain than it really is. “I’m going to be honest with you” is a good sign that “I’m not going to be honest with you.” 

After getting misled so many times, the public develops a defensive responsive tic: “If they say it’s so, they must be wrong.”

But very recently a straight-talking rail person broke the mold. 

Roger Morton, the city’s Department of Transportation Services director, was asked when the public would finally be able to ride Honolulu’s rail line.

“June-ish,” he said. Only “half-joking,” as the Civil Beat reporter put it.

“My definition of June-ish includes July,” Morton said.

Not exactly the Gettysburg Address — easy to miss, tempting to dismiss, maybe even by Morton himself. 

In fact, the statement is a model. Here’s why. 

Morton’s “ish” is the opposite of the phony, false definitive speak. “Ish” is informal. It is cool, casual, a little roguish, wink-of-the-eye even.   

Roger Morton was candid when asked about when the public might be riding Honolulu’s rail. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

Best of all, it’s comfortably honest about uncertainty. It’s not pretentious and doesn’t pretend.

Kirk Caldwell, in his rail defense days, always acted as if he knew exactly when rail would get done and how much it would cost. Absolutely, positively exactly. No ishes in his wishes.

And HART CEOs mastered the dark art of euphemisms like “a bump in the road.” 

Definitive rail talk is not just about a moral failing, otherwise known as weaseling and fibbing. Until recently, a HART person typically could not afford to talk straight because things were so disastrous that they either had to live in a dream world or lie.

A disaster protocol developed. The worse the news really was, the more HART exaggerated the upside.  The Titanic has hit an iceberg. Quick, talk to the passengers about the joys of tropical river cruises.

Morton’s straight talk is appropriate because the time is right. It’s a new day for Honolulu rail. Bloodied and bowed, HART has managed to complete a truncated, unofficial but still triumphant first stage.   

A new day is a time to celebrate — briefly. It’s also a time to reset. Now’s the time to make sure that the rest of the rail project does not go as badly as the first part. 

And the foundational lesson isn’t technical or even fiscal. It’s “talk straight, no matter what the news is.”  Here’s why. 

Rail is not a construction project. Fundamentally, it’s a social and political project.

Regular honest reports about the progress of the rail project will rebuild public trust. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

Building rail is like dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, which the science writer David Wallace-Wells called “a complex web of leadership, social trust and public buy-in — along with a fair amount of chance.”

Trust, buy-in, and chance. Every one of these was part of the Honolulu rail project up to now but in a lethal way. Whatever buy-in there was initially was squandered by a combination of bad luck and rail officials whom people quit believing.

And chance is important. No matter how solid the finances and how good the technicians are, there will always be some unpleasant surprises. If the public trusts the process, people will be more willing to believe the railers can fix it.  

With Honolulu’s rail, trust disappeared; in the public’s eyes, there were no minor mistakes. Everything was a huge deal, and of course the rail big shots’ cascade of definitive talk only made things worse.

For the reset, HART must assume that the legacy of distrust, fragile buy-in and freak-outs is still there.

Buy-In Can Build Rail Faster

Recently, The Transit Cost Project issued its encyclopedic report, “Understanding Transit Infrastructure Costs in American Cities.” 

The title suggests that this report is all about nuts and bolts. In fact, its goal is to help U.S. cities adopt the kinds of practices that keep costs down in other countries. The project looked at rail projects around the world. There are some juicy case studies.

Section 2.8 has a nice short summary of recommendations.

There’s a lot of construction and organizational recommendations. Some, like the need to have enough experts who know how to monitor day to day operations, speak directly to HART’s earlier problems. 

There is plenty in this report that can be useful for those whose everyday job is to get into the weeds, marshes, and tunnels of rail construction.

But there is also a lot in the report that shows how much rail is a social and political process.  

Here’s how the technical and political merge in the Transit Cost Project recommendation: Find champions who will advocate for the project, help with intergovernmental agreements, hold agencies accountable for budgets and schedules, and support agencies if there is political controversy. 

The report stresses the importance of buy-in. Cities with a tradition of supporting rail build new rail faster and cheaper.

Honolulu Transit Project /HART rail construciton near Middle Street and Dillingham Boulevard.
HART rail construction near Dillingham Blvd, the site of major utility relocation work. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Transit Cost Project also shows that contingencies and surprises come up all the time, often in negotiations over utilities. In HART’s case, the drama entitled “Dillingham” is barely into its first act, which could need to be re-written any time.

Charts, graphs, technical competence, absolutely; but you can’t read the report without seeing how important administration and communications are.  

You can put all this in management terms like accountability and micromanagement, but what greases the wheels and keeps a rail project moving forward are really two things: Giving the workers the resources and motivation to do their jobs and telling the public how that job is progressing, or not progressing.

That brings us back to Roger Morton’s small statement with big implications.  

From now on, from Middle Street to Kakaako, talking straight should be the gold standard, the lead guide.

That requires three things.  

First, an everyday construction and administration process that reduces, even prevents, officials from the hollow malarky of definitive talk.

Second, have administrators who are rail champions but at the same time keep an eagle eye on how things are going and of course are willing to tell the rest of us. 

When it comes to this, Lori Kahikina is by far the best HART has had.

Third, regular straight-talking reports that explain to the rest of us what is going on.

Simply put, just cut the crap. Use words to reveal, not conceal. Talk straight or don’t talk at all.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Well said and a reflection of what has been to this point. I don't see that changing much, even with Morton's glitch sound bite. The players are essentially the same and why would they change their tune now and be honest? Once you have spun a lie, you just keep on twisting it until there is total confusion and no one knows what to believe.

wailani1961 · 6 months ago

Scarcity is the postulate of modern economy. We liberals with college degrees believe we are free of this deep coding but it is written into the very DNA of all our lives. "Just more and still more stuff and cars and gadgets on a dying planet. At the start of the modern age Nietzche said we killed God now we are killing the planet and the very face of everything that makes us human. Time for life, friendship,conviviality. We need to refound our state to be a "community of communities" Managed and manufactured State run by greedy interests from top down insitutional bureaucracy won't get us there. The rail is the sore that indicates the infection of a diseased culture. The Hawaiian chiefs and leaders were flawed like the Greeks but at least they had a sense of belonging to the people. We exist as isolated lonely zombies trying to find electronic solace on our cell phones whose core electronics come from brutal child labor in the Congo. Joni Mitchell sang 50 years ago "We paved paradise and put up a parking lot." Let's turn around before its too late. It might already be

JM · 6 months ago

The real rail we are on is the idea of progress as extrapolation and continuation of "more" This is the rail car headed for the abyss of collapse.Its time for adults in the room to tell the teens in the house the party is over. We need to shift energy and vision now toward an imaginative encounter with the truth of limits. This tiny Island has no resilience or capacity to allow our million residents simple dignity without imagining our way back oit of the Machine of profit that has made life now a pinched and stressed hellscape for the poor and middle class. Use our intelligence to reframe how we could live richer lives with less. Take the billions on rail to build shared housing ,communities of conviviality.Become the real aloha state not the illusion we sell tourist.

JM · 6 months ago

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