OPEN LETTER TO HAWAII LEGISLATORS
From Randall Roth
Before voting on the rail bill, please see if you and I agree on the underlying issues.
1. I believe traffic congestion is a huge problem that needs aggressive government action.
2. I believe Hawaii’s environment is fragile and will be damaged irreparably without aggressive government action.
3. I believe high-quality public transportation is critically important, and that it should always be safe, dependable, convenient, clean, and affordable for riders.
Regarding belief #1: As stated in the Final EIS, “traffic congestion will be worse in the future with rail than what it is today.” More on this below.
Regarding belief #2: Rail to Ala Moana Center will destroy view planes, introduce a new brand of noise pollution, and use more BTUs per passenger mile than is currently used by one person driving alone in gasoline-fueled car. More on this below.
Regarding belief #3: Rail on Oahu will cost more to operate and maintain than the City can afford without adverse consequences to bus service. The percentage of people using public transportation in most cities that added rail since 1970 is now lower than it was prior to rail.
More on Traffic Congestion. The City sold rail on the promise that it would reduce the current level of traffic congestion. Even today, the City claims on the HART website that rail will reduce traffic congestion by as much as it is reduced when the schools are not in session. That sounds great, but isn’t. Here’s the trick: The City is comparing the level of congestion expected in the year 2030 if rail is built (21% worse than now), to the level of congestion expected in 2030 if the City does nothing between now and then to alleviate traffic congestion (23% worse than now). This is intellectually dishonest in several ways, including the false choice of comparing rail’s impact on traffic congestion to doing nothing. Rail critics like Ben Cayetano, Cliff Slater, Panos Prevedouros, and I have consistently expressed strong support for bold action designed to reduce the current level of traffic congestion. Rail’s gargantuan cost makes it impossible to pursue Panos’ long list of proven strategies for actually reducing traffic congestion.
Environmental Protection. Because trains on Oahu are scheduled to run 20 hours a day and projected to be busy only during morning rush hour in-bound trips and evening rush hour outbound trips, they would use more BTUs per passenger mile than is currently used by one person in one car—and more than twice the amount currently used per-passenger mile by TheBus. The City portrays rail as an energy saver by silently assuming rail on Oahu would consume energy per-passenger mile on a par with the national average for heavy rail systems. The national average is heavily skewed by the data from New York City where ridership levels make it far more efficient than other places. I used the national average with New York City excluded. The Outdoor Circle has referred to rail as a scar across the face of this island.
Adverse Impact of Transit Users. The City would have us believe rail riders would add to existing bus users, thereby increasing the number and percentage of people who use public transportation. That’s not been the experience elsewhere. For example, Los Angeles has opened seven new rail lines since 1990, yet bus and rail combined ridership is now 15 percent lower than transit ridership in 1985 when there was only bus service. Atlanta initiated its grade-separated rail line in 1979; since then the percentage of people using public transit has dropped from 6.8 percent to 3.1 percent. In Portland, the percentage using public transit dropped from 7.9 percent in 1980 when it had only bus service to 6.9 percent.
The City is no better projecting ridership than estimating costs. The City originally projected average of 116,300 riders on weekdays. Panos Prevedouros has pointed out that “no modern light rail in the US, even in cities five times bigger than Honolulu, carries more than 38,000.” Actual ridership on relatively recent rail projects around the country has been 59.1% less than was predicted, on average. The table below shows actual ridership for all U.S. rail cities of less than four million population, followed by Honolulu’s rail ridership projection.
The Final EIS forecasts for Honolulu and San Juan (the only other elevated rail system built recently in the US) are remarkably similar: 116,300 and 114,492 daily riders respectively. Actual ridership for San Juan turned out to be 27,567, which was one-fourth the number projected. San Juan’s combined bus and rail ridership declined from 32.6 million the year before rail opened to 26.4 million two years after, and it never recovered. Parsons Brinckerhoff who prepared the Honolulu ridership projection also prepared San Juan’s. And, as you probably know, the City recently increased its ridership projection to 121,000!
It’s not too late to change directions: HART recently confirmed that it has spent slightly less than $2.8 billion thus far. The guideway is past Aloha Stadium, but relatively little work has been done on the stations. There are contracts in place for additional amounts, but the City could get out of those by paying reliance damages. Estimates of our net out-of-pocket cost if we cancel everything and sell the steel and already-built rail cars run from $3 billion to $3.5 billion. That's a huge amount of money, but far less that the amount that hasn’t yet been spent, which is at least $6.5 billion if you believe Caldwell's latest estimate; or at least $9.5 billion if you think Panos is more likely to be right (and he pretty much predicted what's happened thus far). BTW, I know of no one who wants to tear down the existing guideway. Panos favors retrofitting it to accommodate buses now and possibly driverless vehicles eventually.
FTA is open to shortening the route: As part of the federal lawsuit we gained access to FTA’s internal email that referred to the City’s “lousy practices of public manipulation,” use of “inaccurate statements,” culture of “never [having] enough time to do it right, but lots of time to do it over,” the observation that the City had put itself in a “pickle” by setting unrealistic start dates for construction, and concern about the City’s “casual treatment of burials.” We also found emails in which FTA looked on with disgust as the City sat on the draft environmental impact statement until one day before the 2008 vote on rail. In short, FTA is complicit. That’s why it is likely to approve a Plan B that stops at Middle Street. Caldwell implicitly acknowledged this during the 2016 mayoral campaign. See, e.g., Mayor wants to shorten rail route, ending at Middle Street, Hawaii News Now, June 16, 2016, at http://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/story/32242522/caldwell-wants-to-shorten-rail-to-15-milesending-route-at-middle-street.
For more of my thoughts on rail, go to http://randallroth.com/files/Rail%20Speech.pdf