Honolulu Advertiser

SECOND OPINION  by Cliff Slater

August 25, 2003

BRT: A ticking time bomb

There is a classic cartoon I keep handy for such times as this that shows a guy in a padded cell firmly held in a straitjacket. His psychiatrist is leaning over him saying soothingly, “I know they are mad, but they are in charge.”

Which brings us to the Bus/Rapid Transit system.

I feel like I am in the straitjacket asking, “Why are we even thinking of funding this In-Town BRT for hundreds of millions of dollars when we can’t even fund regular buses?”[i]

And those who are in charge answer, “Because we will cut 1.9 minutes off the time a bus takes from Downtown to Waikiki.”[ii]

I wriggle hard but these straps are so tight.

So I ask again, “Why are you going to reduce the inbound lanes on Kapiolani Boulevard from four to two?”

And those in charge answer, “To reduce traffic congestion.”

Where’s my psychiatrist when I need him?

So I ask again, “But the entire transportation industry from the lowliest taxi driver to the largest passenger and goods carriers have said it will dramatically increase congestion.” And those in charge answer, “What do they know?”

So I ask again, “What about the increase demonstrated by UH traffic expert, Professor Prevedouros?” And those in charge answer, “What does he know?”

As the man says, they are in charge.

You can look for a long time for the underlying sanity in this whole BRT exercise but it must be quite simply to use federal funds to improve Kuhio Avenue; that’s where most of the money is going.

The Kuhio Avenue sidewalks will be wider, which the hookers have been asking for for years (they pay taxes, too) and half the buses will be moved from Kuhio Avenue to Kalakaua Avenue.

This means we will have large BRT buses running down Kalakaua every three minutes during rush hour.

This is the ultimate frustration for the visitor industry leaders, do you again protest that buses on Kalakaua will blow the image of Waikiki and then be denied the zoning change you need? Or preferable to blow the zoning change but keep buses off Kalakaua?

And so we taxpayers find ourselves hostage to a mayor who wants just one more project for which he can put on his hardhat and lei and once more cut the opening day ribbons, and frustrated businesspeople caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Where is the city council in all this you might well ask? This brings us to the danger of the ticking time bomb.

The reason for the Initial Operating Segment (IOS) rather than the full-scale BRT is that the city does not have the money. But it does have the money for the IOS; the prior city council already approved $31 million and the FTA looks like putting up $20 million. 

The danger here is that all the transit projects that have ever been started in the U.S. have been completed — no matter how badly they performed. The Jacksonville, Florida, Skyway is typical. The FTA Administrator of the time said, “We have not supported it.” But nevertheless, once started, the FTA eventually funded it to the tune of $90 million. As U.S. House Rep. Bob Carr (D-MI), who chaired the House funding committee, explained, “Like so many projects, they get a camel’s nose under the tent and then it gets very, very difficult to stop them.”[iii]

The problem for the new City Council is that they know that if the $51 million IOS is built, then the council will have to fund the construction of the rest of the In-Town BRT. Voters generally do not understand the principle of cutting losses and not throwing good money after bad.

And, at that point, the Mayor will be saying, regardless of how few riders are actually using the IOS or how bad the congestion becomes, “You cannot judge from just one part of a system, you will only be able to judge it when you have a completed system.” This is the standard rhetoric that has been said about every partially completed transit program over the last 30 years.

So, taxpayers, pay attention — it is your money. Get the full story on the city’s side at www.oahutrans2k.com and the opposition’s at www.honolulutraffic.com then let the city council know what you think. They’re in the phone book.

I can’t help you; the straps are too tight and besides, here comes my psychiatrist and I know what he going to tell me — again.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at: www.lava.net/cslater


[i] The cost of the fixed facilities for the In-Town BRT is $243 million, not including the vehicles but including all the 160 foot long x 8 foot wide x 13 inch high platforms. When the embedded plate technology is added that will be another $129 million.

[ii] FEIS, 4-15.

[iii]Riderless Express. ABC News.