Honolulu Advertiser

SECOND OPINION  by Cliff Slater

May 4, 2004

We 'give in' on rail transit

We will now support putting the $2.6 billion Kapolei to Iwilei rail transit project into the Environmental Impact statement (EIS) process.

The Federal Transit Administration EIS process requires that projects seeking federal funding compare alternatives based on transit riders’ time savings, increases in transit costs, and the projected increases in riders for the alternatives (see footnotes for details).[1]

Normally the EIS compares a) the elected officials’ “vision,” b) doing nothing and, c) a “straw man” alternative whose sole purpose is to look bad in comparison to the “vision.”[2]

In return for our support, we would like to have the EIS compare rail transit against a real alternative, such as the two-lane reversible transitway outlined in an earlier column (3/29).[3]

Both the proposed rail transit line and the transitway would run from beyond Waikele to Iwilei. Both would be elevated on single columns for most of their lengths and be built to roughly the same dimensions. The dissimilarity is that one alternative would offer travel by buses and vanpools on the transitway and the other trains on the rail line.

The transitway offers the possibility of seamless travel from home to work for those using buses and vanpools because these vehicles would access the transitway from local roads and keep going non-stop at 50 mph until the exit.

Rail transit, however, will be stopping every three-quarters of a mile, and since distance between stations is the biggest constraint on speed, it means that the trains will average less than 30 mph.[4]

In addition, because travel is seamless for buses and vanpools on the transitway, these riders will avoid the time loss of transferring from bus to train. Rail transit, on the other hand, would be a truncated spine requiring transfer from either a bus or car, or a significant walk, at one or both ends of the line.

With faster average speeds, and less time spent transferring, the transitway option will generally offer faster travel door-to-door. Since we all value our time, the much faster ride of bus on transitway will attract more riders than rail transit.

Then we come to costs: The transitway is basically a highway and is built on a simple bidding process and requires no special vehicles. Rail transit on the other hand requires rails, trains, park-and-ride lots, and escalators and elevators at most of the stations.

Allowing for inflation, the 1992 rail transit proposal projected costs of $2.5 billion for a 15.9 mile system.[5] A transitway of the same length would cost $1.2 billion — roughly half the price.[6] In addition, the transitway has several advantages when funding the capital costs.

First, if we fill the available space on the transitway not occupied by buses and vanpools, with cars paying an electronically-collected toll (variable by time of day) then we accomplish two things. We raise enough funds to lower local costs, and we get a large number of cars off the regular freeways.[7] This is the HOT lanes proposal, which is currently being put to use all over the Mainland as the best way of ensuring that tollways are fully .[8] Estimates are that we could raise $200 million selling the future income stream from these tolls.

Second, operating costs are quite low for highways. Allowing for inflation, the additional operating costs for the 1992 rail transit system over “doing nothing” would have been $57 million annually.[9] Allowing $10 million for transitway operating costs, the remaining $47 million is an annual amount that would pay off an $850 million highway purchase over 50 years including interest.[10]

Third, there is a limit on federal ‘New Starts’ funding for rail projects of $500 million, which means we would have to raise $2 billion locally for rail transit — plus any cost overruns. Highways, on the other hand, have much higher grant limits and are also eligible for more different types of federal funding.

So you can count on us to support rail transit as one alternative in the EIS. But remember the proviso.

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

[1] FTA’s New Starts criteria. June 3003. “Incremental Cost Divided by Transportation System User Benefits”.
“FTA’s new measure for evaluating the cost effectiveness of candidate New Starts projects is the cost per hour of transportation system user benefits. The new measure of cost effectiveness was adopted at the urging of the transit industry and captures a broader range of project benefits to all new
and existing riders, including reductions in walk times, wait times, ride times, and number of transfers.” Dulles Corridor Rapid Transit Project: Rail PE Request Project Overview. Commonwealth of Virginia. August 2003.

[2] "The TSM option appears "born to lose," as most TSM options are in alternatives analyses." Comments of Dr. G. Scott Rutherford, G. Scott Rutherford, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington and Director of its Transportation Engineering Graduate Studies Program, in An Evaluation of the Honolulu Rapid Transit Development Project's Alternative Analysis and Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Hawaii Office of State Planning and University of Hawaii. May 1990.

[3] “A proper BRT proposition.” Honolulu Advertiser. March 29, 2004.

[4] Characteristics of Urban Transportation Systems- Chapter 2. FTA library, page 1-15. See also,
Pushkarev, Boris S. and Jeffrey M. Zupan. Public Transportation & Land Use Policy. Indiana University Press. 1977. Exhibit 4.2.
David B. McBrayer, AICP. Transit Technology Capabilities and Comparisons. Parsons Brinckerhoff. P. 12.
The 1992 rail transit proposal called for 22 stations (21 segments) along 15.9 miles of line, or .75 mile between stations.

[5] Final Environmental Impact Statement, Honolulu Rapid Transit Program. U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Transit Administration & City and County of Honolulu, Department of Transportation Services. July 1992. Chapter 6. The original 1992 cost is inflated to allow for a 26 percent increase in inflation 1992-2004 (see 2002 State Data Book for inflation).

[6] This is based on $75 million per mile. This is before cost overruns on the same basis as the rail transit cost.

[7] The options for allowing autos on the transitway are:
a) Automobiles with a certain minimum number of occupants, the usual HOV alternative that typically keeps the highway underutilized; or,
b) Automobiles paying a flat toll regardless of time of day, which has no particular impact on the
peak hour commuter; or,
c) Automobiles paying a pre-determined toll, as used on Orange County’s SR-91 tollway, that varies the price by time of day but has the tendency to overprice in order to minimize congestion on the tollway; or,
d) Automobiles paying a dynamically priced toll, as used by San Diego’s I-15 tollway, which prices the entry onto the tollway by computerized assessment of the situation and posting the entry toll price every six minutes on electronic signs about a quarter mile before the tollway entrance giving motorists the option of remaining on the freeway or entering the tollway. This has the advantage of being the one way that the tollway can be kept full — but uncongested — at all times during the peak hours.

[9] FEIS, 1992.

[10] Using a 5 percent interest rate.


Other columns on traffic and transportation:

A proper BRT proposition. March 29, 2004.

Just stick to the facts, ma'am. March 8, 2004.

City's BRT has degenerated into a farce. February 16, 2004.

The Quest for the Holy Rail. February 2, 2004.

Transit alternatives abound. December 29, 2003.

Transit projections are hot air. December 15, 2003.

City: Visions and Revelations. December 1, 2003.

It's no way to run a railroad. November 10, 2003.

Traffic: Small can  be beautiful. October 20, 2003.

BRT: Pattern of deception? September 22, 2003.

Traffic: There's no silver bullet. September 8. 2003.

BRT: a ticking time bomb. August 25, 2003.

London offers lesson in traffic management. June 8, 2003.

The folly of the in-town BRT. March 31, 2003.

Is paying for transit a waste? March 10, 2003.

Driving force in commuting. January 27, 2003.

Tollroads becoming popular. January 13, 2003.

The BRT fiasco finally ending. November 11, 2002.

Drive-alones won't change. July 8, 2002.

Congestion? Not a Problem. June 24, 2002

Believing in rail transit is curable. June 3, 2002.

Bring back bus competition. May 20, 2002.

Traffic congestion is curable. April 23, 2002.

City's rapid transit vision will fade. September 4, 2001

City needs real transit experts. December 22, 2000.

City lacks foresight for traffic mess. September 13, 2000.

BART: Vision or Illusion? July 10, 2000.

Why we commute by auto. May 30, 2000.

City playing lying game again. December 21, 1999.

Downtown ferry idea is all wet. November 29, 1999.

A desire named streetcar. November 8, 1999.

It's time to rethink TheBus. September 22, 1999.

Kalakaua pedestrian mall is a bad idea. June 2, 1999.

Light rail won't work either. November 30, 1998.

City rail plan is rubbish. November 12, 1998.

We ignore transportation alternatives. July 30, 1998.

General Motors and the Demise of Streetcars. Transportation Quarterly, Vol. 51. No. 3. Summer 1997:45-66.