SECOND OPINION by Cliff Slater
November 10, 2003
Our latest effort to reduce traffic congestion appears to have 15 elected officials, none of whom have any expertise in urban transportation, cogitating about traffic until one says, “Eureka, I have it … light rail.”
Note that from the very first syllable it is pure PR spin. They can’t help it — rail transit has that effect. As described, the proposed system is based on the 1992 rail transit plan, one totally separated from the highway with a third-rail for very high voltages — and that’s heavy rail. Not light, not whooshing through the sky rail, not ephemeral rail — but a train. As then Councilman Gary Gill exclaimed, on seeing the final 1992 plans for the first time, “My God, it’s a train … a Godzilla of a train.”
So what vast amounts of evidence do these elected officials have to justify the building of a train this time?
Nothing — they just have a consensus.
However, they need to remember that, in 1990, we had total consensus in the community for the rail transit project. The Governor, the Mayor, the Council, and both houses in the Legislature were all in favor — and polls showed the public support running 70% in favor. Now that’s consensus.
But then organizations like the League of Women Voters weighed in with doubts. Then entire UH Economics Department faculty advised it would be a waste of money. The Neighborhood Boards started asking the right questions. The Institute of Architects complained that it would result in urban blight. Hawaii’s Thousand Friends objected on environmental grounds. The Tax Foundation of Hawaii told us that the financial forecasts were flawed. And so on.
The more the public knew, the less they liked it. Over time, the public soured on the project for very sound financial and environmental reasons and at the end were 65% opposed to it.
We now know how much that rail project might really have cost us had it gone forward. According to the Tax Foundation, taxpayers would have had to make up the tax collection shortfall of over $400 million from what the city had projected. In addition, we had no allowance for the cost overruns in building it. The norm for those is 30 percent, which would have been another $600 million — all to be locally funded by us taxpayers. In other words, we would have had a total of $1 billion in unpleasant surprises.
Worse, we now know that it would most probably have done nothing for traffic congestion. Here’s why.
When you examine the traffic congestion in the nation’s 75 largest Metro areas — of which Honolulu is one — and rate them by changes in their traffic congestion relative to changes in population — you get results you might not anticipate. To wit: The best performing 20 cities, those whose traffic congestion increased at only one quarter of the rate of population growth, had no rail lines.(1)
On the other hand, twelve of the worst performing 20 cities had built rail lines. These were cities like Portland, Buffalo, and San Francisco.
The facts are undeniable: Those cities who put in their money into rail saw the worst increases in traffic congestion while those who put their money into highways had the best results.
No matter how you run the numbers there is no way you can justify building rail transit if your objective is to reduce traffic congestion.
When will we ever have a conference of real experts, those with outstanding national reputations, who can spend two or three days telling us the pros and cons of all the options, and what has worked elsewhere and what hasn’t — and why?
Are we that provincial that we cannot handle real expertise? Don’t answer that.
Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater
This table uses a simple percentage change in Travel Time Index. A further refinement of this was suggested by researchers at Texas Transportation Institute which leads to a slightly different result — the best performing 17 metro areas having no rail lines and the worst performing 20 having seven of them.