Honolulu Advertiser

SECOND OPINION  by Cliff Slater

October 25, 2005

 O'ahu rail transit: the “play to pay” game

Officials at Parsons Brinckerhoff launched their opening salvo in the rail transit campaign a week ago.[1]

They made a perfunctory but obligatory mention of “several transit options” and then spent the rest of the time discussing rail options such as “70 possible route combinations for an O'ahu rail system.”

They made no mention of HOT lanes despite the fact that Parsons literally wrote the book on HOT lanes (Federal Highways Administration’s “A Guide for HOT Lane Development.”) and lauding “the powerful benefits HOT lanes provide.”[2]

Despite the talk of “70 possible routes” for rail they admit, “The problems are much the same as the last three times they've been studied.”[3] That essentially means that while Parsons talks about 70 rail routes, it is just to portray an image of frenetic work activity to justify the fees they are being paid. Little will change; the final route will most likely be so close to the 1992 alignment (with the Kapolei-Waipahu add-on) as to make no difference.

For those concerned about inflated ridership projections, Parsons downplays past errors by saying that computer models up to ten years ago seriously overestimated rail ridership but now, they say, soothingly, that that has all changed since the Federal Transit Administration imposed new standards.

Really? Strange that the U.S. General Accounting Office says that new U.S. rail projects are still achieving less than two-thirds of their projected ridership.[4]

And how about Parsons’ involvement in the new San Francisco Airport BART extension?  This is a $1.8 billion project that forecast 69,000 riders per day[5] and is currently experiencing only 27,000[6] — 60 percent less than projected. (Just to put 27,000 daily ridership in perspective, it is less than TheBus gets on the Waikiki-Kalihi #2 route alone.)[7]

Then Parsons tells us $1 million is budgeted for public outreach and involvement. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of City “outreach” programs know that they are all spin, hype and snowing the public for those pre-determined “visions” of our elected officials.[8]

The problem is not really Parsons, and it is not a “pay to play” issue. Rather, a charade has developed in U.S. transit planning over the past thirty years that can best be called, “play to pay.” This is where transit consultants “play” at being objective problem solvers — while actually just doing precisely what they are told to do — and for their obedience, they get their “pay.”

Parsons is a highly competent company that has garnered vast amount of expertise and experience in all phases of traffic management and public transportation for more than a century — and with an office in Honolulu for over 40 years.

This would all be highly valuable if our elected officials were to ask Parsons’ advice on what the City needs to do to solve its traffic problems. But that is not the way the game is played.

You will remember that this current iteration of rail transit planning began with a series of meetings in the Governor’s office attended by a significant number of elected officials and political appointees not one of whom had the requisite experience in traffic management or public transportation.  But they had a “vision.” This is the norm.

The next step is that Parsons is given the “vision” and told to justify it. They will reliably do what they are told. They will produce meticulous documentation to justify whatever elected officials want. They will produce technical reports by the long ton each of which will be vast, stifling and incomprehensible to any lay people who might be impertinent enough to examine them.

However, they will be nothing that would satisfy self respecting businesspeople.

For example, businesspeople considering investing their own money in a venture begin by collecting as much financial and operating data from as many similar ventures across the country as possible. Then, to see if the venture would make economic sense for Honolulu, they analyze the data making appropriate allowance for the differences between Honolulu and the other places. From this examination, they develop a range of revenues and expenses likely to be experienced by the venture in Honolulu.

This is not rocket science; it is a common sense process.

For example, when we have our homes valued, real estate appraisers use this process. They analyze homes in areas comparable to ours make due allowances for differences in size, quality, and salability and from these “comparables” derive a narrow range of likely values.

Transit planners never examine “comparables”; it would invariably kill their projects. Instead, they have to “play” with mostly irrelevant data to get “pay.”

I won’t go on; you get the picture.

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

[2]HOT lanes provide new opportunities for transit vehicles, HOVs, and other paying motorists to avoid congested highway lanes, while at the same time easing congestion on parallel general purpose lanes. Moreover, in addition to enhancing mobility at the corridor level, HOT lanes also generate new revenue streams that can be used to pay for their own implementation or to support other transportation improvements including transit service enhancements. Professional and policy communities in the United States are just beginning to recognize the powerful benefits HOT lanes provide.” A Guide for HOT Lane Development. Federal Highways Administration, Parsons Brinckerhoff & Texas Transportation Institute. P. 102.


[3] "Many of these things have been studied carefully before. The options are not all over the boat," said Mark Scheibe, assistant project manager. "The problems are much the same as the last three times they've been studied." Many conditions have changed, though. Population growth has shifted from Central O'ahu to West O'ahu. [In fact, projections have not changed since the 1992 FEIS anticipated the population growth for West O’ahu.]

[4] “Initial results from an ongoing study of New Starts projects by FTA show that nearly half of the 19 projects, for which ridership was reviewed, will achieve less than two-thirds of forecast ridership by the forecast year.” Source: GAO. January. 2005 HIGHWAY AND TRANSIT INVESTMENTS.

[7] 1988 Short-range Transit Plan, Table 3.10. 


[8] Interestingly, only 25 percent of the planning budget goes for the Alternatives Analysis and Draft Environmental Impact Statement while $1.2 million goes to “coordination with city, state and federal agencies.