Honolulu Advertiser

SECOND OPINION  by Cliff Slater

November 1, 2004

How to end the spin on O’ahu rail transit

When the Bus/Rapid Transit (BRT) program finally dies, we will then face another public relations juggernaut promoting ‘light’ rail. It is well that we understand the deceptions ahead of us.

First, the City BRT information given to the public was pure promotional hype. There was no effort to give us an evenhanded explanation of the BRT proposal. Instead, it was the opposite; we were systematically lied to.

For example, after being told endlessly that the City had federal funding for the BRT, we later found that the city had not even applied for the funding.

We were also told endlessly that the BRT would reduce traffic congestion. Instead, we found that they deliberately intended to make congestion worse to drive people onto buses. When you consider that they reduced “the capacity of Waikiki’s streets to move vehicles” by 30 percent,[1] how on earth could they forecast a reduction in traffic congestion unless it was to deceive us?

In fact, the lies and deceptions over the BRT have been so numerous I devoted a whole column to it last year (BRT: A pattern of deception 9/22/03).[2]

The spin has already started about the new ‘light’ rail proposal because what elected officials are proposing is, by the transit industry’s own definition, ‘heavy’ rail.[3] They use ‘light’ rail since it disguises what it really is — a train.[4]

They won’t tell you that the last heavy rail line was built over 20 years ago in Miami and that was a complete failure — Metrofail, the Miami Herald dubbed it. Nor will they tell you that all the other heavy rail systems were for metro areas that are much larger than Honolulu. Miami is the smallest metro area with a heavy rail line and it has more than four times the population of Honolulu.[5]

Two years ago the prestigious American Planning Association Journal published the results of an international academic study of cost underestimating for 250 transportation projects around the world.[6] They found that underestimating costs “cannot be explained by error and is best explained by strategic misrepresentation, that is, lying. The policy implications are clear: legislators, administrators, investors, media representatives, and members of the public who value honest numbers should not trust cost estimates and cost-benefit analyses produced by project promoters and their analysts.” And they added that “we arrive at one of the most basic explanations of lying, and of cost underestimation, that exists: Lying pays off.”

This study is far from being the only one about deception in promoting transit. In the footnotes to this column are listed another 19 of them.[7] And these have yet to include any studies of the incomplete Boston Big Dig which at the moment is some $8 billion over projection.[8]

Lying has paid off in Honolulu, as it does elsewhere, with campaign contributions from firms awarded non-bid contracts for the BRT project. Two of the three main BRT consultants have been indicted for illegal contributions with heavy contributions by the third. Hopefully the actions of the Campaign Finance Commission are making transit promotion a little less lucrative than it has been.

The only real excuse that the government can have about lying to us so consistently is that most other public transportation agencies do the same. While that is absolutely true, it does not mean that we should stand for it in Hawaii.

We have been forewarned about what we can expect in lies and spin when it comes to the next transit project. The question we have to ask ourselves is, how do we prevent elected officials, in concert with the bureaucracy, from running amok with our tax money in this way?

We need to insist that the City Council give the new City Auditor, the former deputy state auditor under Ms. Marion Higa, more money and resources than he thinks he needs. Whatever funding he gets will more than pay for itself in preventing idiotic public expenditures.[9]

Second, it would be helpful to set up a Civil Grand Jury such as they have in California,[10] and as described in a column of mine (5/22/01), whereby ordinary citizens acting under the auspices of the state courts are given powers to investigate state and county actions.

Third, while presently city officials simply refuse to debate with opponents, in the future we should expect to hear officials encourage both sides of the story to be told by way of debates and pro and con articles in our newspapers;.

These actions may help in curbing the more ridiculous public works projects.

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


[1] Dr. Panos D. Prevedouros. Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UH-Manoa. A Sample of Traffic Outcomes of the Harris Administration and Suggestions for the New Mayor.  Expanded text of Testimony Provided to City Council of the City and County of Honolulu. Budget Committee on September 30, 2004.

[3]      These are the definitions from the American Public Transportation Association website:

Heavy rail (metro, subway, rapid transit, or rapid rail) is an electric railway with the capacity for a heavy volume of traffic. It is characterized by high speed and rapid acceleration passenger rail cars operating singly or in multi-car trains on fixed rails; separate rights-of-way from which all other vehicular and foot traffic are excluded; sophisticated signaling, and high platform loading. If the service were converted to full automation with no onboard personnel, the service would be considered an automated guideway.

Light rail (streetcar, tramway, or trolley) is lightweight passenger rail cars operating singly (or in short, usually two-car, trains) on fixed rails in right-of-way that is not separated from other traffic for much of the way. Light rail vehicles are typically driven electrically with power being drawn from an overhead electric line via a trolley or a pantograph.




Old systems (mostly pre-1930)

Boston, MA     MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority)

Chicago, IL     CTA (Chicago Transit Authority)

Cleveland, OH                        RTA (Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority)

Jersey City, NJ                       PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson)

Lindenwold, NJ                      PATCO (Port Authority Transit Corporation of PA & NJ)

New York, NY                       NYCT (MTA New York City Transit) SIR (MTA Staten Island Railway)

Philadelphia, PA                    SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority)


New Systems (all post 1972)

Atlanta, GA    MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority)

Baltimore, MD                       MTA (Maryland Transit Administration)

Los Angeles, CA                    MTA (Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority)

Miami, FL       MDTA (Miami-Dade Transit Agency)

Oakland, CA   BART (San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District)

Washington, DC                     Metro (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority)


The most recent of these was Miami, which opened in 1984. None have been built since because the costs are very high and the results have been poor. For the most part these new heavy rail systems had the same number of commuters using public transportation of all kinds in 2000 as they had in 1980.


[4] Soon they may be describing it as ‘ephemeral’ rail to make it sound even less intrusive.

[5] From U.S. Census 2000. Honolulu’s population was 876,000 for the same time.

Metro Area Population


New York--Northern New Jersey--Long Island, NY--NJ--CT--PA CMSA


Los Angeles--Riverside--Orange County, CA CMSA


Chicago--Gary--Kenosha, IL--IN--WI CMSA


Washington--Baltimore, DC--MD--VA--WV CMSA


San Francisco--Oakland--San Jose, CA CMSA


Philadelphia--Wilmington--Atlantic City, PA--NJ--DE--MD CMSA


Boston--Worcester--Lawrence, MA--NH--ME--CT CMSA


Atlanta, GA MSA


Miami--Fort Lauderdale, FL CMSA




Year 2000 Census Data



[6]     Bent Flyvbjerg, Mette Skamris Holm, and Søren Buhl. Underestimating Costs in Public Works Projects: Error or Lie? APA Journal. Summer 2002, Vol. 68, No. 3, pp. 279-295.

[7]    Hall, P. (1980). Great planning disasters. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books. Penguin Books.

Hall, P. (n.d). Great planning disasters revisited. Unpublished manuscript, Bartlett School, University College, London. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Holm, M. K. S. (1999). Inaccuracy of traffic forecasts and cost estimates in Swedish road and rail projects. Unpublished manuscript, Aalborg University, Department of Development and Planning.

Hufschmidt, M. M., & Gerin, J. (1970). Systematic errors in cost estimates for public investment projects. In J. Margolis (Ed.), The analysis of public output (pp. 267–315). New York: Columbia University Press.

Kain, J. F. (1990). Deception in Dallas: Strategic misrepresentation in rail transit promotion and evaluation. Journal of the American Planning Association, 56(2), 184–196.

Leavitt, D., Ennis, S., & McGovern, P. (1993). The cost escalation of rail projects: Using previous experience to re-evaluate the calspeed estimates (Working Paper No. 567). Berkeley: Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California.

Mackie, P., & Preston, J. (1998). Twenty-one sources of error and bias in transport project appraisal. Transport Policy, 5(1), 1–7.

Merewitz, L. (1973a). How do urban rapid transit projects compare in cost estimate experience? (Reprint No. 104). Berkeley: Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California.

Merewitz, L. (1973b). Cost overruns in public works. In W. Niskanen, A. C. Hansen, R. H. Havemann, R. Turvey, & R.Zeckhauser (Eds.), Benefit cost and policy analysis (pp. 277–295). Chicago: Aldine.

Nijkamp, P., & Ubbels, B. (1999). How reliable are estimates of infrastructure costs? A  comparative analysis. International Journal of Transport Economics, 26(1), 23–53.

Pickrell, D. H. (1990). Urban rail transit projects: Forecast versus actual ridership and cost. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation.

Pickrell, D. H. (1992). A desire named streetcar: Fantasy and fact in rail transit planning. Journal of the American Planning Association, 58(2), 158–176.

Simon, J. (1991). Let’s make forecast and actual comparisons fair. TR News, 156, 6–9.

Skamris, M. K., & Flyvbjerg, B. (1997). Inaccuracy of traffic forecasts and cost estimates on large transport projects. Transport Policy, 4(3), 141–146.

Szyliowicz, J. S., & Goetz, A. R. (1995). Getting realistic about megaproject planning: The case of the new Denver International Airport. Policy Sciences, 28(4), 347–367.

Wachs, M. (1986). Technique vs. advocacy in forecasting: A study of rail rapid transit. Urban Resources, 4(1), 23–30.

Wachs, M. (1989). When planners lie with numbers. Journal of the American Planning Association, 55(4), 476–479.

Wachs, M. (1990). Ethics and advocacy in forecasting for public policy. Business and Professional Ethics Journal, 9(1–2), 141–157.

Walmsley, D. A., & Pickett, M. W. (1992). The cost and patronage of rapid transit systems compared with forecasts (Research Report 352). Crowthorne, UK: Transport Research Laboratory.

[9] The $500,000 entrance marker to Nuuanu Valley and other places is one example. You would think that its residents don’t know where they live.  Other examples are the median strips on Lunalilo Home Road, which the supposed beneficiaries, the residents, were out in force protesting against. And I would love to know the full cost of such efforts as Brunch on the Beach. A fully-funded City Auditor could tell us that.