Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Let Them Eat Cake

Honolulu's public is starved for traffic congestion relief. The power elite has responded with "let them have rail."

To many citizens and to most elected officials it is clear that if the government provides overhead rail, people stuck in traffic congestion will take it. "How come you don't support the rail?" They ask me. "Haven't you seen the traffic from Kapolei to the UH?"

Planners, politicians and hired spinsters have spend a lot of time and money in trying to convince people that rail is a solution to traffic congestion, jobs, development, the environment, etc. They've made many false promises. People are desperate for some relief to their daily commute after all the taxes they pay. It's easy to sell false hope.

Having lost most arguments about traffic congestion relief, environmental benefits and "thousands of new jobs," the propaganda has shifted to "transit oriented development" or TOD.

Planners, politicians and hired spinsters are extolling the mostly imaginary virtues of TOD.  Banks, developers and contractors are salivating (and bankrolling politicians) over those TODs because they are indeed, Taxes Offered to Developers to develop subsidized properties around transit stations. By the way, TOD needs Transit not Rail. Buses on express lanes will do fine, at a much lower cost than rail and transit buses offer direct connections to many locations because they are flexible.

There is little doubt that drivers and passengers dislike bumper to bumper traffic. However, they need their vehicle to meet the obligations of their daily life in space and time. Have you seen city administration and HART officials going places on TheBus?

People need and consume electricity in Hawaii. Electricity in Hawaii costs over 300% the mainland average. Have you seen people gathering wood to cook and heat water? No? Expect a similar reaction to rail. Very very few will switch to it.

John Brizdle recently commented: "It will be very hard to get car commuters to get out of their cars to ride rail. They will have to give up their comfortable seats, door to door service, snacks, drinks, Bluetooth phone conversations and then stand-up on rail averaging 27 miles per hour."

Indeed, the reality is this. If you build it, they won't come. Here is the evidence: During the last decade, the U.S. spent hundreds of billions of dollars in new rail systems and upgraded transit buses. Did transit share grow? No! Look at the U.S. Census data below. The share of mass transit is stuck at or below 5%. All the rest of urban travel is done by car, carpool, bike, walk, or telecommuting.

When the 2010 U.S. Census numbers came out in 2011, the American Public Transit Association gloated that mass transit ridership grew by 8.5% in the ten years between 2000 and 2010. True, but in the same decade the U.S. population grew by 9.7%. Clearly despite large expenditures and expansions, mass transit usage does not even keep up with population growth, let alone gaining share to provide any relief to roadway congestion.

No matter how sleek and expensive the new transit offerings are, less than 5% of the travelers chose them. Year after year. But government and politicians support these boondoggles. Why?  Follow the money.

Professor Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University has proved that government rail projects are by far the most fraught with deception and delusion among all large infrastructure projects:
  • Deception means that the proponents lie to their constituents. Basically most cost and ridership forecasts for rail are very wrong. Costs are stated too low. Ridership is stated too high.
  • Delusion means that the rail proponents believe that their project is better and different than all the failures of the past, including the national evidence shown above. 
This history of public trust and public funds mismanagement is repeating in Honolulu. There is little doubt that Honolulu Rail will be much like the Tren Urbano of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was finished in 2006, almost 100% over budget and its ridership level has not even reached 50% of the forecast!

Rail projects are tax-payer financed and government-controlled. They take a decade or more to complete and in the end, like Puerto Rico, nobody is held accountable for the gross errors and lies. In addition to "history repeating itself" in Honolulu, I have 10+1 reasons why I do not support the Honolulu rail:
  1. Rail is the 1% solution to Oahu's traffic congestion problem.
  2. Spending over five billion dollars for a non-solution is unethical.
  3. The original and the current system are very different. Offering the public 41% less for a 73% higher price is a lie and a breach of public trust.
  4. Construction will cause critical lane closures and result in debilitating congestion for a decade.
  5. TheBus will be changed from a core operation to a feeder operation hurting those that need its service the most.
  6. Rail comes with a high security risk. It's a magnet for shooters, suicides, groping, robberies, drug trafficking...
  7. Rail makes Honolulu less resilient during and after a natural disaster.
  8. Cannot afford it. Hawaii is fifth worst state in the country in pension and health benefit funding liability.
  9. City budgets will be crushed by the union raises, the EPA sewer consent decree and the pension liabilities. Adding the rail construction cost-overruns will lower credit rating and ability to borrow and pay debt and other obligations. This is a long spelling for bankruptcy.
  10. During 2008 elections the ratio of pro-rail lies to anti-rail information in advertising media was more than 10 to 1. Taxpayer monies were used to support rail and, indirectly, rail-supporting politicians. That election process was indeed unethical. This repeated in 2012 with a smear campaign against Gov. Cayetano.
Last but not least, Honolulu is beautiful. Overhead rail is ugly and noisy. Installing overhead rail in beautiful Honolulu is a crime.
Rail is politics. Hawaii politics is all about Democrats. They proclaim their care for the little guy but they are cutting the little guy's bus, degrade his quality of life and cost of living with ever worsening traffic congestion, and raise the tax for one million little guys by several billion dollars for the benefit of capitalist interests!

Such politics take us back to eighteenth century France.  Instead of cheap roads for the 80% of travelers they offer pricy rail for the 6% who ride transit... "Let them eat cake" 250 years later.

Postscript: Visit John Pritchett's collection of rail cartoons. Although the rail is no joke, his cartoons are a humorous take of the history of Hawaii's biggest fiasco ever.