Monday, February 2, 2015

What Can We Do About The Rail? Nothing. Tackle Traffic Congestion!

Various groups are energized and urge me and each other to do something about stopping Honolulu’s rail project.  The recent commotion has been brought about by (1) the large delays;  the project is roughly three years behind schedule because the city did a poor job with the archaeological inventory and then deliberately delayed and obstructed the two lawsuits; (2) the revelations last December that the project is already about $900 million over budget, and (3) the City Ethics Commission’s investigation on the non-disclosure of rail project related gifts to five City Council Members, which could potentially reverse some important pro-rail votes and approvals.

So what can be done about stopping the rail project now? Nothing, other than holding HART and the City accountable for project expenditures. Unfortunately this is easier said than done given that between FY 2008 and FY 2012 more than $550 million were spent and hardly any project was laid on the ground!

Other agencies on the mainland can complete a 10-mile multilane freeway including all planning, design and clearances for this sum of money.  But for $550 million we got TV and newspaper ads, building and office rentals, salaries, travelling expenses for planners and officials, piles of Xeroxing and plain and 3-hole paper, laptop and desktop computers, cellphone and courier bills, and magazine subscriptions.
And a lot more traffic congestion since 2006 when the rail project started.

What’s the bottom line on traffic congestion on Oahu?
Honolulu has among the worst traffic flow conditions in the nation because it is grossly lane deficient, that is, Honolulu has too few lane miles for its population and travel patterns.

Honolulu rail will never provide any congestion relief for the traveling public. By the time some usable portion of the project is done, say, Kapolei to Pearl City, its (tiny) traffic reduction will be already surpassed by traffic growth given the tens of thousands of planned new homes west of Aloha Stadium.

Starting this year, there will be extensive lane closures to build the guideway and the street-spanning stations.  HART can’t build 21 roughly football field sized concrete stations 30 ft. in the air and leave lanes open to traffic under it during construction. In a typical scenario, half of Farrington Fwy., Kamehameha Hwy., and Dillingham Blvd. will have to be closed for many months at a time.  

Next year the project may be in the vicinity of Pearl Harbor and Aloha Stadium. As a result, word will get out in the tourist market that Oahu is one huge traffic and construction mess.

Assuming that construction progresses normally, around year 2017, construction by the airport will have major impacts on the access and land-side operations at the Honolulu International Airport. This will be quite annoying to frequent interisland travelers and on occasion it may result in missed flights.

Around year 2020, several street blocks in downtown and Kakaako will be closed for months at a time. A long, dissecting portion of Kakaako will be an active construction site. Neither shop owners nor patrons can be allowed in a construction site. Mauka-makai movements between Chinatown and Ala Moana will be critically affected. Kakaako’s revitalization will be heavily impacted.

Despite all this, given Hawaii's political and decision making reality, at this time there is no point to “fight the rail.” But there is a clear need to fight for traffic congestion solutions. This is what Oahu needed to begin with.

What can be done about congestion?
First let’s not forget that the Hawaii State DOT added a lane on each side of the central part of the H-1 Freeway in 2014. This has helped a lot!

Also, the Hawaii State DOT is adding a lane on each side of the Pearl City viaduct on the H-1 Freeway. It’ll help somewhat, but this one lane per direction addition is not enough for the current, let alone future levels of demand to/from west Oahu.

There are also some plans to add a lane at the H-1/H-2 merge.  This lane addition, if implemented, will be “too little too late” but will provide some congestion relief. The long queues and long periods of stop-and-go congestion will get a little shorter.
There are many more options. Here is a sample of past suggestions, many of which are readily applicable today:
How can Oahu get congestion relief?
Fundamentally, we must:

  • Get a grip with reality and stop believing that rail will reduce traffic congestion on Oahu at any time in the future.
  • Aggressively install lane additions, contraflow lanes, bypass lanes and bus-on-shoulder operations before the impacts of rail construction choke west Oahu’s mobility.
  • Realize that Saudis and fracking will keep the cost of fossil fuels at moderate levels, and Congress won't tax transportation fuels in a substantial way. Economic brakes to driving won't apply for several more years.  Thus traffic will grow and so will congestion.
  • Promote effective solutions for traffic congestion relief through the government channels. Additions of new traffic lanes should be a priority.
  • Create a non-governmental Oahu Mobility Group. Currently businesses and business organizations are asleep at the wheel when it comes to traffic congestion, which costs them dearly, while government is relying on silly projections of congestion relief with public transit, smart growth, TODs and complete streets. The government is working on improvements for the 10% of the travelers with “alternative transportation and life styles.” It largely ignores the 90% of the travelers that use cars, carpools, mopeds, motorcycles and buses on congested streets. A strong voice is needed to set transportation priorities right.

Once again, what can be done about Honolulu’s rail project?
I think that in a few years there will be substantial appetite to terminate the rail at the airport or at the Iwilei end of Dillingham Blvd. and to continue the rail's original Ala Moana, Waikiki and University routes with bus circulators on priority lanes. The powers that be may adopt this as a win-win compromise if the effect of rail construction is too much for locals, and for tourism arrivals and operations. Or if the electorate (finally) gets mad at them.

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