Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Making the Most of the Rail Fiasco

This is a fuller version of the article I co-authored with Cliff Slater and professor Randy Roth that appeared on the Honolulu Star Advertiser on June 29, 2016.
It’s now painfully clear, even to Mayor Caldwell, that the likely cost of taking rail all the way to Ala Moana Shopping Center would greatly exceed available funds.  That’s why the new plan is to stop at Middle Street, eight stops short of Ala Moana, at least until an additional $4 billion can be found.  Just weeks earlier, Caldwell and others were saying that it would make no sense to stop at Middle Street—rail needed to reach Ala Moana, at a minimum, or so they were saying before realizing that that money simply wasn’t there.

This financial nightmare only gets worse when one takes into account its impact on the Full Funding Grant Agreement.  This is a legal contract the City signed with the Federal Transit Administration as a condition of receiving a series of federal payments totaling $1.55 billion.  Because of the decision to stop at Middle Street the FTA, is now legally entitled not just to stop providing funds, but to demand the immediate return of nearly $0.5 billion already provided.

We believe that the FTA will be extraordinarily flexible in dealing with this financial train wreck, partly because the FTA’s own hands are dirty.  It knew very early on that City officials were neither competent nor honest. We base this on interagency email in which FTA officials commented on the City’s “lousy practices of public manipulation,” willingness to “deceive with no remorse,” use of “inaccurate statements,” and having a culture of “never enough time to do it right, but lots of time to do it over.”

FTA officials also noted that the City had botched three projects and were “well on their way to a fourth,” started construction this time “without authority despite warnings that it would create an ineligibility for the project,” and put itself in a “pickle” by setting unrealistic start dates for construction.

We also know that FTA officials had ready access to the report of independent experts hired by Gov. Lingle to provide a second opinion on the likely cost of the proposed rail system.  The group’s bottom-line assessment should have alarmed the FTA:  “A multi-billion dollar transportation improvement project, particularly one that is proposed to be operated in, and funded by, an urbanized area that is far smaller than the norm for such projects, should have its financial plan developed with methodologies that incorporate the highest professional and technical standards and techniques.  As we demonstrate [in this report], the financial planning and modeling process for [this] Project fails this ‘best practices’ test in many ways.”

The FTA also aided the City in its dishonest efforts to convince people that rail would reduce the current level of traffic congestion.  For example, the FTA publicly expressed belief that “this project will bring much needed relief from the suffocating congestion on the H-1 Freeway.”  This was contrary to the FTA-approved Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in which the City had acknowledged that “traffic congestion will be worse in the future with rail than what it is today without rail.”  The FTA's statement also contradicted its own previous position in its January 2011 Record of Decision in which it stated:  "Many commenters [on the Draft EIS] reiterated their concern that the Project will not relieve highway congestion in Honolulu. FTA agrees..."

Despite these and many other indications that the City could never build rail “on time and on budget,” as Mayor Caldwell repeatedly promised, the FTA apparently buckled under political pressure when it entered into the FFGA.  Because of the FTA’s complicity in Honolulu’s rail fiasco, the FTA should now allow the city to use the $1.55 billion of federal money to make the best of a terrible situation that it could and should have prevented.

We believe the most attractive of the available options is to convert the existing rail guideway into dedicated lanes for a state-of-the-art Bus Rapid Transit system that extends not just to Middle Street but far beyond to Manoa, Waikiki and other parts of the island, including Waianae.  As the figure below shows, regular, articulated and double-decker buses will fit the existing rail guideway and will operate normally and safely with a guided-bus system similar to those running in Essen, Germany,  Adelaide, Australia and several other cities.

This could be done with the money that otherwise would be wasted on a rail system that was out-of-date before construction even began. A BRT conversion will use familiar technology, will have a higher ridership, will preserve bus routes, and will provide more traffic congestion relief than rail.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Autobahn: Where "Speed Kills" Dies

The German autobahn is a traffic safety paradox. Countries like Australia, the US and the UK have made freeway speed control a major objective of their traffic safety code. Many high class roads in the US are limited to 55 mph and sometimes lower speeds. The top BBC television program Top Gear has scored big laughs with US speed limits.

Speed kills they say.  That can be true. In a case of loss of control or other accident conditions, a modest impact accident can become a severe or fatal accident if the speeds are high.  But speed itself does not kill. In a recent (June 2016) presentation at the German federal department of transportation that I witnessed in Berlin, the statistics clearly showed that the Autobahn is the safest German road.  Germany in general has better traffic safety that the US.  But the speeds on the Autobahn are insane.

Recently I drove about 1,000 km on several German autobahns connecting Berlin and Frankfurt.  When the road was not wet, I was typically using the middle lane and cruised at 150-160 km/hr for long stretches where no limits were in effect. That's 93-100 mph in a loaded car with a family of four!

But on occasion like the one below I'd move up to 176 km/hr or 109 mph and get passed quickly by a Hyundai SUV as in the instance below. The speeding of Hollywood car chases is common place with common cars on the German autobahn.

Note in the picture that the dashboard indicates to me the speed limit in the sign with the red circle and three dashes.  The dashes mean that no speed limit is in effect on that segment of the road. The dashes are replaced with applicable limits, most commonly 120 or 90 km/hr in sections with curves or other difficulties.  The Germans were very cognizant of these limits and adhered to them. On occasion I'd drive a little faster on those restricted stretches to pass the Porsches so I can enjoy the whoosh of being passed by them minutes later... Even when did 194 km/hr (120 mph) they zipped by me at , I'd guess, 155 mph which is a common governed speed limit (based on the tire type fitted).

And nobody died; not even close.  It was fun to see that the next city was 50 miles away and arrive there in about half an hour!