Thursday, September 18, 2008

Honolulu Economic Development Plan: An Integrated Vision of Infrastructure, Tourism, Energy, and Sustainability

Our four point plan to secure a bright economic future for Honolulu may be summarized as follows:

1. Bring our infrastructure to world-class standards.
A city in the current state of disrepair like ours simply cannot have a serious discussion about economic growth until our sewage is properly contained and treated, out water is clean and stays in the pipes, our roads provide a reasonably speedy service and are free of bumps and potholes, our trash is recycled, re-used and controlled; and our taxes are reduced so that business stay in business and low income folks are not forced into homelessness.

2. Develop sustainable energy supplies
to secure a low-cost expansion that is largely free of fossil fuels. Hawaii is blessed with abundant solar, wind, geothermal, and wave energy that can free us from the shackles of imported oil and coal. We had a tradition of sugarcane agriculture; sugarcane is the preferred source for making ethanol. Where is the wisdom in importing ethanol from Iowa?

3. Reposition our tourism to serve established and emerging niche markets.
For example, specialize in hosting professional and specialty conferences that bring in millions of high-value visitors from around the world. Many conferences can showcase Honolulu as the city of the future, a city that is ethnically integrated like no other, a city that is clean and in good repair, a city that is cooled and powered with green energy. We can lead the world in true eco-tourism by demonstrating what real sustainability looks like.

4. Reverse the brain drain
through the knowledge gained by giving this city the infrastructure and energy alternatives it deserves. Our university graduates will study, work in, and export sustainable technology to cities around the world, cities that will come to Honolulu to model what we have created in:

Renewable energy, trash and recycling factories, point to point fuel cell buses on high occupancy reversible expressways, intelligent transportation systems, green buildings, telecommuting and the integration of culture and the arts into technology and infrastructure.

Indeed trash factories and reversible lanes can be designed with beauty and cultural sensitivity in mind. See for example what the Figg Bridge company has done in Indian reservations and national parks.

We have solutions which combine form, function, efficiency, results, and state of the art technology. It’s worth staying home and making this beautiful place truly great.

Homelessness on Oahu

Earlier today, I testified before the Hawaii Housing Authority on the issue of homelessness in our city. The following is an expanded version of what I stated at that meeting.

As an 18+ year resident on Oahu and a candidate for mayor, I am alarmed by the homelessness issue and its impact on our people, our tourists, our parks and our beaches.

The Kapiolani "tent park" is only the beginning. A shrinking economy, reduced tourism and large anticipated cuts in both public and private budgets have the potential to make this an explosive issue which will stress service providers at all levels.

There are many causes to homelessness, including cost of living, low pay, unemployment, housing affordability, mental health, drugs, and, for a few, a life style choice of permanent camping.

There are several services and solutions, including priority housing for single parents, cubicles, camps or areas with facilities for sleeping in a car, other temporary accommodations, physical and mental health treatment, affordable housing and other public housing.

There are many agencies involved and service providers such as:
  • Hawaii Housing Authority
  • Partners in Care
  • HUD such as Community Development Block Grant
  • other Federal assistance
  • City Council and Mayor
  • State Department of Health
  • Police Department
  • Aloha United Way and Foodbank Hawaii
  • Churches and several other advocates
Therefore, a County Unit on Homelessness is necessary to coordinate and consolidate all these activities and offerings.

Homelessness is a multi-issue, multi-solution and multi-fragmented challenge. Some of the issues and positive directions include the following:
  • City cooperation with state is lacking; and city is going out of the affordable housing service at the worse possible time.
  • The city has not cooperated by providing warning of evictions thus putting responding agencies and volunteers in sudden crises.
  • Last year a bill proposed a 20 million allocation for a downtown homeless center but city administration never showed up to support it.
  • Public private partnerships for affordable housing development and management work. We should do more of them and apply proper controls.
  • The state should take a serious look on sustainable lease. It will likely work well for low income families. (A sustainable lease is a leasehold arrangement that maintains property in an affordable price range.)
  • There are complaints that several people residing in public housing own new vehicles that are worth well over $40,000 dollars. Why are their owners in subsidized public housing ?
  • There are concerns that the development of public housing and free sleeping quarters sometimes act as incentives for local and in-migrating homelessness. So you are balancing on a tight rope.
A major crisis is looming with the downturn in economy, the closure of homeless centers such as the recent one in Waihiawa, and the Next Step 151-cubicle unit provided by the state will close this year. Although it may sound counterintuitive at first, it is essential to increase the budget and coordinate the response to the homeless issue so that it remains at a manageable level.

To this end, for the interim, the city, in cooperation with the state should:
  • identify vacant lots and specific areas in some public parks and
  • develop a homeless camping permit much like the regular camping permit.
The advantages of a homeless permit are that:
  • It designates specific places and periods.
  • Assisting agencies will know where each individual is located.
  • If the police are called, the homeless campers can show their permit.
  • Maintenance on parks will be easier due to a manageable number of people at each site.
  • The permit will have an expiration date which can be renewed.
This permit process would be a proactive approach to homelessness making it measurable, tractable and manageable.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

PM Zipper Lane: One More Step Towards Traffic Relief

For many years now, I have been working with traffic analysis and making recommendations in order to reduce the acute traffic congestion that plagues our city every morning and afternoon. Some of these have already been completed, while others, like the Middle Street merge fix, are still in limbo. I was pleased with today's Honolulu Advertiser front page article, where I see that another one of my recommendations is going forward: The implementation of a PM Zipper lane.

Some other recommendations:
  • Fix the existing H-1 bottlenecks, such as the ones listed in this Honolulu Star Bulletin article.
  • Implementing contraflow lanes along Dillingham Boulevard.
  • Improving traffic signal timing and coordination, as mentioned in a previous post.
  • Implementing or encouraging flextime or 4x10 work weeks - something which the State is now beginning to explore.
  • Have the UH begin classes later, so that the earliest classes do not coincide with the peak of rush hour.
Implement the Waiau widening project, adding a lane from the H-2 to the Waikele/Waipahu off-ramp.

And in the longer term:
  • Build one-lane-per-direction underpasses at existing maxed-out intersections that cannot be widenend.
  • Build the reversible HOT lanes from the H-1/H-2 merge to Iwilei.

Monday, September 15, 2008

High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) Lanes Benefit Everyone

Congestion pricing often draws the criticism that it disproportionately burdens lower-income drivers. But a new report by California researchers contends that these "pay-as-you-go" transportation options might actually be more fair to all income levels than paying for highway or transit improvements through sales taxes.

The study examines the High Occupancy/Toll lanes on California 91 in Orange County. The 91 Express Lanes – two lanes in each direction in the center of the highway – cover a 10-mile stretch of frequently congested freeway. Users must have an electronic toll tag in their vehicle and pay a varying price depending on how much traffic is clogging the main lanes. Tolls are set to keep traffic in the express lanes free-flowing and range from $1.25 to $10 in a metropolitan area of over 15 million people. In Denver of about six million people, the HOT lanes charge ranges between 50 cents and $3.25.

The study compared how tolls and sales taxes affect Orange County's lower-income residents. It found that political opposition to congestion pricing on equity grounds is flawed.

The 91 Express Lanes are used by middle- and upper-middle-income households. Researchers then examined how people of different income levels would be affected had the four lanes been funded by a sales tax increase instead of congestion tolls. Orange County already has a local-option transportation sales tax that generates about $240 million annually.

Had the sales tax been increased to pay for the extra lanes (like Hawaii’s 0.5% tack onto the standard 4% general excise tax for the Hannemann rail proposal) the poorest county residents would have paid more than $3 million more in taxes than they actually did under the current tolling system. Unlike a sales tax, paying to use the HOT lanes is voluntary.

"Using sales taxes to fund roadways creates substantial savings to drivers by shifting some of the costs of driving from drivers to consumers at large, and in the process disproportionately favors the more affluent at the expense of the impoverished," according to report authors Professor Brian Taylor, director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, and Lisa Schweitzer, assistant professor at USC's School of Policy, Planning, and Development. (Dr. Taylor spent a year long sabbatical at the UH-Manoa department of civil engineering in 2007.)

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, a proponent of charging drivers for the use of infrastructure, said the study provides more proof that tolls do not unfairly burden lower- and middle-class drivers.

"Congestion pricing and tolling have the power to reduce commute times and make our metropolitan transportation networks far more efficient and environmentally friendly," Peters wrote on her blog "Fast Lane."

The proposed cost of using some HOT lanes is raising eyebrows, however, and is certain to continue the debate over the best methods for financing transportation improvements.

The private builders of new HOT lanes on the Capital Beltway in Virginia are betting enough drivers in the Washington region will be willing to pay tolls. Construction began last month on 14 miles of Interstate 495 HOT lanes between Springfield and the Dulles Toll Road. Transurban, the Australian company that will operate the lanes when they open in 2013, does not expect drivers to use the lanes every day but only when the value of time and certainty outweighs the price of access.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Traffic Signal Synchronization

Many of the traffic lights on our roadways seem to be almost random. Sometimes they allow us to travel for several blocks before encountering a red light, but much more often they stop us at almost every intersection. The worst case is when a traffic light turns red shortly before a big platoon of cars nears its stop line. This should not be the case! To a traffic engineer, these occurrences are a red flag and demand a solution. Not only because random red lights are artificial bottlenecks, but also because they encourage red-light-running and other unsafe motorist behaviors which, in turn, may lead to crashes.

The easiest and most cost-effective way to deal with this issue is to synchronize the traffic lights, allowing cars to travel at least five blocks along main arteries without having to stop. As reported by the federal Department of Transportation, synchronization of traffic signals can and does yield tremendous benefits. A couple of examples, cited in the link above include: Texas, with a benefit-cost ratio of 62:1 (i.e.: for ever dollar spent, $62 was saved) and California, with a benefit-cost ratio of 19:1.

In summer 2008, the Institute of Transportation Engineers reported that Baltimore, Maryland spent about $750,000 to optimize and synchronize 800 traffic lights. Actual travel time runs were made with the old and the new traffic light timings. The improvements were huge and the cost-benefit ratio was 43 to 1.

An example of what synchronization would look like using King, University and Beretania streets in Honolulu is shown below.

The scenario above is similar to what exists today. The traffic signals are all uncoordinated, and, while some cars are able to make it through one or two intersections before being stopped again, the entire system operates almost randomly.

If the signals are properly timed, however...

As you can see, traffic travels from one end of the area to the other, almost without no stops, and much more smoothly than in the unsynchronized case.

The table below shows that the result of synchronization is a significant reduction in lost time, a significant reduction is the number of times vehicles had to stop. In turn, this results in a drop in the amount of emissions and fuel use.

Throughout urban Honolulu, with its over 500 traffic lights, the proper timing of intersection traffic lights can save over 50 gallons of fuel for the average car over a year. And ten times as much for taxis, buses and delivery trucks that are in traffic all the time. Fuel cost, fuel efficiency, congestion reduction and reduction of long idling times at traffic lights are critical elements in the operation of fleets. One of the largest fleets on Oahu is the TheBus with over 550 vehicles.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Carbonization of Waste is a UH-based Trash Management Option

Technology developed by University of Hawaii researcher Michael J. Antal Jr. to produce charcoal from green waste can reduce the burden on the Waimanalo Gulch landfill.

Dr. Antal's flash carbonization process uses heat and pressure to turn scrap tires, corn cobs, macadamia nut shells and green waste into a high-quality, clean alternative to wood or coal.

Flash Carbonization™ of raw sewage sludge produced in Honolulu's Ewa treatment plant was converted into charcoal. Charcoal yields of about 30% (dry basis) were produced from the sewage sludge.

Charcoal is the sustainable fuel replacement for coal. Coal combustion is the most important contributor to climate change. On the other hand, the combustion of charcoal - sustainably produced from renewable biomass - adds no CO2 to the atmosphere! Thus, the replacement of coal by charcoal is among the most important steps we can take to ameliorate climate change.

Combustion of charcoal does not add to the CO2 burden of the atmosphere because charcoal is produced from renewable biomass that would otherwise decompose (i.e. rot) in a landfill or in the ground and become CO2. Thus the combustion of charcoal is a small part of nature's carbon cycle upon which life depends.

We burn coal to generate a good portion of the electrical power in Hawaii. Oahu has a 180 MW coal fired power plant. The highest priority for knowledgeable people who care about the environment is the replacement of coal by cleaner, renewable fuels.

The Sand Island sewage treatment plant converts its sewage sludge to dry pellets which can be used to enrich the soil. However, the other sewage plants continue to send their sludge to the landfill. Installing a carbon diversion system at all the other plants could not only reduce the burden on our landfill but cut down on the import and use of coal to generate electricity.

The replacement of coal by charcoal has other benefits. Coal is laden with mercury and sulfur. Mercury is a deadly toxin. Coal is also laden with sulfur and the combustion of coal leads to the release of sulfur oxides into the atmosphere. Sulfur oxides are a principal cause of acid rain. In contrast, charcoal contains no mercury and virtually no sulfur. In fact, our drug stores sell charcoal tablets to eat as an aid for digestion! Moreover, on a pound per pound basis, charcoal contains much more energy than most coals.

Just this year, in July and August, thousands of discarded old tires were found in Kapolei. At least two recycling companies apparently have had problems with old tires. They can serve as feedstock for a carbon diversion system and produce tons of charcoal in the process. My personal preference, however, is to use old, used and discarded tires in the asphalt pavement mix, which offers a cheaper re-use path and an improved final product, i.e., more durable asphalt pavements.

Oahu has thousands of acres devoted to growing seed corn for the mainland. The system can process corn cobs into miniature charcoal corn cobs which could probably be sold at a premium. It takes only a half acre to install a carbon diversion system which can process up to four tons of waste material per hour.

For more information see:

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Can we get 80% federal funding for HOT lanes?

The Federal Highway Administration provides 80% of the funds for all highways designed as a part of the NHS, the National Highway System. The feds paid 80% of the H-1, H-2 and H-3 freeways. I am 99% sure that the feds also paid 80% of the Kalanianaole widening from 4 to 6 lanes from Aina Haina to Hawaii Kai. The Pali and Likelike highways are also part of the NHS.

The new reversible HOT lanes can indeed be part of the NHS and play a significant role as an emergency backbone in a disaster. They can receive the standard 80% FHWA funding, if approved by the FHWA. Both the transit and highways branches approve projects on a competitive basis and there are more projects than funds, but with a rolling horizon of 10 to 20 years, most projects get funding.

Why did Tampa do its reversible express lanes (REL) alone with state and county funds? Because this enabled them to finish the project in under 7 years from concept to open-for-traffic. It would have taken over 11 years if the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority that developed the REL had decided to seek federal funding. The federal oversight and bureaucracy adds several years to project delivery, for both road and transit projects.

In July 2008, US DOT secretary Peters released 15 billion dollars in guarantees for private financiers to develop public-private partnerships (PPP) for the explicit purpose of building HOT lanes to decongest the main cities of the nation. The first project to successfully apply and receive funding from this extra source was the Capital Beltway in Washington DC, where the Virginia DOT is building 14 miles of HOT lanes, 2 lanes per direction.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Smart Growth Does not Reduce Greenhouse Gases

For today's post I would like to quote the nationally renowned transportation policy expert, and multiple time presidential adviser, Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation:

The premise [that smart growth reduces green house gases] goes something like this. Transportation is a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and personal vehicles are a significant fraction of transportation. The more people drive, the more GHGs their vehicles emit. If their job, school, shopping, etc. are close to where they live, they won’t drive as much (since they could walk or use transit). Therefore, government should force all new development to be high-density and transit-friendly, as a powerful tool for GHG reduction.

By the time you get to the end of this “logic” chain, you are actually looking at minuscule reductions in GHGs, as many different analyses have pointed out.

First, while transportation represents about 28% of GHG emissions in the United States today (according to the EPA), passenger cars are only 34% of that, or 9.5% of the total.

Second, over the next several decades, GHG emissions per mile driven will likely drop significantly, thanks to federal and state (e.g., California) measures to require increased fuel economy and encourage alternative propulsion sources (such as plug-in hybrids).

Third, densifying development applies almost entirely to new development, leaving the vast majority of the already built environment unchanged.

Fourth, just because transit is nearby does not mean it takes you where you need to go. Since most commuting is suburb-to-suburb while transit works best on radial routes to a central business district, it’s unlikely to capture much additional commute mode share. And since most people don'’t want to walk to a corner store and pay high prices, they will still drive their cars to Target or Costco to load up on good values.