Friday, March 27, 2009

March 2009 Transportation News of Significance to Hawaii

The transportation news excerpted below come from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) weekly newsletter dated March 27, 2009:
  • Mississippi State Joins Other States that Ban Red-Light Cameras
  • FHWA Approves Express Toll Lanes for Dallas-Area Highways
  • AMTRAK High Speed Rail Ridership Plummets
Each news excerpt is followed by my brief commentary making a connection to Hawaii.

(1) Mississippi Bans Red-Light Cameras but Hawaii Plans a Red Light Law

“Gov. Haley Barbour signed legislation last Friday prohibiting Mississippi localities from using traffic cameras to photograph and ticket motorists who run red lights. The state Legislature passed the bill earlier this month amid public outrage that governments are going overboard with the surveillance and using the cameras to generate more revenue. Many legislators said they were bombarded with requests from constituents to prohibit local governments from using the cameras to fine red-light violators.

Camera supporters unsuccessfully argued that the devices deter people from running red lights, reducing auto accidents and saving lives. At least six states have now banned the use of red-light cameras, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures.”

My comments: By looking at the root causes of most accidents in Hawaii, a qualified observer will notice that the following factors dominate and are responsible for over two thirds of fatalities and serious injuries: (1) pedestrians crossing roads outside crosswalks and inattentively, (2) driver intoxication or other substance-induced impairment, (3) excessive speed compared to surrounding traffic or speed limit, or speed that makes vehicle control difficult, i.e., around bends, (4) motorcycle and scooter riders without helmets, and (5) driver involvement with personal electronic devices.

A red-right running law is similar to speeding tickets given to parents and grandparents in minivans doing 10 mph over the limit; it’s a lawful penalty and contribution to the G-fund. With a red-right running law, the Legislature adds words to the statutes and enables contracts for special interests. Such tickets and such laws have little real improvement to safety and quality of life due to the disconnect between accident causality on one hand, and law, enforcement and penalties on the other.

(2) Federal Highway Administration Approves Express Toll Lanes for Dallas-Area Highways but Hawaii State Has no Authority to Provide New Toll Lanes

“The Federal Highway Administration said Monday that it has approved a request from Texas to build express toll lanes on four freeways in and around Dallas and Fort Worth. The two projects are the first given a green light under FHWA’s Express Lanes Demonstration Program, which permits tolling of new lanes being constructed to relieve congestion. Toll prices on the new Texas lanes will vary according to time of day or the level of traffic and will be collected electronically.

Toll lanes will be added to 28 miles of Interstate 635 in the Dallas region and 36 miles of Interstate 35W, Interstate 820, and Texas 183 in the Fort Worth region. The lanes will give drivers the choice to pay for the benefit of a faster and more-reliable travel time, according to FHWA. Texas previously received federal approval under a different program to add High Occupancy Toll [HOT] lanes to Interstate 10 and U.S. 290 in the Houston metropolitan area.”

My comments: Most cities with traffic congestion problems are being outfitted with road capacity for traffic relief provided by managed HOT lanes. The City rejected managed lanes as a competitor to the much more expensive rail system. The issue in Hawaii remains that the state does not have tolling authority and rumors have it that this is due to objections rooted in State Senate.

Whatever the source, Hawaii loses a major opportunity to deploy HOT lanes on Oahu and bypass toll roads in the neighboring islands. Let me remind the reader that one of the largest current deployments of HOT lanes is in the nation’s capital beltway:

(3) Honolulu's Administration Can’t Wait to Start Rail but Amtrak Ridership Plummets

“Just as the nation’s attention to the subject of high-speed passenger rail increases thanks to the inclusion of $8 billion in the federal economic recovery bill approved last month, the number of Americans riding the country’s fastest train service is nosediving.

Amtrak reported this week that ridership fell 17% last month on its Acela Express service between Boston and Washington compared to the prior February. Amtrak blames the economic recession, which has eroded business travel, Bloomberg reported.

Ridership on slower regional trains in the Northeast Corridor also fell significantly in February, by 14%. On the flip side, Amtrak experienced a 9.2% increase in riders on long-distance trains outside of the Northeast in February. [ed: But those trains carry a relatively tiny number of people.]

Amtrak’s passenger counts for the Northeast are falling slightly more than those recorded by the nation’s airlines. Across the country, the number of airline passengers fell 12% in February, the Air Transport Association reported last week.”

My comments: I do hope that President Obama pulls back quickly from his plan to outfit the U.S. with (half speed) High Speed Rail. True high speed rail like TGV in France and Shinkansen in Japan is massively expensive even for compact countries suitable for it. Those trains travel at well over 200 mph whereas Acela tops out at 120 mph. U.S. metro areas are too far apart (compared to Europe and Japan), U.S. has no exclusive track that is required for 200 mph trains, and the U.S. already has a comparatively massive airport infrastructure. Hopefully the $8 billion allocated for half-speed high speed rail in the Recovery Act will be the last to be wasted in this endeavor.

The lesson for Hawaii is that mistakes and wrong priorities occur both in D.C. and in Honolulu. One big difference is that D.C. can print money to cover for massive failures (for how much longer?) whereas Honolulu’s taxpayer will be saddled with a useless multibillion dollar rail built largely with heavy local taxes (most of them are in the horizon.)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Feels Good to Be 8 Days Ahead of the Wall Street Journal!

WSJ, March 20, 2009 (excerpt)

Budget Woes Hit Mass Transit as Tax Revenue Falls


Just as mass-transit ridership has reached a historic high, tax revenues that fund rail and bus service have dropped, leaving transit agencies nationwide with huge budget deficits and the prospect of boosting fares.

In the New York City region, state lawmakers are locked in a dispute over how best to close a $1.2 billion mass-transit budget gap. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs public transportation in greater New York, says that without an emergency cash infusion it will be forced to boost fares 23%, and severely cut service to meet its $11 billion annual budget.

Divided state lawmakers and government officials in Albany have been pitching various plans that might pull in more cash -- including bridge tolls and new payroll taxes -- but no plan has attracted a majority of legislators and the governor.

Transit agencies in Washington, D.C., Chicago and San Francisco are facing similar situations.

... [sorry, no link... subscription required]

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Transit Ridership Baloney and the Kapolei Choo Choo

"Nationally, Americans made 10.7 billion trips on public transit in 2008, a 4% increase over 2007, according to data released yesterday by the American Public Transportation Association." Then, APTA suggested that America's transit usage reached a new 50 year high.

This is in the same class of misinformation like the Hannemann administration’s propaganda for the "benefits" of the proposed rail from Kapolei to Aiea. Aiea is right because it will take a miracle to reach downtown and Ala Moana Center. Basically no one east of Aloha Stadium is in favor of elevated rail, even if they are in favor of rail transit. It is too expensive, too noisy and too ugly for the communities to allow it to go through.

Headlines also showed up in the local press about the booming transit ridership. But what do these numbers really mean?

Remember that public transit in America serves only a tiny portion of people and most of them are served by buses. So, these numbers mean that in 1956 the average American took 0.26 trips per work day in a public transit system. In 2008, the average American took 0.14 trips per work day in a public transit system. Note that the average American takes more than three trips per day, and basically all of them are done on a road system paid with gas taxes and other user taxes, but not by general taxes.

Although the gas prices and the beginning of a recession boosted public transit ridership from 2007 to 2008, these statements are true:
(1) Most transit agencies expect a decline in 2009, largely due to general workforce reductions (larger unemployment), and transit service reductions due to budget cuts.
(2) Americans used public transit way less in 2008 than in 1956. The rate of usage is about half and the overall tend is declining. Similar decline applies to TheBus.
(3) Rail transit carries a tiny proportion of commuters in the nation. Something in the order of 2% commute by rail, counting all streetcar systems too.
(4) The nation has a huge backlog of maintenance of existing rail systems and cannot afford any "New Starts." In the last few months the U.S. taxpayers were saddled with an extra two trillion in spending, which is roughly an extra $4,000 taken from every American worker.
(5) Now more than ever Oahu cannot afford a multibillion dollar tax bill with phantom benefits for our general economy.

As you know, the excise tax went up and property taxes will go up, zoo entry fee and other fees will go up. Not to improve city services or to get more lions or to fix our terrible roads or to pay for the billion dollar EPA sewage treatment requirement. But to pay for the proposed Kapolei Choo Choo! Lucky we live Hawaii? For how much longer?