Sunday, January 24, 2010

Reality vs Livability

Which new word Mufi will bring us from Washington, DC? LIVABILITY.

This time it is not Mufi's fault. It's President Obama's through the mouth of his transportation secretary (and past pork meister) Ray LaHood.

Obama promised that large projects won't be done based on political whim and strong arming. He promised transparency, accountability and (indirectly) cost-effectiveness. In other words, only good, necessary and justifiable projects with strong local support and big bang for the buck will be done. Now he does exactly the opposite when it comes to urban rail systems.

All rail systems are money losers in the U.S. Before Obama there was a formulaic determination at Federal Transit Administration so that the taxpayer won't be taken on a wild ride by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on projects that are grossly ineffective. Honolulu's systems is grossly ineffective because it costs over three times more that the next most expensive system in the nation, and about 20 times more the typical light rail system in the nation in terms of money taken away from city residents to built it.

This long standing FTA safety valve was thrown out. It was replaced with Livability.

Problem is there is no definition of Livability. Car haters may define it as taking cars out of the street. One can hate cars all he wants, but inside them there are human beings. Take cars away and the corresponding activity is largely taken away. Simple math. Greater automobility equals greater prosperity and a better life style.

With "livability" instead of building affordable roads or adding lanes in proportion to population (these lanes will be occupied by low to no emissions vehicles in 20 years) we proposed to build rigid, expensive neighborhood dividers such as elevated rail.

Livability is very similar to Beauty. As in "beauty is in the eye of the beholder. " Some Honolulu residents view the elevated rail as a necessary alternative and a technological asset. Most view it as unnecessary, ugly and largely useless.

Rail systems do little for "livability" and similar vague "smart growth" metrics. What rail systems do is waste money and serve far fewer people that they were planned for. Latest example, is the Sounder light rail in Seattle. Emory Bundy estimates that "as of 2008, $1,430,000,000 capital cost for Sounder, 2.22 times the price proffered in 1996 ($647,000,000 YOE$), a cost overrun of $783 million, 122%."

But that's the good news. The actual ridership story is fantasy versus reality: Numbers out of mouths of politicians ans their hired "experts" versus the number of people actually using the rail systems. Let's follow their history from fantasy to reality. Note that their system took 13 years to materialize so the 1996 local politicians are now at a law firm, Congress or prison, fully unaccountable for this boondoggle.

The 1996 Sound Move Plan promised at least 105,000 Central Link light rail daily (one-way) trips in 2010.

By late 2001, with light rail trimmed-back to Airport/Initial Segment, the target was lowered to 45,000 daily boardings by 2020.

In 2008, with Airport Link nearing completion, Sound Transit's 2010 target was lowered to 32,600.

In 2009, as opening day for Airport/Initial Segment approached, the target for 2010 was reduced again, to 26,000.

In 2009 roughly 15,000 daily trips are being recorded.

So in 2010 the expectation is that actual daily riders would be less than half those promised in late 2001 and less than a quarter those promised in 1996.

Evidence like this does not phase Hannemann, Caldwell, Apo, Carlisle and the (mostly paid in cash, in jobs or in kind) Go-Rail-Go rail advocates.

Good thing Governor Lingle promises to take a hard look into the Final EIS and the numbers and proposed mitigation plans in it. By all accounts the public is on her side. Here is a sample from Pacific Business News: 64% believe that the governor is asking important questions.