Friday, October 25, 2013

Current Social and Economic Trends

Current major social and economic trends that affect the US and Hawaii are presented in this installment of my O'lelo show PANOS 2050: Solutions for a Sustainable Hawaii. From developments in China to politicians' pay in several countries.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Let Them Eat Cake

Honolulu's public is starved for traffic congestion relief. The power elite has responded with "let them have rail."

To many citizens and to most elected officials it is clear that if the government provides overhead rail, people stuck in traffic congestion will take it. "How come you don't support the rail?" They ask me. "Haven't you seen the traffic from Kapolei to the UH?"

Planners, politicians and hired spinsters have spend a lot of time and money in trying to convince people that rail is a solution to traffic congestion, jobs, development, the environment, etc. They've made many false promises. People are desperate for some relief to their daily commute after all the taxes they pay. It's easy to sell false hope.

Having lost most arguments about traffic congestion relief, environmental benefits and "thousands of new jobs," the propaganda has shifted to "transit oriented development" or TOD.

Planners, politicians and hired spinsters are extolling the mostly imaginary virtues of TOD.  Banks, developers and contractors are salivating (and bankrolling politicians) over those TODs because they are indeed, Taxes Offered to Developers to develop subsidized properties around transit stations. By the way, TOD needs Transit not Rail. Buses on express lanes will do fine, at a much lower cost than rail and transit buses offer direct connections to many locations because they are flexible.

There is little doubt that drivers and passengers dislike bumper to bumper traffic. However, they need their vehicle to meet the obligations of their daily life in space and time. Have you seen city administration and HART officials going places on TheBus?

People need and consume electricity in Hawaii. Electricity in Hawaii costs over 300% the mainland average. Have you seen people gathering wood to cook and heat water? No? Expect a similar reaction to rail. Very very few will switch to it.

John Brizdle recently commented: "It will be very hard to get car commuters to get out of their cars to ride rail. They will have to give up their comfortable seats, door to door service, snacks, drinks, Bluetooth phone conversations and then stand-up on rail averaging 27 miles per hour."

Indeed, the reality is this. If you build it, they won't come. Here is the evidence: During the last decade, the U.S. spent hundreds of billions of dollars in new rail systems and upgraded transit buses. Did transit share grow? No! Look at the U.S. Census data below. The share of mass transit is stuck at or below 5%. All the rest of urban travel is done by car, carpool, bike, walk, or telecommuting.

When the 2010 U.S. Census numbers came out in 2011, the American Public Transit Association gloated that mass transit ridership grew by 8.5% in the ten years between 2000 and 2010. True, but in the same decade the U.S. population grew by 9.7%. Clearly despite large expenditures and expansions, mass transit usage does not even keep up with population growth, let alone gaining share to provide any relief to roadway congestion.

No matter how sleek and expensive the new transit offerings are, less than 5% of the travelers chose them. Year after year. But government and politicians support these boondoggles. Why?  Follow the money.

Professor Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University has proved that government rail projects are by far the most fraught with deception and delusion among all large infrastructure projects:
  • Deception means that the proponents lie to their constituents. Basically most cost and ridership forecasts for rail are very wrong. Costs are stated too low. Ridership is stated too high.
  • Delusion means that the rail proponents believe that their project is better and different than all the failures of the past, including the national evidence shown above. 
This history of public trust and public funds mismanagement is repeating in Honolulu. There is little doubt that Honolulu Rail will be much like the Tren Urbano of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was finished in 2006, almost 100% over budget and its ridership level has not even reached 50% of the forecast!

Rail projects are tax-payer financed and government-controlled. They take a decade or more to complete and in the end, like Puerto Rico, nobody is held accountable for the gross errors and lies. In addition to "history repeating itself" in Honolulu, I have 10+1 reasons why I do not support the Honolulu rail:
  1. Rail is the 1% solution to Oahu's traffic congestion problem.
  2. Spending over five billion dollars for a non-solution is unethical.
  3. The original and the current system are very different. Offering the public 41% less for a 73% higher price is a lie and a breach of public trust.
  4. Construction will cause critical lane closures and result in debilitating congestion for a decade.
  5. TheBus will be changed from a core operation to a feeder operation hurting those that need its service the most.
  6. Rail comes with a high security risk. It's a magnet for shooters, suicides, groping, robberies, drug trafficking...
  7. Rail makes Honolulu less resilient during and after a natural disaster.
  8. Cannot afford it. Hawaii is fifth worst state in the country in pension and health benefit funding liability.
  9. City budgets will be crushed by the union raises, the EPA sewer consent decree and the pension liabilities. Adding the rail construction cost-overruns will lower credit rating and ability to borrow and pay debt and other obligations. This is a long spelling for bankruptcy.
  10. During 2008 elections the ratio of pro-rail lies to anti-rail information in advertising media was more than 10 to 1. Taxpayer monies were used to support rail and, indirectly, rail-supporting politicians. That election process was indeed unethical. This repeated in 2012 with a smear campaign against Gov. Cayetano.
Last but not least, Honolulu is beautiful. Overhead rail is ugly and noisy. Installing overhead rail in beautiful Honolulu is a crime.
Rail is politics. Hawaii politics is all about Democrats. They proclaim their care for the little guy but they are cutting the little guy's bus, degrade his quality of life and cost of living with ever worsening traffic congestion, and raise the tax for one million little guys by several billion dollars for the benefit of capitalist interests!

Such politics take us back to eighteenth century France.  Instead of cheap roads for the 80% of travelers they offer pricy rail for the 6% who ride transit... "Let them eat cake" 250 years later.

Postscript: Visit John Pritchett's collection of rail cartoons. Although the rail is no joke, his cartoons are a humorous take of the history of Hawaii's biggest fiasco ever.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Comparing Economies: Hawaii and Greece -- The Writing on the Wall

Recently UHERO, that is the Economic Research Organization of the University of Hawaii, presented a detailed inforgraphic of jobs in Hawaii. The inforgraphic answers questions like: What type of jobs, how many and how much do they make?

UHERO explains their graphic as follows: Each colored rectangle represents a single occupation. The size of the rectangle indicates the number of jobs. The color of the rectangle indicates that occupation's median annual salary relative to the overall median.

The inforgraphic is pictured below but I strongly encourage to visit UHERO so that you can use your mouse to explore the data in each category that interests you.

What I found stunning is this: How is it possible that all these people live in Hawaii where a (roughly) $75,000 income is necessary, nearly double US average?

This graph suggests to me that Hawaii's economy is very much like Greece's pre-default economy. The majority of Hawaii earners are low earners particularly in comparison with the cost of living in Hawaii. So how do so many people make it in Hawaii? (How was it possible for Greece to be one of the largest markets for luxury cars?)

I suppose that at least three things are in play in Hawaii (like Greece):
(1) A large para-economy such as groups of laborers building rock walls, cutting trees and trimming bushes that never report any income. This is just an example. Check Craigslist for carport car mechanics as another example. And so on.
(2) Some under-reporting of taxes by people who have proper jobs or own businesses. (This was vast in Greece.) Do you recall the Hawaii Dept. of Taxation efforts to put cashier machines in farmers markets?
(3) A vast governmental welfare operation dedicated to income redistribution and supporting "the poor with Escalades in the public housing parking lots", as car repairman Nitta, 2008 mayor candidate used to say. Greece had that too.

The score Hawaii-Greece is 4 for 4: Many low income earners, para-economy, tax evasion and big welfare. Wouldn't you say that the writing on the wall is too obvious for Hawaii?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Ten Plus One Reasons Why I Do Not Support The Honolulu Rail Project

  1. Among all travel options on Oahu, mass transit serves 6% of the travelers, just slightly above the U.S average of 5%. Focusing on this small piece of the pie is no way to solve the mobility problem of the 80% that drive and carpool, i.e., rail is the 1% solution because City's rosy numbers show that transit share will grow from 6% now to 7% with rail.
  2. Spending over five billion dollars for a non-solution is clearly unethical and all responsible for it are breaching their professional and fiduciary duty. As an engineering professional and past candidate for mayor I want no part in this unethical endeavor.
  3. The original system was supposed to be 34 miles through Kapolei to UH and Waikiki for about $3 Billion as shown in the headline above.  The current project starts a mile out of Kapolei and dead-ends at Ala Moana shopping center with no service to Waikiki or UH. Just 20 miles for over $5 Billion. If offering the public 41% less for a 73% higher price is not a lie then what is it?
  4. In some respects Oahu's congestion is comparable to that of the largest cities in the nation chiefly because Oahu is lane deficient.  20 miles of rail and 20 overhead stations will cause critical lane closures and result in debilitating congestion for a decade or more. For example, look at the image below and consider what traffic in downtown Honolulu will be like with Ala Moana Boulevard closed for about a year? The impact on quality of life, economy and tourism will be huge.
  5. B, C, E, 3, 9, 11, 20, 43, 53, 73, 81, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 96, 97, 98A, 101, 102, 103, 201, 202 are all the bus routes that will be eliminated or terminated to the nearest rail station. TheBus will be changed from a core operation to a feeder operation. This will add a lot of inconvenience and disappointment to the people that need transit service the most.
  6. Rail is high security risk. Mentally ill shooters and terrorists typically attack work, school and train station locations. Third rail systems like Honolulu's are a magnet for suicides. Train stations are a hot spot for robberies and drug trafficking.
  7. Rail makes Honolulu less resilient:It is practically certain that a major storm will hit Oahu in the next 50 years. Ten miles of reversible lanes not only will reduce congestion by over 30% for one third the cost of rail, but also they will be a critical backbone for post-storm recovery. Instead rail will be incapacitated for a prolonged period and critical resources will wasted to revive it.
  8. Cannot afford it. Hawaii is among the five worse states in the country in pension and health benefit funding liability. Future budgets will be very tight for the state. Outer islands should worry about their loss of big subsidies they receive from Oahu (i.e., they too will pay for it.)
  9. The City already has big problems finding a few million dollars for important services. Its budgets will be crushed by the union raises, the EPA sewer consent decree and the pension liabilities. Then add the rail construction cost-overruns and bankruptcy may not be far off.
  10. Out of more than 650,000 adults on Oahu only 156,000 voted YES to rail in the 2008 elections. That yielded a marginal 50.6% approval among those who bothered to vote. During elections the ratio of pro-rail lies to anti-rail information in advertising media was more than 10 to 1. Taxpayer monies were used to support rail and, indirectly, rail-supporting politicians. Calling this a "mandate" is disingenuous and the process was indeed unethical.
Last but not least, the aesthetics of the system are undesirable for the small, tropical capital of Honolulu. Here is just one before/after picture offered in city's renderings.