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.


Unknown said...

We have to maintain a positive attitude for solving a serious challenge. Have we looked at crowdfunding? If we marketed to the world that we are "Building on Aloha!" we could probably get donations from around the globe.

William Doc Grant said...

Agreed! This whole fiasco is a scam from the get go... I have been suggesting folks write the FTA and emailing them FB threads demonstrating the level of discontent with the Corrupt Rail System. Repealing the unconstitutional rail tax, theat limits the GET to rail only, and replacing it with a mass transit tax will help

d2w2 said...

I like this idea because if this is stopped at middle street there will be an endless pressure to extend it further and further as years go by to justify the excessive operating cost and maintenance. I also like the idea that the developers along the route that have gotten significant zoning benefits carry the lion share of the cost now and in the future as they are creating traffic and congestion from the rezoning from ag and single family residential to high-rise mixed use.

Jan Farrant said...

Just read your painful article on the "rail fiasco". It should surprise no one. Where and how does this 'disaster" move forward?

Unknown said...

I totally agree.