Fix Oahu Now! Panos Prevedouros for Mayor of Honolulu

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City Propaganda on Rail: Top 10 Myths

Myth 1: Honolulu will get $900 million from the federal government to help pay for the cost of rail.

Fact: The New Starts program, which would be funding the rail project has its funds allocated until 2010. The rail is nowhere on its list, meaning that we would have to wait until 2011, at the earliest to receive even a chance of getting federal funding.

The $900 is just a figure that the mayor made up and had some politicians or paid consultants repeat it. In constant 2006 dollars we will not get much over $750 million. Note that the New Starts program of the Federal Transit Administration is funded at a level of $1.8 billion for the whole country! Meanwhile, the Highway Trust Fund is broke, so past 2010 it is likely that there will be minimal federal funds for transportation infrastructure.

While the rail project is intended to be funded by the 0.5% increase that was added to the 4% general excise tax (GET) as well as an assumed $900 million from the federal government, if we limited the project to those funds, we would be deep in the red. As of April 2008, 16 months into the tax increase’s fifteen-year lifespan, a total of $211 million was collected, of which the state takes 10% for administrative costs. The city, therefore, after taking out the 10%, is receiving approximately $140 million annually, for a total of $2.1 billion over the life of the increase. That is just over a third of the cost of the $6.4 billion rail project without the federal money, and just under two-thirds of the cost if Honolulu receives all of the funds it would be asking for.

Therefore, a major increase in the property taxes is necessary to complete the 34 mile route to UH and Waikiki. That does not even account for the substantial downturn in U.S. economy and Hawaii tourism which is just getting started.

Another important point here is the cost of rails, trains and other electromechanical systems. All these will be bought from a foreign country or the mainland at a cost of over one billion dollars. So, even if Oahu receives $900 million in federal aid, all of it will be spend on the mainland and in foreign suppliers. No federal funds will ever reach Oahu.

Myth 2: Rail will reduce traffic congestion.

Fact: The congestion on the roads will be far worse with rail than it is today. According to the city’s Alternatives analysis, the H-1 freeway, currently carries almost 11,000 vehicles during the peak hour. In 2030 with rail, the same lanes are predicted to be carrying over 17,000 vehicles in the peak hour – an increase of over 50%. We know that the freeway is at capacity already and cannot carry additional traffic. Any additional traffic will simply have to wait in line for increasingly longer times before being able to go through. What does this mean for 2030?

These 17,000 vehicles carry well over 25,000 people in one hour. The rail has a maximum capacity per hour of 9,000 (and 6,000 of them will be standees.) In 2030, the rail is predicted to run nearly full. So these 25,000 people per hour cannot go on the rail and have to use their cars. Their commute will be over two hours long. Do you see how useless the expenditure of $6.4 billion for rail is?

It is also pure fantasy to point to the rail as a savior when there is an incident on the freeway. Nobody can leave their car on the freeway and jump on the rail line. A reversible set of managed lanes can be easily configured to address an major road closure and these lanes will be a life saver for critical emergencies. Rail will be of no use during and after a hurricane.

I feel for the Waianae coast residents that have to endure nearly a two hour commute every day. Rail will make it much longer regardless of whether they drive or catch the rail. I shiver with the thought of someone having a health emergency in Waianae in rush hour. There is simply no roadway capacity either now or in 2030 to take him or her to a major hospital in a reasonable time for survival. Rail simply takes current conditions and makes them twice as bad in 2030. The story is similar for Ewa Beach, Wahiawa and Mililani. Only reversible lanes can provide the needed capacity for tolerable commuting times and timely emergency responses.

Myth 3: Rail is fast.

Fact: The rail line is expected to average only about 25 miles per hour, and is predicted to be slower than travel by car between Aiea (Pearlridge) and Downtown. Using data from the city-generated Alternatives Analysis and simulating a commute from the H1/H2 merge to Aloha tower, a rail transit line would reduce H-1 congestion approximately 3%, reducing drive times from 34 to 33 minutes. A rail commuter would make the same trip in approximately 41 minutes. Note that rail takes longer than driving.

If managed lanes and bus rapid transit (BRT), or rail, were available today, a trip from Kapolei to the UH at Manoa would take 50 minutes by bus and 42 minutes by car on the managed lanes and BRT system. The same trip on rail transit would take 75 minutes. Like TheBoat, TheRail will not provide time competitive service and our figures do not include additional travel times for connections and transfers on rail.

Myth 4: Rail is green.

Fact: Unlike cars or buses which become more efficient and green every year, a rail system would use the same increasingly inefficient technology (oil or coal to electricity) for the next 30 years. Cars like the Toyota Prius are beginning to move even further ahead, with solar panels being installed to recharge the car’s battery when not in use. Honda is offering a fuel cell vehicle in California; its emissions are water vapors. Cars are environmentally neutral as soon as they are turned off, unlike a rail system which runs nonstop for 20 hours a day, regardless of the number of people riding it. Typical passenger loads for metro rail outside two to four peak hours per day are very light. But the escalators, lights, ticket machines, etc. are all on, and station attendants and security are on-duty making it a very low productivity, low efficiency and high energy impact system.

Another startling observation is that in midday one can look at a stretch of a five billion dollar guideway. A train with 20 to 30 people passes by and then nothing happens for about 10 minutes. Now compare this to the hassle and bustle of a 6-lane freeway which in 10 minutes moves over 6,000 cars, over 10,000 people, several hundred tons of freight, and perhaps a couple of emergency vehicles. One can visualize the utter uselessness of a metro rail line as a transportation investment and the huge environmental impact of building it in the first place.

New York City's rail system carries about two thirds of all urban rail trips done in a typical work day in the entire United States. Based on national statistics, if New York City is excluded, for all other cities with rail combined, rail is far less green that today’s relatively inefficient vehicle fleet.

Myth 5: Rail can move the equivalent of 6 lanes of freeway traffic

Fact: According to city’s website [Note: Between the time this post was drafted and the time it was posted, the city changed the information presented on The text of what was there originally can be found at], each train can carry 300 people, and during the peak times, there is expected to be one train every 3 minutes, for a total of 6,000 people per hour on the peak direction. It is important to note that 4,000 of these 6,000 passengers will be standees.

Managed freeway lanes, such as HOT lanes, are designed to carry 2000 vehicles per hour per lane at free flow speeds, and since they carry express busses and high occupancy vehicles, the average occupancy would be well over 3 people per vehicle, for a total of 6,000 people per hour per lane. (All of them seated.)

So rail has the capacity of about one HOT lane. If Honolulu builds three reversible managed lanes (as can be seen here: the capacity advantage of the managed lanes is obvious.

Recall that in the 2006 Alternatives Analysis the city's consultant built a 2-lane managed lanes system and simultaneously removed the morning zipper lane for a net gain of one lane. This one 10 mile HOT lane performed only a little worse than 20 miles of rail line.

Myth 7: Operating costs for rail are lower than for managed lanes.

Fact: Even if trains are automated, rail requires many more people than managed or HOT lanes behind the scenes: security, transit police, inspectors, custodial staff, and a huge array of maintenance workers for rail cars, propulsion and brake systems, escalators, elevators, systems computers, ticket machines, lighting systems and the rail yard.

The maintenance of the managed lanes roadbed is minuscule compared to the wear and tear of the thousands of mechanical and electronic components of the rail. All rail technology is foreign to Hawaii and expensive specialized labor will be necessary.

Managed lanes will not require more drivers of new express bus routes because the same express buses will be able to offer two instead of one trip per hour given that in the congested direction, the bus will be traveling at 55 instead of 25 miles per hour.

The bottom line is that 10 to 12 miles of a high occupancy highway (HOT lanes with express buses) has incomparably lower operational costs than a rail system with 20 to 30 stations.

Myth 8: There is no more space for buses on the road.

Fact: Only a few streets, such as Hotel Street and Kapiolani Boulevard have conditions that may come close to being the “river of buses” for a few minutes like Hanneman's pro-rail ads claim to be warning against. These ads actually are proof of mismanagement rather than a built-in problem with bus operations in general.

The vast majority of streets only see a single bus every five or so minutes during the peak times, and in cases were the current number of buses are insufficient to handle the peak load, the number of buses on a route can be increased or the standard buses could be replaced by articulated buses.

My proposed HOT lanes alternative to rail would also strongly support increased bus ridership, as express buses would be able to travel from the H-1/H-2 merge to downtown Honolulu at free-flow (55mph) speeds, as well as serving the door-to-door needs that only buses are capable of. For example, there will be direct express buses from Makakilo, Kapolei, Ewa, Waipahu, Waikele and Mililani to downtown, Ala Moana, Waikiki and the UH every 10 to 20 minutes depending on the level of demand.

This makes another advantage of buses obvious: Buses can be added or reduced depending on how demand (passenger loads) change over time. Buses can do that. In 1990 Kapolei to town demand was zero, now it is X, in 2020 may be 3X. We can simply add three times as many buses, but rail is fixed and not scalable. There will be no third track for express or additional trains. In the way the Hanneman rail is being designed, its maximum capacity is fixed from day 1 to decades into the future.

Myth 9: HOT lanes would only create more traffic by putting more cars on the road.

Fact: Unless there are people who go driving for fun during rush hour, all the HOT lanes will do is take the same people to their same destination, where they would park in the same parking stall, but in a fraction of the time that it takes for the same trip now. In order for there to be more cars on the road, there would need to be more jobs created in downtown Honolulu and more people commuting to those jobs. There is no plan to add jobs to downtown Honolulu.

Myth 10: There is no more space to park in downtown Honolulu.

Fact: First, as seen in the response to Myth 9, the high occupancy highway does not require additional parking downtown unless the number of jobs there also increases. However, there are lots both in and around downtown right now that have hundreds of empty stalls. Some of these lots could even be developed into larger parking structures to provide more parking and mixed use development, if needed.

Furthermore, a couple of these lots may be developed underground and a mini-tunnel can connect them to the end of the HOT lanes, so several hundred vehicles will go to park there directly and in fact "disappear" from the surface streets of Honolulu.

Fix Oahu Blog 8/2008



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