Monday, September 19, 2016

Not Too Late to Make the Right Decision on Rail

By Panos Prevedouros and Randall Roth
Panos Prevedouros is a Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Hawaii at Manoa where Randall Roth is a professor on the law faculty.

The Federal Transit Administration says it will demand its money back if rail does not reach Ala Moana Center.  Rather than view this as the beginning of a negotiation, both mayoral candidates used it as leverage to convince voters that the city has no viable option other than to find the additional billions needed to satisfy the FTA. 
Fortunately neither the FTA nor the winner of the mayoral election will decide rail’s fate.  The members of the state legislature and the city council will decide whether to raise taxes enough to cover the cost.
Assuming these decision-makers approach their task logically, they will begin by addressing four questions: (1) How much more money would be needed to finish rail? (2) Where would that money come from? (3) What would be accomplished? And (4) What could be accomplished if the same amount of money was spent on something else, instead of rail? 
If they approach this with open minds, we believe that they will reach the following conclusions:  
  1. Another $5.75 billion, over and above the non-recoverable $3.5 billion already spent, will be needed to reach Ala Moana Center (i.e., total construction costs of $10.8 billion, less $3.5 billion already spent or irretrievably committed, less $1.55 billion federal money yields $5.75 billion);
  2. The chances of getting an additional federal grant for rail are virtually nonexistent;
  3. It is unrealistic to expect the private sector to provide more than an insignificant portion of the needed $5.75 billion;
  4. The bulk of the new money will have to come from local residents, who will have to pay an average of $200 per person ($800 for each family of four) every year until construction ends;
  5. The rest—roughly 15% of $5.75 billion—will come from tourists or other non-residents;
  6. After construction ends, each family of four will continue to pay an average of $800 per year, to cover the annual cost of operating and maintaining a safe and reliable rail system; and
  7. Traffic congestion will be much worse when rail becomes fully operational than it is right now.
Anyone who questions this last statement should see the Final Environmental Impact Study in which the city admits, "traffic congestion will be worse in the future with rail than what it is today without rail."
Other ways to spend the money:  Working together, the city and state can reduce traffic congestion, for example, by aggressively adding new traffic lanes to existing roads, as has already been done successfully on each side of the central part of H-1 Freeway; by installing flyovers and bypasses in chokepoint areas like the Middle Street merge; and by adding new contra-flow and bus-on-shoulder options.  Each is a proven strategy that, unlike rail, would directly benefit all commuters.
Equally important, the city could afford to greatly improve its award-winning bus system.  This might include increasing the number of express buses that go where commuters want to go, rather than eliminating most of them as is part of the rail plan.  
All of the above could easily be done for less than half of the money that would be saved by pulling the plug on rail now.  The legislature and city council could spend the rest on other areas of need, such as a comprehensive homeless plan, heat mitigation and other improvement for our schools, sewer and road repairs … or simply leave it in the pockets of island residents. 
The existing guideway could be modified for walking, biking, and other community activities, and provide unique views of the island.  The High Line in New York is a wildly popular public park built on an abandoned rail line above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side.  While no one would set out to spend $3.5 billion for a High Line trail/park in Hawaii, it could become a tourist attraction. 
And last but not least, twenty years from now traditional mass transit will be functionally and technologically obsolete for cities like Honolulu thanks to autonomous vehicles and ride-hailing apps. Who’s the future of urban transportation: Apple, Google and Uber or Caldwell, FTA and HART?
We appreciate that The Star Advertiser published our article and KSSK's Michael W Perry posted it with the remark "Must Read: Great Article About Rail!"

Notice our concluding sentence: Who’s the future of urban transportation: Apple, Google and Uber or Caldwell, FTA and HART? We originally wrote it on September 9, 2016.

On September 17, 2016 the Washington Post published this article: Washington searches for new streetcar riders in an Uber era (!)