Elections Honolulu Metro Rail

Honolulu’s Rail Project Back in the Crossfire This Fall

» Front runner in mayoral contest opposes rail project. But it’s already under construction.

In 2008, Honolulu’s citizens approved the construction of a new high-capacity rail line that would provide quick public transportation along the city’s coastline. The $5.3-billion, 20-mile project is one of the largest in the nation, but it is backed by a steady source of local revenues and the almost definite promise of a federal New Starts capital grant that will cover about a third of costs. Moreover, it has held the support of the city’s leaders consistently since 2005, when pro-rail Mayor Mufi Hannemann entered office. The project broke ground last year.

After the mayoral primary earlier this month, however, the project’s future is decidedly up in the air. Current mayor Peter Carlisle, a major supporter of the project, received only 23% of the vote and will not make it to the second round. On the other hand, former Hawaii Governor Ben Cayetano received 45% of the ballot; he has made his opposition to the rail project one of the primary arguments of his campaign; he has promoted the implementation of a bus rapid transit system instead. In the second round this November, Cayetano will face former city manager and rail supporter Kirk Caldwell, who received 29% of the vote.

Caldwell faces an uphill climb in his effort to convince the city’s citizens to vote for him and keep the rail project going. Not only did he receive a small percentage of the vote (though the low primary turnout might be a factor), but the city council is wavering on its support for the line. A lawsuit raising questions over environmental reporting is in court this week. The rail line’s elevated guideways — which have been a point of criticism for the project for years — continue to raise public fears about the project’s suitability to the city’s natural beauty. And recent polls have showed than about half of the population thinks the program should be stopped.

Mayor Carlisle, now a lame duck, says he will “do everything [he] can to get rail far enough along so that it cannot possibly be stopped,” but Cayetano election would certainly raise questions about whether the line has the local support necessary to finalize federal grants — particularly if anti-rail former Governor Linda Lingle becomes the state’s newest U.S. Senator this fall. Cayetano claims that he will use construction contract termination clauses to cancel the program. The whole situation is a reminder of the paralyzing indecision and backtracking that too often marks U.S. politics. Will Honolulu’s rail project replicate the story of the ARC tunnel, New Jersey’s new rail connection to New York that was cancelled in 2010 by Governor Chris Christie after construction had begun?*

There are two problems standing in the way of cancelling the rail line, though: One, the project will provide dramatically improved transit service in a city that arguably is perfect for a major fixed-guideway transit line of this sort; and two, the project is already under construction and billions of dollars have already been committed — more even than had been for the ARC project.

Honolulu’s geography, in which a relatively dense population is mostly packed up in a two-mile wide strip against the sea, makes it ideal for a fixed guideway route of the sort being proposed. The 20-mile, 21-station automated rail project will allow people to get from Kapolei, on the west side of Oahu, to downtown in roughly 45 minutes, faster than is possible today at rush hour on the congested highways serving the island. Trains will serve Waipahu, Pearl Harpor, and the city’s airport. Honolulu expects the project to serve 116,300 daily passengers by 2030.

That may seem like a lot for a relatively small city (fewer than 400,000 inhabitants), but Honolulu’s bus services already attract more than 200,000 daily riders and the metropolitan area features the fourth-highest transit trips per capita in the country according to a recent study, after New York, San Francisco, and Washington — and before very transit-oriented regions like Boston and Chicago. The Census notes that around 13% of workers already use transit. Thus there is a rich base of potential riders for the new rail network.

The likely success of the system has encouraged the city to complete it as quickly as possible. As can be seen in the recent photograph at the top of this article, there is already significant construction underway, including $429 million already expended. $905 million in local funds have already been collected, about 25% of the total needed to build the line. In the context of a potential cancellation, however, the figure that stands out most prominently is the $2.029 billion already committed to construction contracts. The first segment of the system is expected to be ready for service by 2015, with an additional extension opening in 2017 and the full line completed two years after that.

There are thus many unanswered questions about the feasibility of simply cancelling the project, even if Cayetano wins the election. Will the city simply tear down the sections of the line that have already been completed? Can the money already committed to construction contractors be refunded? More importantly in terms of getting people around the island, will a replacement bus rapid transit system — running in existing “zipper” lanes on the city’s freeways — be able to attract nearly as many new passengers as the rail line would, let alone have the capacity to carry them? And is there even money available to fund such a BRT project in a reasonably short amount of time?

We don’t know. That’s the question Honolulu voters face: Is their disapproval of the current designs for the rail project strong enough to risk abandoning improved transit service for years or even decades? Are they willing to sacrifice hundreds of millions of dollars of already spent money for naught?

* For the purposes of other research, I happened upon the following quote from 1975 that I found relevant to the Honolulu situation. Clearly, matters haven’t changed much in forty years:

“The “fickleness” or inability of local governments to behave with any degree of constancy and long-term commitment raises important questions about the viability of a program of this kind under our system [i.e., the American system]. The inability of one group of elected officials to bind their successors is… complicating attainment of the Act’s objectives.”

Source: Report of Panel on Title VII New Communities Program. A Report Prepared at the Request of the Honorable Thomas L. Ashley, Committee on Banking and Currency, U.S. House of Representatives. Columbus, OH: Academy for Contemporary Problems. June 1975.

Update, 21 August: In the original version, Mr. Caldwell’s name was in the place of Mr. Cayetano’s in two places.

Image at top: Construction underway on Honolulu rail project in West Oahu, from Honolulu Rail Transit

Elections President

As the U.S. Presidential Election Begins in Earnest, a Study in Contrasts

» With Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as presumptive Republican nominee for Vice President, the GOP is taking a clear stand on where it wants to take government. The effects on national transportation policy could be tremendous.

As chair of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan has assumed a prominent role in the national dialogue since the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives at the beginning of 2011. His position there has allowed him to define the party’s position on the federal budget, the social welfare state, and, yes, even transportation. We can only assume that Mitt Romney’s decision to share the platform with Mr. Ryan implies an endorsement of the latter’s views — especially in terms of policies where Mr. Romney has not been specific.

What is obvious is that Mr. Ryan has a dramatically different view of the role of government than President Obama; indeed, his perspective on that which Washington should be concerned is a deep expression of the conservative movement’s success in pushing the GOP to the right.

In matters of transportation, this attitude would steadily decrease the role of the federal government in sponsoring infrastructure projects, especially those that cannot be sponsored entirely through user fees. It would discourage the consideration of negative externalities, such as pollution and congestion, in deciding what subsidies should be provided for alternative transportation — because its political ideology opposes government subsidies altogether. It would dismantle enforcement of federal environmental regulations, especially those that recognise climate change, and encourage the privatization of public services such as transit systems or parking meters. These are the very tangible implications of a Romney-Ryan presidency.

Mr. Romney’s platform provides no indication of his views on transportation or other urban issues. Though as governor of Massachusetts between 2003 and 2007 he was a moderate on these issues, Mr. Romney has has made no attempt to discuss them at length during the campaign other than saying that Amtrak should be privatised.* Mr. Ryan’s past actions, therefore, speak loudly.

We can best examine Mr. Ryan’s views by reviewing his voting record and analysing the budgets he proposed in his leadership position in the House.

On transportation, Mr. Ryan voted against every piece of transportation legislation proposed by Democrats when they controlled the lower chamber between 2007 and early 2010, with the exception of a bill subsidizing the automobile industry to the tune of $14 billion in loans in December 2008. This record included a vote against moving $8 billion into the highway trust fund in July 2008 (the overall vote was 387 to 37), a bill that was necessary to keep transportation funding at existing levels of investment. Meanwhile, he voted for a failed amendment that would have significantly cut back funding for Amtrak and voted against a widely popular bill that would expand grants for public transportation projects. He did vote in favor of the most recent transportation bill extension.

Mr. Ryan’s views on the future of government in general are evident in the budgets that he has prepared as head of the Budget Committee for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, neither of which have been implemented as they conflict with proposals from President Obama and the Democratic Senate. These budgets, which are founded on the principle that the U.S. government must shrink considerably, would alter the American safety net massively through a dismantlement of Medicaid by handing it out as block grants to states and a privatization of Medicare. An analysis of the budget by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that 62% of budget cuts would come from programs that benefit low-income Americans. All this while providing the wealthy a huge tax break.

The biggest cuts of all, however, would go to “discretionary” elements of the budget, including defense and programs like transportation, which Mr. Ryan wants to keep to 3.75% of the GDP, down from about 12.5% today.** The consequences would be dramatic. This is how Mr. Ryan’s fiscal year 2012 budget describes the Republicans’ goals for transportation:

“This budget anticipates that Congress can keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent without additional general fund transfers or increases in the gasoline tax by consolidating dozens of separate highway programs that GAO has identified as duplicative. This will help focus every dollar on pursuing a targeted and cohesive national transportation policy.”

Translation: All Department of Transportation programs that are not user-fee funded (like TIGER, high-speed rail, and perhaps even transit capital funding) would be eliminated. And ground transportation spending would be limited to revenues from fuel taxes, which he would not increase. Overall, DOT outlays would decline from $95 billion overall in 2011 to a low of $66 billion in 2016, rising to only $72 billion by 2020. As House Republicans showed with H.R. 7, their proposed transportation bill that would have eliminated the mass transit account of the highway trust fund and eliminated aid for bike and pedestrian projects, they are willing to sacrifice non-automobile transportation programs in favor of establishing a “targeted and cohesive” policy, which in this case appears to mean roads-only.

In contrast, President Obama’s proposed budget would expand transportation expenditures massively over the next six years, with a particular focus on intercity rail and public transportation. Under his budget, federal expenditures going to transit and rail would increase from 22.9% of transportation funding in 2013 to 35.7% in 2018; under Mr. Ryan’s program, they could decline to almost nothing, since transit cannot pay for itself using user fees, like it or not.

Reihan Salam argues that Mr. Ryan is simply charting the general path that the GOP wants to take — “toward smaller government, lower taxes and more freedom” — and that “there would of course be negotiation over the size of spending cuts and over revenue.” But in a time when the state of the nation’s built infrastructure is miserable, a negotiation over cuts is entirely the wrong discussion to be having, especially when state governments have not shown themselves willing to increase transportation spending; the argument we should be having is how much federal spending on transportation should expand.

Mr. Salam is convinced that Mr. Ryan “has always been careful to note that his support for entitlement reform flows from a deep commitment to preserving America’s social safety net,” but massive cuts to public transportation will not aid the poor and urban dwellers even if the hopeful vice president has a “deep commitment.” His budget would be a death blow to many millions of Americans who rely on transit to get around everyday because they have no other options — not to mention the many millions more who do, but choose to take transit and in such aid the nation in cutting congestion and pollution.

This campaign will be played out on issues that are far more important than federal transportation subsidies, of course. But we should be clear about what direction the United States may head after November’s election.

The Democrats have a choice: Accept Mr. Ryan’s commitment to undermining the role of government by agreeing that “things need to be reformed,” just with more moderation than Republicans would allow; or projecting a strongly held view of the importance of the role of government in American society. The fact is that significantly improved transit systems in the nation’s cities will require increasing federal investment, and that simply will not happen if Mr. Ryan gets his way.

Postscript: I’d simply like to quote Christian Wolmar’s nice commentary on the very successful London Olympics, as it feels relevant to this column:

“It is, though, worth stressing that these were the public sector games. They were bid for by the public sector, won by the public sector, organised by the public sector, paid for by the public sector – oh you get the picture. But there is more: the security ended up being rescued by the public sector and relied on public transport – organised and paid for by the public sector, even if at times provided by private companies… The whole event was a celebration of the way that people get together, form governments which then run things for the people, and shows that government is not something that necessarily we want less of, the favourite mantra of Romney and Ryan.”

* In part because the cities are largely the domain of the Democratic Party (other than in local races, the GOP does not make much of an effort to promote legislation that woud aid urban areas) and thus are rarely contested in national elections. Ironically, Mr. Romney’s father, George Romney (who was Governor of Michigan and ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for President in 1968) was a persistant advocate for aid to the cities and was appointed by President Nixon to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he fought unsuccessfully for increasing housing aid for low- and moderate-income families before resigning in early 1973.

** Romney’s proposed budget, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, would shrink non-defense discretionary funding from 3.9% of GDP on average to between 1.1 and 1.6%, a massive reduction.

Airport Atlanta Dallas Light Rail Metro Rail Miami

Where There Were Once Many Lines Planned, Just One Opens in Miami

» The failure of a local sales tax to produce revenues as expected should dampen excitement around the latest extension of Miami’s Metrorail system.

Last week, Georgia voters overwhelmingly denied the passage of the T-SPLOST referendum, which, among other things, would have provided $7.2 billion for transportation over the next ten years to the Atlanta region thanks to income from a 1¢ sales tax. About half of that funding would have gone to public transit operations and expansion; in the city of Atlanta itself, the program would have paid for the beginning of work on the Beltline transit corridor, a light rail line to Emory University, several BRT lines, and a MARTA heavy rail extension. Voters were clearly unconvinced of the value of the transportation investments, were motivated by anti-tax sentiment, and felt that the projects would not benefit them directly. The result may be decades of increasing traffic in the metropolitan area with few new alternatives.

Yet some voters also expressed another concern: That the proposed projects, despite their inclusion in the official list of priorities, would not actually be built. Their sentiments were not necessarily unreasonable. The $7.2 billion supposed to be generated by the tax was an estimate, and if the economy continues to underperform, it’s quite possible that the actual revenues collected could have been much lower. Moreover, the list of transportation priorities was itself based on project cost estimates, which, if you know anything about U.S. construction projects, are liable to increase wildly.

If anyone was paying attention to Miami, they might be especially skeptical of the tax’s value. There, voters passed a 1/2¢ sales tax increase in 2002 by a huge margin. They were promised an enormous expansion of rail transit service, with dozens of miles of new lines shooting out of the existing Metrorail system in virtually every direction. What they got in reality, however, was one project: The 2.4-mile, one-stop Orange Line extension to the Airport, which opened last weekend at a cost of $506 million. No other rail service is expected to be funded before 2035.

Nonetheless, the Airport extension, which will bring downtown Miami within a 15-minute trip of the airport, is an impressive addition to the city’s transit network. The terminus at the Miami Intermodal Center (MIC) is a beautiful feat of steel, concrete, and glass. By next year, the $2 billion MIC will allow for connections between Metrorail, Amtrak, Greyhound, rental cars, seven bus routes, and the region’s commuter Tri-Rail line. An automated people mover called MIA Mover already connects the complex to the terminals.

Miami’s Metrorail system, showing 2.4-mile extension to the airport and new Orange Line. Ridership in the southern part of the system is higher, so doubling service to the south is a reasonable decision. Source: Miami-Dade County. Read a critique of the new map from Cameron Booth.

The MIC station is expected to see 7,500 daily riders on Metrorail, a huge increase over the 66,000 daily riders currently recorded on the system’s 24.4 miles, according to APTA (up from about 45,000 a day in the late 1990s). Ridership on the system has been increasing relatively steadily since it opened in 1984, unsurprisingly considering the city’s growth during that period. Since 2000 population increase has been particularly quick, with the city now housing more than 408,000 people, a more than 10% increase over the past decade. Miami’s population density of more than 12,000 people per mile is now about the same as Chicago’s.

Thus the argument back in 2002 that something needed to be done to significantly improve the rail system. The People’s Transportation Plan, as it was known, was supposed to have raised $17 billion over 25 years, enough to guarantee the completion of a 10.6 east-west Metrorail corridor and 9.5-mile north corridor by 2016.

Several problems arose. The North Corridor, originally supposed to be the first project completed, repeatedly received poor ratings from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) thanks to low ridership estimates and poor management on the part of Miami-Dade transit. The FTA would have to contribute a significant portion of the project’s cost for it to be funded. At the same time, its projected price tag increased from $515 million to $1.63 billion. Similar problems plagued the East-West Corridor, of which the Airport Link was supposed to be the first phase. Indeed, the cost of this project doubled since initial estimates.

Meanwhile, the beginnings of the recession (which hurt Florida particularly badly) led to a decline in tax revenues. And the system, whose finances had been incorrectly tabulated in previous years, spent far more than expected on operating deficits and a new headquarters, leaving only the $400 million in local funding for the airport line.

By 2010, a partial expansion of bus service was basically entirely reversed, the other rail projects simply do not exist according to the Miami-Dade website, and the only improvements to the North Corridor have been in the form of an improved bus line.

Just as problematic, even when hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in new transit capital, the system has had trouble providing the services that an effective public transportation network is supposed to offer. While Metrorail service has been increased slightly to provide for a distribution of 10-minute peak services on the two branches (the Orange Line to the airport and the Green Line to Palmetto, the other, older terminus), at nights and weekends, trains will leave the airport only every 30 minutes. Nobody should be expected to wait half an hour for a train at the airport when arriving on Saturday at midday. And fewer people will ride as a result. How could the funding for this essential purpose not be available?

It will be convenient for a large number of people to get easier access between Miami’s airport and its downtown without having to deal with traffic, and indeed, the city is one of many American cities prioritising airport rail links. Dallas has its own Orange Line light rail project currently under construction and planned to open in 2014* (Chicago coincidently also has an Orange Line to its Midway Airport). But how much value do these airport connections bring, anyhow?

As I have previously written, airport transit connections are promoted (and prioritised) by urban elites because they are frequent air travellers — and trips to the airport are often the only travel for which they can conceive personally using the transit system. But other investments, such as in the densest areas of the city, usually provide more benefit to the average inhabitant of a metropolitan region. Given Miami’s downtown-oriented growth, there is reason to suspect that new lines operating in the center city, rather than toward the periphery (as the north and east-west corridors would have) would have been more attractive to riders. In this vein, Branden Helms argues that airport stations rarely attract the patronage expected for them. Is Miami’s prediction of a 12% increase in its rail system ridership reasonable?

Does this mean Miami’s new Metrorail extension is a waste of funds? Not necessarily — especially considering Miami’s distinctive position as the “capital of the Caribbean” — attracting millions of visitors and business people each year through the airport. If the city’s growth continues to be based on its status in Latin America, the airport connection may be invaluable.

Miami, however, is a parable: Voters will not always receive that which they believe to have endorsed.

* The first segment of Dallas’ Orange Line opened last week as well, with new service provided between the existing Bachman Station and Irving Convention Center. Additional stops further north at North Lake College and Belt Line are expected to open in early December.

Image at top: New MIA Metrorail Station, from Miami-Dade County