AN ALTERNATIVE TO RAIL TRANSIT
COURTESY MCCABE PRODUCTIONS, INC. / TAMPA, FLA.
An artist's rendering of the reversible express lanes in Tampa, Fla.
Lanes, not trains
An elevated tollway would solve Leeward Oahu's traffic problem without raising taxes
ANY POLITICIAN who provides a solution to the vexing traffic problem in the Leeward corridor would get every vote in West Oahu.
So what are the magic beans that can be thrown along Hawaii's roadways to sprout up into a connected system to whisk commuters along and free up the congestion?
Here's a hint: The magic beans are in a sack held by private investors.
Such investors can raise more money through tolls than a state's politicians can raise from taxpayers, according to Robert Poole, transportation director for the Reason Foundation.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, noting that his state's population is projected to double in the next 40 years, has turned to such private investors for solutions, and plans to attract more than $80 billion in private funds for new toll roads by 2030.
The population in Oahu's Leeward corridor -- the location of Oahu's rapidly growing Second City -- also is set to double in that period.
So what's the solution to traffic?
We've now learned that rail will not solve the traffic congestion problem, so voters likely will question any candidate who proposes it as a solution. Particularly since the proposed rail for Honolulu would cost more than $4,000 per person to build -- more than 20 times the cost of other city rail systems. The Dallas rail system cost $204 per person to build.
That's why more and more elected officials and candidates for office in Hawaii are examining the elevated tollway solution proposed by a nonprofit organization known as the Hawaii Highway Users Alliance.
The HHUA-proposed "Honolulu Skyway," running from Honolulu to Kapolei, could look much like the stretch of elevated tollway that opened this summer in Tampa, Fla., and has thousands of commuters riding high. The project was built through a public-private partnership -- using no taxes or highway funds.
Rich Shopes, writing for the Tampa Tribune, said, "The expressway's $420 million elevated highway lived up to the hype." He wrote: "A beep was all that reminded me that I paid a toll as I passed under an overhead bank of SunPass sensors at 60 mph."
Tampa decided to pay for the city's new 10-mile elevated expressway by allowing private investors to build the project and then collect tolls paid by expressway users. Such projects are completed sooner than government projects and don't cost the taxpayers money. Gasoline tax revenues can then be used for maintenance of existing roadways.
Honolulu did the opposite, and increased taxes for everyone on Oahu to pay for a mass transit project. City and County officials added a surcharge on the state excise tax, raising it from 4 percent to 4.5 percent -- an increase of 12.5 percent. Because Oahu-based businesses are authorized to pass along the tax on their gross receipts, the new tax actually will be 4.712 percent.
Tampa proposed a simpler, no-tax solution for unsnarling its congested roadways. The city indeed had a problem -- two interstates came together in an area Florida drivers dubbed "Malfunction Junction." The resulting traffic snarl called for an innovative solution.
COURTESY TAMPA/HILLSBOROUGH EXPRESSWAY AUTHORITY
The Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway, a high-occupancy toll lanes project in Tampa, Fla., is shown under construction, above.
COURTESY TAMPA/HILLSBOROUGH EXPRESSWAY AUTHORITY
The Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway, a high-occupancy toll lanes project in Tampa, Fla., is shown completed and in use. The $420 million, 10-mile elevated tollway was built by private investors.
The Tampa/Hillsborough Expressway Authority, formed by the Florida legislature, was given authority to build, own and operate tollways in the area, said Marty Stone, director of planning for the seven-member body, which includes four governor-appointed representatives, a mayor appointee, a county commission appointee and a representative from the state Department of Transportation .
The expressway authority has eminent domain powers, but no authorization to levy taxes.
"That's why we must obtain funding in one of two ways: 1) develop user-financed facilities by selling revenue bonds against future toll revenues, or 2) by obtaining a private partner.
TEXAS OFFICIALS recently went the private partner route. The Gloucester Daily Times just reported that "on a single day in June, an Australian-Spanish partnership paid $3.8 billion to lease the Indiana Toll Road ... and Texas officials decided to let a Spanish-American partnership build and run a toll road from Austin to Sequin for 50 years." In Florida, Stone said the state made things easy to get going by setting up a revolving toll trust fund to allow toll road projects to borrow seed money for launch.
"It's an ingenious way to get projects off the ground quickly," said Stone. "The fund often charges little or no interest, and we can borrow up to $1.5 million a year or go to the legislature for anything larger."
"You can't sell revenue bonds to private investors for (rail) transit -- because transit won't pay for itself, like tollways will."
"The only successful transit operations in the U.S. are in areas that have 4-8 million people. Even in those areas you have to have large taxpayer subsidies. New York, for example, takes in only about 50 cents in fare revenues for every dollar needed each year to operate the system," said Stone.
"When it comes to running a train, you better be prepared to take money out of your pocket (your tax general fund). It's the operating expense of a train that kills you."
"Florida has Tri-Rail which only earns about 11 cents for every dollar of operating expense," he said.
Stone says he's not against rail but believes its place is in large metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C., Minneapolis and San Francisco.
This thought also was expressed recently by Brian Taylor, director of the University of California-Los Angeles Institute of Transportation Studies, at a HHUA-sponsored seminar on traffic solutions and alternatives.
"If you're going to make rail work in Honolulu you will have to make the city look like New York, Tokyo or Mexico City," said Taylor.
Tampa is about the size of Honolulu, Stone points out. "We're about 900,000 people, like Honolulu, and we have a lot of water with an irregular shoreline like you. The Tampa population is primarily located outside the downtown area -- again, like you in Honolulu," he added.
The two cities are remarkably similar, with single-family homes dominating the outlying areas of both, he pointed out.
It's not a good formula for a train that just goes back and forth from one place to another. People have to get around.
"A mixed-use HOTLane (high occupancy toll lane)-type elevated highway would be good for you in Honolulu," Stone said. After spending several days looking at Honolulu's congested traffic corridor, he said the HOTLane idea "just jumps out as a good idea."
Stone points out that even if Honolulu built a point-to-point train, people still need to own cars. At least, he said, that's the case for the vast majority of households. Indeed, in testimony at the Hawaii Legislature last year, auto dealer representatives said Oahu households now will have the added burden of new tax surcharge -- of $275 to $450 per year -- which is like adding a 13th car payment each year.
IN THE last 15 years there hasn't been a highway built in Florida that hasn't been a tollway, said Stone. The highway revenues from gasoline taxes have thus gone into repair and maintenance of our existing regular highway infrastructure. Florida's 700 miles of tollways now represent one-third of that state's highways.
Florida has many successful expressway authorities operating throughout the state. Tampa's was launched 30 years ago.
The idea behind creation of Tampa's new elevated expressway (tollway) was to divert 45-50 percent of traffic up to the toll road, thus freeing up space on the highway below so that both tollway and highway could attain a level of service at Level C -- "traffic running smoothly at highway speeds." Tampa authorities predict they will hit that goal by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Honolulu's Leeward corridor remains snarled at a traffic Level of Service (LOS) rated "F" during much of the day -- characterized by slow stop-and-go, overheated radiators and frustrated motorists.
The Institute of Transportation Engineering says that 2,000 vehicles crossing a point per lane in an hour is optimal movement for traffic. Thus a Honolulu elevated HOTLane with three elevated lanes could carry 6,000 vehicles per hour -- and reduce the current 16,000 vehicles per hour in the Leeward corridor to 10,000 per hour (a 37 percent decrease).
THE ELEVATED three-lane HOTLanes for Honolulu could carry 15,000 single-passenger-filled vehicles during the 2.5-hour rush period each day -- moving the same amount of people per hour as expensive 300-passenger trains during that period but also providing options for errands, carrying other passengers or dropping off and picking up children at school.
Many motorists in West Oahu now feel that smoothly flowing elevated lanes -- managed by tolls charged -- are a viable solution to Oahu's traffic congestion. The option becomes even more attractive when one considers that such tollways are paid for by the users and not subsidized by taxes.
A good mental exercise is to imagine a Combo Train-Tollway -- with one system built on top of the other running the 23-mile route from Manoa to Kapolei -- if such an over/under system could indeed be built and money was not a consideration.
Then, given the choice between train or tollway, it is believed that most commuters, since they already own cars, would still prefer the freedom to travel in their own vehicle, even at a $4 toll, particularly since that vehicle would travel at 60 mph vs. a frequently stopping train, which travels at a 22.5 mph average and often requires a wait to board and in many cases a trip via foot, car or bus to the station. In a car, a commuter would travel the 23 miles in 23 minutes on the speedy tollway instead of traveling more than an hour on the train.
Managed lanes keep the speeds at 60 mph by varying the toll charged. In the evenings the toll could be as low as 25 cents ... and average $4 during most of the day's operating time, if Hawaii's tolls followed the pattern of Highway 91 in Orange County, Calif.
WHEN YOU add up the trip to and from the train station (including bus transfers, and for some commuters, car parking at $5 a day) and the train's travel time, the train option, probably at a $2-$4 fare, becomes viable only when traffic is so unbearable that commuters are forced to get out of their cars.
We saw what happened in Greece where officials built a train system and a highway tollway along the same route for the Olympics. The tollway by now has nearly paid for itself and carries thousands of vehicles smoothly; the train runs nearly empty most of the time.
The overhead train, unless the overhead tollway option is included with it, will occupy the right-of-way in the Leeward corridor. At the moment, the train and the tollway are mutually exclusive, according officials presenting the options. But what if both could be installed?
The tollway could carry 15,000 single-passenger vehicles and many thousands of commuters in futuristic SkyWay buses during the peak 2.5-hour rush hour. This would solve the traffic problem on the existing highways in the corridor for perhaps 30 years to come. But, like Greece, the trains running on the same route would remain empty. This would cause a heavy drain on the economy in a place with a small population like Honolulu.
INDEED, 15,000 vehicle commuters on the tollway represent 50 trains filled with 300 passengers. But for the commuters to get out of their cars and switch to trains, they would have to agree to give up swift 60 mph vehicle travel speeds in exchange for less-convenient, 22.5 mph point-to-point travel that also requires trips to and from the stations.
With the hydrogen highway on the horizon and smaller, more efficient vehicles being introduced, many feel the tollway solution is preferable to the expensive proposal for the train. Highways are much more flexible than point-to-point trains, and the three-lane HOTLane tollway proposed for Honolulu offers a 30-year solution to growing traffic congestion.
About this article:
This commentary is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the Hawaii Dealer, a publication of the Hawaii Automobile Dealers Association. The author, David Rolf, is the executive director of HADA and a member of the Hawaii Highway Users Alliance (www.hhua.org
). HHUA's members include engineers, contractors and individuals with transit and tourism interests who promote highway safety and solutions to traffic problems.