Rail or a real solution?
Adding toll lanes to the existing freeway is a better way to relieve Honolulu's traffic congestion
POPULATION GROWTH, business and tourism expansion, and improving incomes are in part causes of traffic congestion on Oahu, but most of the cause is bad transportation policy.
We are not alone in this. Bad transportation policy, mostly in the form of huge public transit subsidies, took over the nation in the last 25 years. Now we are experiencing the result, which is severe traffic congestion. Here are some specifics from the Federal Highway Administration and the American Public Transit Administration:
» Between 1961 and 2003, the United States doubled in population but transit trips remained the same. (Transit trips are those made primarily in public buses, metro rail, light rail and commuter rail systems.) Funding for these trips grew 5.3 times, from $7.4 billion to $39.8 billion in constant 2001 dollars.
» At the same time, highway use increased 4.2 times but highway funding grew only 2.5 times.
» In 2003 the average 10-mile trip cost 40 cents in total taxes by highway, and 420 cents by public transit.
» Despite the dismal support for highways in the nation and the resultant congestion, nationally the average commute trip by auto is 23 minutes; it is 56 minutes by public transit.
The good news is that with the turn of the century, the federal government and many states and large cities realized that the only thing that heavy investment in public transit has accomplished is the rapid growth of traffic congestion. The national policy now fosters direct investment in highways, and laws encouraging the participation of private funds have been enacted.
COURTESY TAMPA / HILLSBOROUGH EXPRESSWAY AUTHORITY
The Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway, a high-occupancy toll lanes project in Tampa, Fla., is shown under construction. The elevated tollway opened this summer.
In the early 1990s, an urban transit system could be built with 80/20 funds, meaning that the federal government would pay for 80 percent of the design and construction costs. Currently the share is 50/50 and there is a cap of $500 million to the federal contribution. Highways are still funded at 80/20 and some of them are eligible for $500 million in transit funds.
The bad news is that time and again Honolulu has been attempting to solve its 21st-century problem with 19th-century technology -- rail. While rail transit is getting analyzed, nothing else is getting done and congestion is getting worse. However, doing nothing is much better than actually implementing rail transit.
CURRENTLY we are watching the shibai of transportation alternatives analysis for Oahu being done at a cost of $10 million. Most of the alternatives are rail. A good part of the money is spent on biased shows to whoever provides a platform to "discuss rail alignments." A selected number of officials used tax money to visit multimillion-population cities with traditional heavy rail systems. These systems cost five to 20 times less per capita than the one proposed for Honolulu. No visits are scheduled to Tampa, Fla., or San Diego, Calif., to investigate modern tollways.
The Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization, the city's Department of Transportation Services, the mayor and other rail proponents keep repeating the old and wrong statement that freeways don't work and they don't solve congestion. Outgoing federal Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta recently said that this statement is flatly wrong. He said that traffic congestion became a malaise for the nation due to the disproportional low investment in highways. Building more highways to relieve passenger and freight congestion is now a national priority.
We have local proof that the statement that "freeways don't work" is wrong. It's been eight years since its opening, and the H-3 freeway works beautifully and has relieved much of the congestion on the Likelike Highway as well as benefited the flow on the Pali Highway. The H-3 carries more traffic than was forecast for it. Flash back to 1997 and you might recall the frequent one-hour treks on the Likelike. Return to the present, when you rarely spend more than 30 minutes from Kaneohe to Kalihi. This is a good example of improved efficiency and quality of life.
Honolulu is sorely lacking in traffic lanes for its population. We have 1.5 lanes per 1,000 population. Next worse in the nation is San Juan, Puerto Rico, with 2.2 lanes per 1,000 population.
SPENDING $3 to $4 billion on rail to provide "an alternative" is unwise. Rail proponents concentrate on the "trip to work" to get some ridership numbers that might work in favor of rail. First, a daily trip by rail is comparatively inconvenient to a trip by car, due to the several transfers and delays. Because of the transfers, the lack of privacy, less security and other reasons, fewer than 5 percent of commuters use rail in U.S. cities except for New York City and Chicago. Other than hopes and wishes, I have not heard a single good argument why Honolulu, with its lower congestion levels, will generate a 5 percent ridership. (It will not!)
It is misleading to focus on work or commute trips alone. Rail will do little to promote the local economy, which moves thanks to vans, pickup trucks, large trucks, taxis and buses hassling around on roads. Rail will do very little for evacuations, and it will do nothing for police, emergency and delivery services. Rail will provide only a slow passenger service among one or two dozen stations, which, depending on the weather, could be hot, humid, windy or dusty.
People live complex lives and participate in a lot of activities. Home-work-home and similar simple roundtrips that rail might serve are less than 10 percent of all the trips people make. Also, rail cannot carry freight, make deliveries, take the elders to the doctor or provide other social and emergency services. Why should we spend several billion to "provide an alternative" for less than 5 percent of all trips? Remember, our trips cause congestion. To solve congestion we must either reduce the number of trips or provide more capacity for them. Rail does not solve congestion.
RAIL CARRIES only 3.2 percent of the trips in U.S. metropolitan areas. This alarmingly low U.S. Census statistic includes New York City, which accounts of one-third of all rail trips in the nation! This is one of the reasons why the Federal Transit Administration says that rail is not a solution to congestion, but is simply an alternative transportation mode. We do not need an alternative mode for our poor, the auto-less and those who cannot or do not want to drive. We already have TheBus, which works well. It connects hundreds of neighborhoods -- not just 20 stations.
It would be enlightening to mention some U.S. Census statistics on commuting:
» Public transit consumes 20 percent of all federal, state, regional and local surface transportation budgets to serve only 3.2 percent of the trips.
» Eighty-six percent of low-income households own at least one auto.
» Thirty-eight percent of workers in households without an auto commute to work by auto -- that is, by using a carpool, a borrowed car, a temporary company car, a taxi, etc.
» Poor metropolitan workers choose auto 11:1 to public transit.
» Auto is the best tool out of welfare. Bus a distant second. Rail is no good because it provides access to too few jobs.
Contrary to statements made by the mayor, rail is not green. According to University of California estimates, the BTUs (units of energy) needed to move one person one mile are lower for auto than for rail. Rail systems hog electricity and expend much of it in parasitic loss. The proposed rail system's price does not include a new power plant, which will be essential given that there are brownouts on Oahu from time to time due to facility maintenance or spiking power consumption on hot and humid days.
THE MAYOR should work on several $3 million transportation alternatives, such as ferry services, jitneys and taxi vouchers for people with special needs. For $3 billion we can have two new freeways on Oahu. A new elevated freeway would be similar in size to the proposed rail structure.
The name "freeway" comes from "free-flow facility," as opposed to one with traffic lights. Our new freeways should not be free; they should be tolled. Users should pay, as they would pay for rail service. But tollways will cost far less per trip due to their high utilization. Tollways cost very little for operations and maintenance compared to rail.
Some ask, "But where would cars park once the new highway brings them to town?" First, the new highway will provide fast trips and it will decongest the H-1, so the same people who commute today will arrive much earlier. (Please refer to the H-3 example above.) Second, the rail plan supposedly includes a half-dozen or more parking structures for park-and-ride. Instead of those, a couple of large parking structures can be developed in the outskirts of downtown and in Kakaako. A number of appropriate land parcels are available.
Tampa, with a population similar to ours (900,000 people) and a burgeoning second city, went through an honest analysis of alternatives, rejected rail as too expensive and least cost-effective, and built a reversible toll highway at a cost of $300 million for 10 miles. The three-lane expressway is open in the town-bound direction in the morning and after noon, it is reversed for the out-of-town trip in the afternoon. The one-way toll is $1 and the trip takes about 10 minutes compared to more than 30 minutes on the parallel congested facility.
A SIMILAR-SIZE facility can be built between the H-1/H-2 merge and downtown using an identical pedestal design as the proposed rail and the Tampa Expressway. I am not a construction cost expert, but it is often said that heavy infrastructure construction in Hawaii costs twice as much as the same project would on the mainland. Therefore, an expressway could cost about $600 million. Tampa's system includes six on- and offramps. Ours should have the same number of ramps. The design and fitting of them might be more challenging, but easier than trying to fit 20 or more ADA-compliant rail stations over our streets. Therefore, an upper estimate of cost for a reversible expressway on Oahu is $1 billion, or three to four times less than the projected cost of rail.
SIGNIFICANTLY, if it is built as a HOT highway (high occupancy/toll facility), which vehicles with three-plus passengers and express public transit buses are allowed to use for free, the same subsidy of $0.5 billion from the Federal Transit Administration as the one for rail can be received for a HOT expressway project. Revenue from tolls will pay off the government bonds that cover the remainder of the cost. The bottom line would be a direct and effective solution to traffic congestion with a zero tax burden. No increase in the excise tax or other taxes will be necessary. Recall that the general excise tax increases to 4.5 percent in January 2007 to support rail. From that point on, $150 million annually will depart from Oahu pocketbooks to support a boondoggle.
A major project for alleviating traffic congestion in Los Angeles is the connection of two interstates, I-210 and I-710. The same company that is doing the rail analysis in Honolulu, Parsons Brinkerhoff Quade and Douglas, conducted a feasibility study for L.A. that recommended a 5-mile tunnel connection. Two four-lane-wide tunnels were proposed with an estimated cost of $3 billion. Therefore, a partially underground freeway on Oahu might be possible for a budget similar to rail's.
In conclusion, the solution to traffic congestion for the heavily congested Leeward-to-town corridor is at the forefront of the national transportation policy: A modern tollway with priority for express buses and high-occupancy vehicles. Thirty-five states in the nation have or are building tollways, some with public-private partnerships, one of which could work for Oahu. PPPs deliver express roadways in half the time and for a lower cost than typical government freeway and rail projects.
Oahu can experience a dramatic reduction in traffic congestion in seven to 10 years, instead of getting a 1 percent traffic reduction in 15 or more years with rail. The question is, do our elected officials have the knowledge, vision and leadership required to actually solve the problem?
My letter to the editor regarding HOT lanes, published Oct. 8, included a typo. It correctly started by saying that "in three morning hours a three-lane high occupancy and toll (HOT) reversible expressway can transport upward of 18,000 vehicles" and then it also said "per hour," which I did not edit out. This did not affect the bottom line in any way because both rail and HOT comparisons were made on the basis of a "three-hour morning window."
-- Panos D. Prevedouros
Panos D. Prevedouros is Professor of Transportation Engineering in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.