Fruitless in Fruitvale: Dangers of developing along transit lines
Transit orientated developments are being proposed by the city to define, redevelop and transform neighborhoods, creating symbiotic relationships with rail operations. The intent is that rail stations and their patrons will be equally served with mutual benefit creating a win-win environment for all.
Rail stations and the land masses that surround them are designated TOD areas that incorporate a common theme: to deter, discourage and restrict automobile use in those areas. Both Portland, Ore., and an Oakland, Calif., community called Fruitvale have adopted TOD principles that have produced outcomes that are the opposite of what is being lauded.
During a Waipahu TOD meeting Nov. 14 to garner public input, Fruitvale was portrayed as a vibrant, economic success story. This puzzled me since just a couple of days before the Waipahu meeting, I had visited the Fruitvale complex.
The eating establishments did not appear to be heavily frequented and one restaurant advertising a plate lunch for less than $4 couldn't muster up a customer. Of course, this was just a snapshot in time. At 5 p.m., though, I thought patrons would be enjoying a drink after work, but the place resembled a ghost town. When the planners in Waipahu described Fruitvale as bustling, I chimed in and described numerous "for lease" signs posted throughout the complex, as well as my observation that the majority of the second-story offices appeared empty. Very few lights were on as it got dark and some lacked window dressings, suggesting they were not occupied.
Could it be that the train coming every few minutes at a noise level of some 85 decibels was not conducive to business? Who wants to shout at their customers just to be heard?
Magnets for crime
Another concern is security. Honolulu has numerous unfilled police officer positions. Yet TOD rail stations have transit police; statistics reflect that more crimes are committed at rail centers and on rail routes than occur at bus operations or to car users. Rail operations are a magnet for crime and graffiti even with the presence of transit police. If Honolulu cannot fill vacant positions for police officers, what will our TODs resemble? Have security costs been factored into Honolulu's TODs?
One of Portland's TODs was incorporated with an elderly residential complex. Because TODs are regulated differently from other areas and possess unique zoning requirements, their retail and other residential facilities need not supply parking ratios that normally would be required outside of a TOD scheme. Because there is so little parking available at the Portland TOD housing complex, the dedicated emergency lanes often are taken up by cars illegally parked. This is an ongoing syndrome of regulated planning associated with TODs. People wind up parking in everyone else's neighborhood.
Who is going to pay for all of the landscaping, pedestrian paths and building facades? I heard over and over that the private sector most likely will build the parking structures and sugarcoat the town. In Fruitvale, one can park all day for less than $2. To believe that scenario is doable in Hawaii defies logic. Unless, of course, tax breaks and incentives at taxpayers' expense make it happen. Does condemnation ring a bell? In this case, TOD should stand for Transfer Our Dollars.
Planners and supporters of tax breaks for developers associated with TODs say, "Be patient, the vision will work. Just think in terms of what we will have before us 20 years from now. TODs are the future." When I close my eyes, I see automobiles that are not dependent on fossil fuels and emit no carbon waste -- and more commuters in need of more roads.
It appears Honolulu is attempting to enact ordinances that will slowly exterminate the automobile user. I believe Americans should be able to park our cars near our destinations of choice, and not be herded into centralized parking structures wondering if our cars and their contents will be there when we return.
Include rubber wheels
In order for the City Council to choose rubber-tire technology (buses) over steel wheels (rail) on the fixed guideway, the Legislature should consider amending Act 247 (general excise tax authorization bill) to include language expanding the usage of the fixed guideway right of way so that it can include buses. The clarity is needed because during the city's scoping meetings, high occupancy toll lanes/managed lanes were presented as doable when they now say the concept for buses is not applicable.
Buses do not meet the capacity and speed defined by the Council as an acceptable means of mass transit. So why did we spend $10 million on an alternative analysis that let the public look at managed lanes using buses when the tax cannot be used for that type of transit to begin with?
We are being told that a bus does not have the capability to go faster than the rail speed to be contrived at 20 mph and that buses do not have the space to carry as many people as a rail car can. Yet, in contrast, when PB America Inc., which did Honolulu's alternative analysis, revealed its findings for other cities across America, it chose managed lanes/toll lanes as reducing traffic congestion more than rail. Why is it different for Honolulu?
Money wisely spent
Furthermore, we have been duped by the entire process, told that the Council's hands are tied because it cannot go with letting buses and cars use the dedicated fixed guideway. This is because HB 1309 HD2 SD2 CD1, which became Act 247, does not permit the general excise tax increase to be used by highway technology in existence by a county with a population of more than 500,000. If a bill can be passed this upcoming legislative session to let the tax collection be used to build elevated reversible express lanes, then the Council can still get new start federal grants and there would be no delays in going with rubber tire technology. This would assume that we have followed through with our congressional delegation to ensure we don't lose our federal funding opportunity. Just because we expanded the type of mass transit options would be a lame excuse to deny us our choice of transit using our own tax money, whether federal, state, or county taxes. It's all our money to begin with, no matter who dishes it out.
Imagine, we could actually turn the level of service on the H-1 corridor from an "F" grade to an "A" by letting the City Council have the authority to adopt the tax expenditure for highway technology. The whole island would be served by rubber technology. Twenty-two other states are doing it -- getting billions from the feds for highway technology used specifically for reversible express lanes as a form of mass transit that caters to buses. The only holdup here is the restrictive language in Act 247. Let's support our legislators to change that and give our Council some more room to maneuver. It might be that these TOD schemes are not even necessary if rubber tire technology is chosen.
The savings and traffic reduction capabilities could be astronomical with a mere amendment to the law. Now that's the type of symbiotic relationship I can handle, the one between the taxpayer and a dose of reason.
Tom Berg is an Ewa Beach resident and a member of the Ewa Neighborhood Board, serving as its legislative chairman and also the Ewa representative for the Oahu Resource and Conservation Development Council.