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Harry Moroz

Oil Rights Activists Make Waves in Honolulu

Oilmen defending their “product” against militant environmentalists? Interference from malefactors on the mainland? Populist supporters of ballot initiatives slandering a “despotic” mayor? Are we in Texas? At a meeting of the UN? In California?!

Mayor Mufi Hannemann is at the center of a controversy exploding in paradise: whether to build light rail in Honolulu.

In late 2006, the Honolulu City Council voted to move forward with fixed-guideway mass transit, but left the contentious decision of whether the system would utilize bus, rail, or a combination of both up to Mayor Hannemann. Proposals for the system, which the mayor hopes to begin construction on in 2009, have since ranged from the industrially mundane – steel wheeled cars on steel tracks – to the theatrically fantastical – a three-car bus that can run on both magnetized track and conventional roads (there’s also the more straightforward “mag lev”). Concern immediately arose about the “blight” caused by an elevated rail system and the noise of steel wheels.

Though the project is expensive – at $3.7 billion it dwarfs Honolulu’s entire FY2009 budget of $2.75 billion – the Mayor was able to, as he told MayorTV, “put our money where our mouth is” and impose a 0.5% excise tax surcharge on the island of Oahu (which the Honolulu city-county government runs) to pay for part of the plan.

Still, the surcharge is expected to raise only $150 million a year while the city crosses its fingers for a federal contribution of about $900 million ($15 million of which was appropriated in an FY2008 appropriations bill, with an additional $10 and $20 million granted in preliminary House and Senate FY2009 appropriations bills, respectively.).

Mayor Hannemann is not alone in trying to fund a large-scale project (the largest in Hawaii’s history) primarily through local funds. As a recent Brookings report points out, local governments are increasingly shouldering the burden of transit projects:

The federal presence in transit funding is more prominent in terms of capital expenses [than in terms of operating costs], providing 39 percent of all capital funds spent on transit nationally. But even here, the federal investment is not the largest. Local funds (46 percent) are the primary source. States only contribute about 14 percent. This trend is increasing...Between 2000 and 2002 public transit dollars from local sources soared 73 percent from $2.7 billion to $4.7 billion.

The need for transit in Honolulu is readily apparent. The city ranked worst in a study of highway traffic congestion at rush hour between 5PM and 6PM, with two of the nation’s worst bottlenecks. In fact, the number of vehicles registered in Hawaii in 2007 (1,167,240) came dangerously close to the total population of the state (1,283,388). Indeed, having a car for every man, woman, teenager, young adult, and infant seems neither necessary nor sustainable.

Honolulu estimates that the new transit system would serve between 7.7% and 16.2% of daily trips, reducing both vehicle miles traveled (by 3.4%) and vehicle hours of delay (by 18%). Additionally:

The Fixed Guideway Alternative is the only alternative that would include new stations providing reliable high-capacity transit at locations zoned for new development or suitable for redevelopment. With supportive regulations, substantial transit-oriented development could be served by the Fixed Guideway Alternative...

As Mayor Hannemann told MayorTV:

What’s missing from our quality of life in Honolulu is a light rail system that can be part of an integrated, multimodal system that will enable us to connect the bus, connect bike lanes, park and rides, as well as a ferry system that we’ve started.

Mayor Hannemann has essentially staked his mayoralty on the plan, the city’s third attempt to construct a rail system. As a local radio station recently asked:

“[What’s] at stake? Billions of dollars, reputation, and the future of island transportation.”

And as the CEO of one transit construction firm says:

We've been eyeing this project for about 10 years now...It's the talk of the industry. Everyone wants a piece of it.

But the plan has hit a serious stumbling block: as one blog puts it, the auto-industrial complex.

In April, an anti-rail group creatively titled Stop Rail Now, began collecting signatures for a ballot initiative to stop construction of the rail line. Whether the initiative will appear on the November ballot is still up in the air, but critics of the system (who would prefer an “elevated, reversible transit freeway”) have ignited a pitched battle with the Mayor and his supporters, who include the aptly named Go Rail Go. The rail critics include members of the Hawaii Highways Users Alliance, which hosted a conference on “Preserving the American Dream” at which a presenter decried:

the rise of the militant ‘green’ movement, with its ideological hatred of cars as symbols of individual freedom...

Another member is the president of Charley’s Taxi, Hawaii’s oldest taxi and ground transportations service (The member, Dale Evans, is known as the “Queen of the Taxicab Drivers”, probably because she opposes any form of transit except, well, taxicabs.) Stop Rail Now is also associated with the Grassroot Institute whose mission (beyond stopping construction of light rail in Honolulu):

is to promote individual liberty, the free market and limited accountable government.

Mayor Hannemann has used both city and campaign funds (he is up for re-election in November) to pay for advertisements in favor of his rail plan and has lashed out at Stop Rail Now’s advertisements, saying:

There is a direct linkage from the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii [to the] Hawaii Highway Users Alliance to ultra-right-wing conservative organizations that has been fighting mayors all over the U.S. on rail, and they are here in Hawaii...

The controversy is steeped in local politics – one of the prominent members of Stop Rail now is likely to run against Hannemann for mayor – and the Grassroot Institute mentioned by Mayor Hannemann is opposed to Senator Akaka’s bill for native Hawaiian recognition. Mayor Hannemann has even accused Stop Rail Now of allowing mainlanders (those of us in the lower 48) of meddling in Oahu’s affairs. The debate hit a particularly low point with an e-mail sent by rail opponents that juxtaposes statements of Mayor Hannemann with a swastika, a Soviet hammer and sickle, and a picture and fake quote from Osama Bin Laden.

The contentious and rather nasty debate surrounding light rail in Honolulu highlights how far the nation has come from its belief, and willingness to invest, in large-scale public works projects. Indeed, light rail’s ups and downs in Honolulu are by no means unique. The scale of such projects means that too many cooks – and too much money – will always be in the kitchen and, until consumer attitudes towards the automobile change dramatically, congestion on the nation’s highways will inevitably increase.

Yet, the federal government’s development of a broad vision for transportation policy in the United States would help highlight the obvious benefits of transit projects (smarter development, job creation, emissions reductions), while preventing parochial disputes from hijacking legitimate debate about what type of transit system best fits a particular metro area.

Needless to say, given rising gas prices and growing concern about climate change, the idea of highway advocacy groups simply seems anachronistic and their interest in policy debates nothing more than reactionary.

You can check out MayorTV's interview with Mayor Hannemann here.

Harry Moroz: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 9:50 AM, Jul 18, 2008 in Cities | Infrastructure | MayorTV | Transportation | Urban Affairs
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