My Way Or The Highway: A Newcomer's View Of The Honolulu Rail Debate
Editor's Note: Joe Rubin, Civil Beat's director of digital media, produced a report on the Honolulu rail project for the public radio program, Marketplace. That piece is scheduled to air during Tuesday's show at 6 p.m. on Hawaii Public Radio. He wrote this column and produced the two videos below as part of that effort. Click here to hear the report.
It's been quite a baptism in Hawaii politics for me, moving from California in September and following the action of this pivotal and historic mayor's race in Honolulu.
Yes, I know that even if Ben Cayetano wins the election that doesn't mean that rail is dead. The City Council still wields power and previous voter-approved taxes can't be undone overnight.
But that seems like a technicality. By running a campaign which is essentially a one-issue-crusade, a Cayetano victory would be a crushing defeat for rail.
Hawaii isn't alone with its contentious rail debates. Earlier this year, high-speed rail in California escaped by a single vote in the Legislature, and that was only managed by making some back-of-the-napkin last-minute changes to the plan which shaved several billion dollars off the price tag. Two years ago, New Jersey Governor's Chris Christie killed a big rail project which many had hoped would help with horrific commutes from New Jersey into New York City. His reasoning was similar to Cayetano's, arguing that the project was likely to be way over budget. A subsequent audit by the General Accounting Office has called those claims into question.
I've spent a fair amount of time observing Cayetano while reporting this story for Marketplace and getting up to speed. He came in and met with Civil Beat editors and reporters for an hour a few weeks back. I've also gone to a couple of chili and rice dinners where Cayetano emcees a power point demonstration about the evils of rail and the benefits of his bus rapid transit plan. Personally I find Cayetano likable, curious, sharp and charismatic in a Hawaiian laid back kind of way. As the former governor (and boxer) fends off millions of dollars of off-topic attack ads from special interest groups, that laid back nature has served him well.
Still, given the stakes, the $400 million which has been spent to date, the $1.55 billion of federal funding the city stands to lose, as well as the four decades it took to get this far, Cayetano's position deserves a great deal of scrutiny.
A couple of observations on my part. The stars of Cayetano's power point presentation are architectural renderings of what the ultimate elevated system will look like. As you might guess, they are not flattering.
As the governor points out during his presentation, the drawings were prepared by the Honolulu chapter of the American Institute of Architects. While he doesn't come out and say it, Cayetano heaps so much praise on the AIA one is left with the impression that AIA endorses Cayetano's solutions for the traffic mess. In fact, the drawings were created last year and were part of a lobbying effort by the AIA to get the city to shift from elevated rail to light rail.
The architect who created the drawings, Scott R. Wilson, said in an interview last year: "I want to stress that AIA Honolulu has always favored a rail system, we have always supported that. There are elements in the community that have argued that we shouldn't have rail, that we should have more car and roads. We think that fundamentally a rail transit system is an asset to a city. It's a way to include all the members of a society. We tend to forget that the young, the elderly, the handicapped there are many people that chose not to drive."
That hardly sounds like an endorsement of Cayetano's plan to turn to bus rapid transit and better roads.
Curious, I rang up AIA's vice president in Honolulu, Amy Blagriff. She affirmed that the organization is neutral in the mayor's race. She also affirmed that AIA still believes that the elevated rail plan is wrong-headed.
As we were talking I couldn't help but think of the huge stakes of the mayoral contest. When I interviewed Dan Grabauskas, the CEO of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, he said something interesting. To paraphrase, he said, all this controversy was in a way a good thing, that it would make the ultimate system stronger.
So I asked Blagriff if she might be willing to sit down with Grabauskas and share the organization's concerns. "Well, we are not saying it's our way or the highway,"she said." That stuck with me.
Now, a federal judge has told HART that it needs to revisit putting rail below ground downtown. That twist makes me wonder if a middle ground could be found that would salvage all that investment and pledged federal bucks and ease the concerns of critics of the elevated rail system, regardless of who wins tomorrow. But that wouldn't be very in keeping with an election which seems all about my way or the highway.
Speaking of highways, I spent some time on those. Maeda Timpson, who started the advocacy organization Go Rail Go invited me to meet her in Kapolei for her typical 6 a.m commute to downtown Honolulu where she works as a bank vice president.
Yes, Timpson is no neutral observer. But she wasn't making up the traffic. It was a typical day and it still took us nearly 90 minutes. And as she pointed out, that can be even longer for people who have to make bus connections.
On Halloween she called me up to offer an additional slice of life. Because of last week's big traffic mess, she and a lot of other families from the west side would miss out on trick or treat entirely.
It made me feel pretty lucky. I biked home from Civil Beat to catch my kids in costume.
Watch Maeda Timpson talk about the rail controversy during her morning commute
Watch former Gov. Ben Cayetano at a chili and rice dinner present artist renderings of rail stations
DISCUSSION: How are you feeling about the rail project?