False Choice on Rail

Noteworthy quote in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin from Mayor Mufi Hannemann about how Honolulu’s mixed reaction to rail jeopardizes rail’s future:

“If we hiccup one more time, that’s it,” Hannemann said in a recent interview. “The federal government will not promise funding for Honolulu, and we will have to deal with traffic gridlock.”

Got that, Honolulu? You only have two choices: Hannemann’s train or your miserable traffic. This has been the administration’s premise all along.

Of course, that’s a false choice, being used to manipulate public opinion. If the people of Honolulu ultimately reject rail transit, it doesn’t mean they don’t need or deserve some other solution for gridlock. It doesn’t mean city government has no other option but to leave us stranded in traffic jams.

I’m not a speechwriter, but let me take a stab at rewriting the Mayor’s quote into something more consistent with the idea of actually serving the public:

“If we hiccup one more time, that’s it. The federal government will not promise funding for Honolulu, and we will have to find some other way to alleviate traffic gridlock. We thought rail would rock, but if you don’t dig it, give us a moment to get back to you with plans B, C and D. Which we will do, of course, cheerfully, because that’s our job.”

Four-plus billion dollars—the amount the city says we will spend just to build, but not maintain, the rail line—can buy a lot of traffic solutions other than rail, or even roads. As I’ve pointed out before, that sum could be used to pay thousands of businesses to relocate to Kapolei or Mililani, thereby moving the jobs closer to the people. It could fund the construction of thousands of housing units in urban Honolulu, to move the people closer to work. The city has already declared its willingness to insist that we change our lifestyle to suit the traffic solution it favors, instead of the other way around—why not pursue some social engineering that can alleviate traffic without condemning a single property, without building so much as a mile of track or a single extra lane of freeway?

No option but rail? Nonsense. Kapolei was O‘ahu’s traffic solution. Anyone remember that? Our political class seems to have forgotten it. Government has powerful tools—tax policy, land use laws, zoning, etc.—to affect the way we live and work, and how we get around. We are being sold a train now because a generation of political leaders grew mono-crops of housing in the Leeward and Central plains, instead of cities. All the people who moved out there were left with no other option but to drive somewhere else for work and for better schools; and no other roads for that purpose but H-1 and H-2.

Correcting that failure may well take decades, and billions. But that time and money would be better spent developing vibrant 21st century communities, instead of a single 19th century train.