S-A wrong in cheap shot at Cayetano and rail critics

Today’s Star-Advertiser editorial makes the newspaper’s position clear (“Cayetano’s rail tactics a disservice“).

The newspaper has staked out a decidedly pro-rail position, while attacking those critical of rail. Period.

Today’s editorial attacks former governor and current mayoral candidate, Ben Cayetano, for a variety of supposed offenses, including “cherry-picking through old communications” and muddying public understanding of the issues.

From the editorial:

In a 2009 email, Joseph Ossi, an FTA environmental protection specialist, noted that the Environmental Protection Agency had asked why light rail and an improved bus system weren’t among the alternatives considered in the city’s environmental impact statement.

City consultants did weigh these options, however. In the course of examining alternatives in 2006, extensive public “scoping” meetings were held. An enhanced bus system was among the alternatives examined, along with fixed-guideway alternatives that included light rail.

Whether or not all the alternatives that already were rejected also needed to be in the EIS is among the issues in the lawsuit, so officials for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation have declined comment on that point.

But in selectively raising it, Cayetano fell short of presenting adequate context. This certainly left many with the wrong impression that alternatives had not been considered, or the reasons why they were rejected. [emphasis added]

Okay. These is an editorial, so holding it to a news standard may be unfair. But when the editorial calls out Cayetano for supposedly not “informing people responsibly,” turnabout is fair play.

So, Star-Advertiser editorial writers, exactly where in the huge library of reports did the city’s consultants evaluate the light rail alternative?

The S-A is certainly not the first to flatly assert that light rail was studied. But, as far as I can tell, they are wrong.

I’ve written about my search for the missing light rail alternative several times over the past couple of years (“What happened to the light rail alternative to Honolulu’s transit plan?“March 8th, 2010; “Round and round we go in search of the missing light rail alternative“, November 24th, 2011; and “What happened to the light rail alternative (redux)?“, November 21st, 2011).

I’ve heard lots of bluster in response, much of the, “harumph, harumph, of course it was studied, etc, etc.” variety. But, so far, no one has been able to cite page and verse where this alternative was examined and found wanting.

The Star-Advertiser says the “scoping” process did include light rail. To repeat:

An enhanced bus system was among the alternatives examined, along with fixed-guideway alternatives that included light rail.

Talk about cherry picking!

What the S-A doesn’t tell readers is that the scoping studies actually identified light rail as a viable alternative that needed to be studied in the EIS along with other “fixed guideway” options.

And that never happened, despite the scoping study recommendation. Light rail was allowed to just disappear without comment, and without serious study.

If I’m wrong about this, then just send me the volume/page references. I would be most interested in reading why light rail would have been rejected, and to evaluate the evidence. I’ll be glad to apologize and share the updated information with readers here.

If, however, volume/page references can’t be found for any real study of the light rail alternative that resulted in its rejection, will the S-A be willing to recant publicly?

I know how I would bet on that last point.

37 responses to “S-A wrong in cheap shot at Cayetano and rail critics

  1. I approach this issue (an all others) with the premise that we all want what’s best for Hawaii….we just don’t agree on all the details. The rail debate is not good vs evil…it’s urban planning.

    • Hawaii faces this premise in way too many important issues.
      When something vital actually gets done, it’s almost stunning! (as well as obsolete, such as the state’s plans to improve its dinosaur-age computer system)

  2. Let’s assume that “rail fails”. Say it is as successful as another large public works project… the Alawai. Who pays for the failure? I am coming to the opinion that the project [and the inevitable incompetence and corruption that trail it] is just large enough to bankrupt the state. In the U.S. the canals did it in the 1820s, 30s and 40s.

  3. Although I am against *this* rail, I think that, for most people, both for and against this rail, a future without some type of improved transportation system on Oahu is unimaginable.

    But here’s a person who thought differently back in 2008. He believed it preferable to go without a new transit system, if it wasn’t one particular type of transit system. Guided by a different vision, I suppose.


    HONOLULU — Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann said Thursday that he would pull the plug on the proposed transit system in Oahu if it is not steel-on-steel technology.

    “I’ll be the first one to say we are not doing rail. I’ll come right out and say ‘Cease and desist,'” Hannemann said. “I will not put this city in a position of financial disaster, and I will pull the plug if it’s not steel-on-steel. I’ll pull the plug.”

  4. I see that Governor Ben Cayetano has issued a press release responding to criticism leveled in the recent S-A editorial referenced on the main post. It escaped my notice for a few days and may have escaped the attention of some other readers as well who have thus far only been exposed to the editorial.



    By Governor Ben Cayetano

    Since when is telling the public the truth a disservice? The Star-Advertiser editors’ complaint that I “cherry-picked” five emails from roughly 500,000 documents to “turn public opinion against the (rail) project – and simply to boost my candidacy for mayor” – is absurd.

    First, the public needs no spin from me or anyone else to turn against rail. They have already turned, according to the Star-Advertiser’s own poll (“Rail Support Falls” February 12, 2012). Another major poll shows even greater opposition.

    Second, your editorial ignores the difference between the candid utterances of career FTA officials believing that they are writing privately to each other, and the fawning grandstanding of their boss Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. In testifying before Senator Dan Inouye’s Appropriations Committee, LaHood revealed how little he knows about the City’s rail project when he said that it “will deliver people all over the island” – an astonishing statement that even Inouye should know is not true.

    Third, criticizing me for “cherry-picking is like faulting a gold miner for not showing others the tons of gravel he had to sort through to find a few nuggets of gold. And make no mistake, these emails are nuggets in the eyes of anyone who wants to know what FTA staffers, not their politically appointed bosses, think of the City’s rail project, including the City’s “lousy practices of public manipulation.”

    Fourth, you have the 500,000 page Administrative Record which we delivered to your office. Perhaps if you ever get around to reviewing it, you will “cherry pick” your own nuggets and whether they are pro-rail or anti-rail we hope you will reveal them to the public.

    Fifth, I find it ironic that your editors would complain about my efforts to turn public opinion against rail. The editorial in question is just the latest of many editorials in which the Star-Advertiser defended or sang the praise of the City’s proposed elevated, heavy rail project. I thought it was a “disservice” when the Star-Advertiser quoted Secretary LaHood’s off the cuff statement that rail would improve traffic without mentioning that the FTA and the City’s own experts have acknowledged that rail – even if it worked as planned – would not reduce the current level of traffic congestion.

    Finally, the Star-Advertiser is accurate when it implies that my mayoral campaign has been helped by these “smoking gun” emails. This is because the public understands what it means when FTA staffers talk about the City’s “lousy practices of public manipulation” and predict that the City will find itself in “a pickle” by rushing to start construction before it can be ready and has secured federal funding.

    As the state’s only major daily newspaper, the Star-Advertiser has at least a moral obligation to investigate and give the public both the pros and cons of the rail project. Although news stories about the number of seats in a train are interesting – they pale when compared to the big unanswered questions about the project. How does HART justify awarding multi-million dollar rail contracts when no Full Funding Agreement has been reached and approved by Congress? What will the City do if none or only part of the federal funds is approved by Congress? What will the City do if it loses the lawsuit now pending in federal court? What will the City do if funding runs out and the project is only partly completed?

    The City, HART, the Mayor, the City Council and Senator Inouye have all been asked but still remain silent on these major questions. The Star-Advertiser itself has done nothing to get answers. Rather then complain about “cherry picking” the Star-Advertiser should press its reporters to get answers to the questions. The public deserves answers.

  5. Ian Lind wrote:

    What the S-A doesn’t tell readers is that the scoping studies actually identified light rail as a viable alternative that needed to be studied in the EIS along with other “fixed guideway” options.

    And that never happened, despite the scoping study recommendation. Light rail was allowed to just disappear without comment, and without serious study.

    I’m not sure how well known this is, but — according to a page on Ben Cayetano’s campaign website that quotes a 2000 transit DEIS — when the city was searching for traffic solutions a little over 10 years ago, i.e., the Harris led attempt to create a bus rapid transit system in Honolulu, heavy elevated rail was eliminated early in the planning process for having unacceptable “shortcomings.” It would seem that elevated rail went from among the worst to first in the space of fewer than 10 years. What caused the dramatic turnabout? It is difficult to say for sure, but I’m leaning toward the use of a vetting process that is vulnerable to manipulation and protected from public review by its own inadequacies.


    “The concerns that led to the rejection of the most recently proposed elevated rapid transit system were primarily two: (1) its high cost and (2) its physical and visual impacts.” Draft EIS for the BRT Project, FTA and City, August 2000. P 2-41.

    “Public input received in hundreds of Vision Team and O‘ahu Trans 2K meetings and workshops attended by thousands of O‘ahu residents revealed widespread agreement that while an elevated transit system might serve goals of improving in-town mobility and strengthening connections between communities, such a system would not foster livable communities.

    The predominant sentiment among thousands of participants was that a grade-separated transit system would be unacceptably: (1) intrusive on the visual environment; (2) divisive of communities; and (3) too expensive. These shortcomings were judged by public participants to outweigh the recognized benefits of a grade-separated system, i.e. high speed and capacity, increased reliability and reduced negative impact on the surface road system.” Draft EIS for the BRT Project, FTA and City, August 2000

    What is the point of holding public meetings and workshops if the end result will inevitably be the selection of the current mayoral seat holder’s personal choice? Or did community sentiment actually shift to favor heavy elevated rail in the span of time between the two city administrations? If the latter is the case, what caused the shift, and what has, according to recent polls, turned people against elevated rail, yet again?

    Would the election of a mayor who once in office came to favor magnetic-levitation or managed lanes or at-grade light rail somehow result in the respective advantages of each of these alternatives becoming the predominant criteria for participants in the scoping/early evaluation process?

    Perhaps it is time to begin holding at least some public meetings and workshops online over the course of several days or weeks in order to encourage participation and so that the opinions of all participants, and what is said by meeting organizers to those participants, can be preserved in a forum, not unlike this one, that can be accessed by all of the public at their convenience. The way things are now, all we’ve got to go on when attempting to examine some facets of how we got from there to here amounts to not much more than “meetings were held and decisions were made.”

    Public outreach for rail should be a dialogue, not a broadcast.

  6. Michael in Waikiki


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