Category Archives: environment

Facing the rail conundrum

Honolulu’s rail project poses a particularly tricky issue at this point in its life.

We’ve already spent a vast amount on it, but the estimated total still to go keeps growing at an alarming pace.

And there’s no real reason to believe that current estimates are more accurate than those that came before.

So what do we do now?

The mayor now says we should just end at Middle Street and defer the remainder of the project until funds are available.

That’s a political fantasy. I don’t think any elected official is going to touch that political “third rail” once the first segment is capped off and the construction crews demobilized. It is just very, very unlikely to happen. And, of course, the crippled initial segment is just going to be a constant reminder of how badly this idea was executed and the costs, economic and political, of trying and failing.

UH Planning Professor Karl Kim, who has a background in transit issues, published a column in the Star-Advertiser which I hoped would have some sage advice (“Five fixes could help put Honolulu’s rail back on track“). Unfortunately, Kim’s suggestions would have been constructive if we were just starting out in designing a rail system, but not very useful when facing a mid-construction crisis in both finances and confidence.

He suggests simply getting over the blame game, finding a new consensus, coming up with a workable revenue model, developing more appropriate technology, and redesigning to incorporate elements of social justice.

It seems to me that this is all pie in the sky. Not going to happen. And can’t happen in a time frame that would give us any way forward from the current mess.

Then there was a comment on a recent post here expressing the “just do it, get it done” sentiment.

Here’s an excerpt:

Not having enough funds to complete elevated rail to Ala Moana is an entirely self-created dilemma. A funding cap BEFORE bids were opened was dumb. It’s a completely SOLVABLE problem that both HART and city council could be discussing because it’s entirely within their authority to address the funding cap issue.

It’s also within the mayor and council’s authority to discuss using property taxes. There are lots of good reasons why Honolulu taxpayers SHOULD be paying more for our own transportation system but I’ll save that for another discussion.

I have a of sympathy for this point of view, although this rail design was not my preference. I don’t agree with those who argue that if not for rail, these billions could have gone to other public projects. I don’t think that’s true. It took a truly major project like rail to muster the political forces to put an excise tax increase into play to cover the costs. We tried to get an increase for education, and that went nowhere.

And when you look around, it’s hard to say that the rail tax has crippled the economy. We’ve got low unemployment, lots of investment coming in, etc., etc. And although the big numbers are scary, the half cent out of each dollar spent isn’t one of the big factors in everyday finances. Obviously, housing is the biggie. The rail GET really doesn’t compare to those big expense categories at the micro level, only at the macro level. So would we really feel the pinch if it were extended farther into the future to pay for completing the system?

But David Johnson, a UH Sociology prof and a friend, wrote in Civil Beat that we need to challenge the idea that since we’ve gotten this far, there isn’t any alternative to just pushing forward to completion. He refers to this the fallacy of sunk costs.

He explained:

But to view rail in terms of costs already incurred is to commit the fallacy of sunk costs. A sunk cost is a cost that has been paid and cannot be recovered. In many areas of life and policy, decision-makers become preoccupied with sunk costs when they would be better off forgetting them. Couples commit this fallacy when they refuse to leave a lousy film before it ends (“We paid $20 for these tickets!”). And the United States committed a much grander version of it during the Vietnam War (“Giving up would mean our soldiers died in vain.”).

And Johnson concludes:

So I end with three conclusions: 1) Common sense says we do not need a rail project that ends at Middle Street. 2) A decent regard for reality leads to the conclusion that we cannot afford a rail project that goes where it should. 3) And recognition of the sunk cost fallacy counsels that we should walk away from this colossal mistake now.

Here’s a link to his column, “Honolulu’s Runaway Rail Project And The Fallacy of Sunk Costs.”

Perhaps we need a contest to come up with the best idea for alternative uses of the rail segments built to date if we just “walk away”. What other uses could be made of the elevated concrete platform?

It’s all just such a mess that it boggles my mind. None of the solutions really “work.”

Bus rapid transit surfacing again

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano is using his Facebook posts to tout the use of a Bus Rapid Transit system to move passengers from the Middle Street terminus of a truncated rail system to downtown Honolulu and beyond.

Cayetano has been a fan of BRT for years, and he proposed a flexible bus system as an alternative to rail during his unsuccessful 2012 campaign for Honolulu mayor.

During the campaign, Civil Beat fact checked Cayetano’s claim that that bus rapid transit systems were “sweeping the country.” CB concluded the claim was “Mostly True.”

And its interesting to look at another Civil Beat article from 2012, “Bus Rapid Transit: The Devil’s in the Details, But What Are They?

The regrettable thing is that Honolulu was far down the path to a BRT system under a plan put in place by by the city during the administration of Mayor Jeremy Harris. But it was immediately dismantled by his successor, Mufi Hannemann, who chose instead to bet the house on the elevated rail system the city is currently building.

It’s interesting, in retrospect, to skim the 2006 final evaluation report on the Honolulu Bus Rapid Transit project, in light of the financial meltdown of Hannemann’s rail project.

New buildings don’t mean progress

Denby Fawcett’s column in Civil Beat this week is an essay on the trend towards remaking local neighborhoods by clearing small, older homes and replacing them with “monster homes.”

She bemoans the clearing of lots, which includes cutting down mature mango and plumeria trees, along with other tropical foliage, in order to install the maximum possible floor area, with buildings now stretching from property line to property line. Well, there is a required five foot setback between neighbors, but its surprising how small that space can feel.

Real estate agents call what I consider to be overbuilding “maximizing the value of a property.”

Honolulu architect John Black says people are building what he calls “monster houses” not just in Hawaii but also all over the country.

“It’s a new way of building,” says Black. “You build right up to the lot line and as high as you can. The feeling is the bigger the better.”

…Black says the idea of air-conditioned “monster houses” on Oahu lots where all the vegetation has been purged seems particularly sad. In Hawaii, life’s pleasure should be to sit outside in a lush garden to enjoy the sun and the natural trade winds.

Her column hits home with me.

Ten years ago, Pacific Business News profiled my parents and their WWII-era home in Kahala (“Sun sets on old Kahala homes, Long-time owners of smaller older homes now live in the shadows of gated mansions“).

The PBN article traces the real estate cycles that have produced the current crop of monster homes in the neighborhood, and comments on the passing of Old Kahala.

The backyard of John and Helen Lind’s Kahala home is seeing more shade from the afternoon sun these days.

It’s not from the large mango tree they planted behind their home in 1947, but from the two-story home being built next door, which towers over the Linds’ 63-year-old single-story house on Kealaolu Avenue.

On the other side of the Lind home, a concrete foundation awaits the frame for another two-story house. A concrete block wall erected over three days in June replaced Helen Lind’s croton hedge, which had separated the two properties for years.

Sandwiched between these two residential construction projects is the 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom house the Linds bought in 1943 for $6,000, “less $100,” John Lind said. “There was a scratch on the floor.”

Actually, there are two trees in the back yard. One planted when my sister was born, the other when I was born. They are now large, beautiful trees, still producing lots of fruit during good years.

After my parents died several years ago, we had to make a decision on what to do with their house. And it was the thought of a new owner bringing in a bulldozer to uproot the trees and scrape up any remaining bits of greenery that convinced us to find a way to save the property. And we have managed, rebuilding mostly in the footprint of the original house so that the trees can continue to spread their shade.

But walking or driving through Kahala today does make you wonder about the architectural profession. There are remarkably few newer homes that seem to give any thought to their surroundings or pay homage in any way to the island community they are part of. Neither the choices of materials nor the designs reflect anything of Hawaii.

“Sense of place” is apparently just a slogan, not something we encourage in practice.

There are the almost ubiquitous walls. Not fences to keep the dogs in, but walls to keep out the prying eyes of neighbors, which effectively prevent neighbors from eventually becoming friends. It’s hard to say hello and exchange a few words with those living nearby when they hide behind the walls of their suburban fortresses.

My mother hated the walls. She seethed when the new owners on one side dug out the panax hedge that had separated their home from my parents for more than 60 years, and replaced it with a concrete block wall. I suppose they gained some privacy. What they lost is far more precious.

There are too many homes that look like suburban bank buildings, with massive, out of place columns marking their entries, in case you happen to miss the oversized doors. It looks like those columns were almost required during certain time periods. Large homes, and larger ones, almost all sport their version of the column look. No trees, because they were cut down, but columns to trigger some dim primal memory of solid tree trunks.

The empty but well maintained mansions of the 1/10th of 1% that line the shoreline are sort of offensive, if truth be told. We often try to imagine what kind of a staff it must take to keep the inside of one of those monsters clean. It’s not pretty.

Meanwhile, by today’s standards, the homes next door that a decade ago seemed to dwarf my parents’ old house are starting to look less unreasonable.

Website makes recycling used items easy

Here’s one to add to your browser’s bookmarks: trash nothing! (Found at trashnothing.com).

It’s a good way to keep used items out of the landfill. Your trash is someone else’s treasure, as they say.

How it Works

There are thousands of locally run, grassroots freecycling mailing groups around the world. Once you join your local group or start a group, you can create ‘Offer’ posts for items you want to give away, or ‘Wanted’ posts for items you need (as long as you follow some basic rules).

For example, here is how offering an item works:

You have a bike you don’t need and you want to dispose of it.

Instead of throwing it away, you join your local freecycling group.

You create a new ‘Offer’ post that is sent to the group and seen by all of the group members.

When I entered “Honolulu” as my location, the site provided these local groups that I could link to. Here’s an image of the groups that were found.

groups on Oahu

If you’re looking for something in particular, post a “wanted” notice. If you have something to give away, post an “offer.”

I didn’t check whether there are groups on the neighbor islands, but you can just go to trashnothing.com and check that out.

It’s simple and straightforward.

Former project architects speak out about rail design

Pacific Business News reporter Kathleen Gallagher came up with two critical stories on Honolulu’s rail project over the past two weeks.

On March 15, she reported on the departure of the project’s chief architect, who warned that attempts to cut costs and reduce the projected cost overruns could ““decrease the level of amenity for the stations and other patron facilities to reduce cost in the aesthetically sensitive, downtown section of the city.”

And she noted: “Since there are currently no plans to fill Caswell’s position at HART, the design criteria and standards for the remaining sections of the rail route will likely be left to the discretion of the firms holding the design-build contracts.”

[See “Honolulu rail project’s chief architect departs, warns of project’s future“]

Then, in a follow-up, she tracked down one of the project’s first chief architects, who quit after just a year on the job after his criticisms and recommendations were ignored (“One of rail’s first architects speaks out about elevated design“).

Douglas Tilden was chief architect for InfraConsult, the projects main consultant, in 2007.

Tilden advocated for ditching the all-elevated design and instead adopting less expensive light rail technology, emulating transit projects all around the world.

“It is nothing short of a crime to run it elevated downtown and I told them that,” Tilden said.

The architect also had harsh words for the city’s political decision to begin construction in Kapolei and work back into downtown Honolulu, calling it “sheer lunacy.”

“The key goal of any transit system is to get the people interested by having it downtown first. Honolulu has made a huge mistake.”

He concluded: “I think Honolulu will be a poster child for how not to put a transit system in the city…they couldn’t be doing it any worse, it’s mistake after mistake.”

So here’s how it looks. The city paid big bucks to consultants, presumably to get the best available advice on how to make this transit project work. But the best advice of the consultant’s chief architect was ignored in favor of a plan that supported what the city’s political leaders favored. So the money paid for the architectural consultant was squandered because the city ignored his advice and counsel, and instead pursued its own course for other reasons.

You have to wonder how many other consultants are ignored unless they toe a predetermined political line.