Big Loss for Honolulu Rail

Opponents of the $5 billion Honolulu rail project prevailed in their lawsuit charging that the city failed to consider a full range of alternatives before deciding to build rail. A federal judge ruled last week that the city was “arbitrary and capricious” in selecting rail and violated the National Environmental Policy Act in failing to present more alternatives in the environmental impact statement.

Construction on the rail line had already been stalled by a previous lawsuit that found that the rail project failed to comply with state historic preservation and burial protection laws when it failed to complete an archeological inventory survey for the 20-mile route before starting construction. Instead, it had planned to do the inventory just ahead of each step of construction.

Basically, the city let construction contracts and began construction prematurely because it wanted to commit funds before voters had an opportunity to stop the project. Voters will get their chance tomorrow, when former Hawaii Governor Ben Cayetano, who opposes the rail project and was one of the plaintiffs in the recent lawsuit, is on the ballot for mayor of the city.

Last week’s ruling sets an important precedent for rail projects nationwide. The National Environmental Policy Act clearly requires proponents of major federal projects or projects that receive federal funding to consider a full range of alternatives in environmental impact statements written for those projects. But for years the Federal Transit Administration has let agencies get away with considering no alternatives except “no action” or something called “transportation demand management,” which basically means a few minor upgrades to the existing transit system. This means that bus-rapid transit, express bus lanes, and other low-cost alternatives that are potentially superior to rail have been ignored in one of the most important planning steps.

Rail critics should cite the Honolulu ruling in asking transit agencies that have written environmental impact statements but have not yet begun construction to go back and redo the statements. At the very least, this should delay projects by a couple of years. At best, a complete analysis of alternatives will demonstrate to decisionmakers that rail is not a cost-effective use of scarce transit dollars.

Advocates of efficient transportation should also ask the U.S. Department of Transportation to rewrite its rules regarding New Starts to incorporate the requirements of the new ruling. As noted, the current rules only require two alternatives, and the FTA has proposed to weaken even that requirement. This court ruling should put a stop to that proposal.

Of course, a lot depends on the outcome of tomorrow’s election. If Cayetano wins, Honolulu will probably stop building its rail line no matter what the courts rule. If Obama wins, the FTA will continue funding ridiculously expensive projects no matter what the rules say. If the Republicans take the Senate, there is a chance that Congress could repeal or significantly revise the New Starts program when it reauthorizes transportation spending, as it is scheduled to do in 2014.

No one has any idea what Romney will do about transportation, but if the House and Senate continue to be controlled by different parties, gridlock may prevail no matter who sits in the White House. Of course, there is always the possibility that they may strike some sort of a “grand bargain” over transportation. But that will be the subject of another post.

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4 thoughts on “Big Loss for Honolulu Rail

  1. metrosucks

    Good for opponents. Honolulu doesn’t need expensive, ugly rail. Some of this boondoggle would be going thru undeveloped farming areas, for cripe’s sake!

  2. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    Last week’s ruling sets an important precedent for rail projects nationwide. The National Environmental Policy Act clearly requires proponents of major federal projects or projects that receive federal funding to consider a full range of alternatives in environmental impact statements written for those projects. But for years the Federal Transit Administration has let agencies get away with considering no alternatives except “no action” or something called “transportation demand management,” which basically means a few minor upgrades to the existing transit system. This means that bus-rapid transit, express bus lanes, and other low-cost alternatives that are potentially superior to rail have been ignored in one of the most important planning steps.

    Transportation demand management also can mean HOV lanes and other efforts to increase average auto occupancy. I have seen it considered as an alternative in highway projects as well.

    But I’ve never seen the one real transportation demand management measure used as a substitute for building rail transit lines. That would be value pricing or some variation on that theme. It has been used in the soon-to-open Toll/HOV lanes on I-495 in Northern Virginia, and on Maryland’s Route 200 (ICC) toll road. Both of these projects will have (and have) transit buses taking advantage of free-flowing traffic to speed transit patrons to their destinations.

    Rail critics should cite the Honolulu ruling in asking transit agencies that have written environmental impact statements but have not yet begun construction to go back and redo the statements. At the very least, this should delay projects by a couple of years. At best, a complete analysis of alternatives will demonstrate to decisionmakers that rail is not a cost-effective use of scarce transit dollars.

    See above.

    Unlike passenger rail, priced highway lanes allow the cost of construction and operation of a very fast-moving transit guideway to be spread out among many more users than most transit lines in the United States ever serve (be they rail or bus).

  3. kens

    The tactic of intentionally ignoring cost-effective alternatives to rail projects is hardly unique to Honolulu. Sacramento actually included a viable TDM alternative in its alternatives analysis report for its airport light rail project, by increasing trunk line frequencies, adding feeder lines and park-and-ride lots, etc. However, when the EIS was issued, the alternative had been watered down by decreasing trunk line frequencies (to half that of the feeder lines!), eliminating PNR lots, etc., ensuring it was not competitive with the light-rail alternative.

    Likewise, the Columbia River Project (connecting Portland, OR with Vancouver, WA) designed its BRT alternative such that it couldn’t possibly compete with the light-rail alternative. The CRC’s BRT proposal connects to Portland’s existing MAX light rail in Portland, forcing riders to transfer between the two systems, a sure recipe for reduced ridership (the light-rail alternative would instead extend the existing line into Vancouver). A serious BRT alternative would have run the buses down the I-5 freeway to downtown Portland. This would both save costs (adding a few miles of exclusive bus lanes to the freeway, necessary for travel time reliability, would cost only a fraction of what the light rail would) and improving ridership (BRT would offer much faster average speeds than LRT). In fact, the local Vancouver bus agency already runs express bus service to Portland that averages triple the speed of the parallel MAX line (45 mph vs 15 mph).

    bennett Reply:

    I would almost say that any project of any kind where consideration of alternatives is a requirement, the process is viewed as something that just needs to be checked off the list. It the eyes of those that are developing the project there are no better alternatives, otherwise they would be going ahead with the alternative. It’s a flawed system in which the goal is to appease opponents as much as possible, because as we all know, the decision has already been made.

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