There's a lesson for Maui voters in the contentious Honolulu mayoral election in which former Gov. Ben Cayetano is running essentially on a single issue - to reject plans for a fixed-rail transit system connecting new population centers in West Oahu with downtown Honolulu.
Cayetano is an intelligent, capable political leader able to persuade - or strong-arm - legislators of the credibility of his vision. His abilities are not in question.
That makes the fixed-rail issue the primary question for Honolulu voters to resolve when he's among the choices. But Cayetano fails the test on a key element. It's one that rail opponents consistently flub. The question is: What is his alternative?
There is no debate over the need to deal with traffic congestion on Oahu highways. Any driver who has been on the primary H-1 freeway on a weekday has experienced the congestion. It varies through the day, as traffic congestion does in any large urban area where workers commute from outlying residential districts to business and commercial centers. There are severe morning and afternoon buildups, turning four to six lanes of freeway and adjoining highways into a slow-moving mass of cars and trucks stretching a half-hour drive into hours of congestion.
There is nothing on Maui that compares.
It's a matter of capacity. A highway can accommodate a set number of vehicles at the same time. Congestion occurs when the number of vehicles on the highway exceed the capacity, sometimes by multiples of the capacity rating. A Texas Transportation Institute report notes a primary factor is what happens at highway exits. ("TTI's 2011 Congested Corridors Report," November 2011, mobility.tamu.edu.)
"Implementing congestion solutions would start at the 'to' end of the corridors identified in the tables of this report; that's close to where the bottleneck is and where solutions would be most effective," Congested Corridors said.
For Hawaii, the solution is not that simple. There are absolute limits on land available for expanding highway systems. As it is, much of Honolulu's first freeway was pushed through already congested urban areas, displacing homes and businesses to accommodate what was initially a six-lane freeway with badly designed entrance and exit ramps shoehorned into limited space.
Dealing with congestion also includes managing adjoining roadways to increase efficiency of the existing corridors, changing user patterns, diversifying development patterns and adding capacity. For Honolulu highways engineers, those solutions have been attempted or simply do not apply.
Cayetano, meanwhile, suggests the solution is to expand the city's bus system, dedicating a lane of the freeway for bus use. (Cayetano platform, voteben2012.com/cayetano-platform.)
More buses while reducing traffic lanes for the folks who insist on driving themselves, it's a solution that resolves nothing unless Cayetano also is proposing that Honolulu will stop growing.
The Cayetano solution also fails to deal with the impact of accidents and other events that shut down major corridors. Buses utilizing highways won't move traffic off highways, as a rail system can.
A recent Canadian transportation system analysis, "Evaluating public transit benefits and costs," notes that growth drives transit utilization. "In smaller cities, transit primarily serves transportation disadvantaged riders (people who cannot use an automobile), typically representing 5 to 10 percent of the population, but as cities grow in size and density, transit serves more discretionary riders (people who have the option of driving), and so provides more benefits by reducing traffic problems and supporting more efficient land-use patterns," it said. (www.vtpi.org/tranben.pdf.)
The report suggests rider utilization increases sharply when population tops 1 million.
Oahu rail opponents argue that utilization will not justify the high costs. The argument seems to be that Honolulu somehow will stop growing and existing highways will accommodate that level of development.
Maui taxpayers, too, would like to restrict growth. But planners anticipating continued growth would do well to establish transportation corridors that accommodate all options.
*Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.