Monday, December 3, 2007

Toll House Debate

Well, they are two sharp cookies, but we're actually talking about the point, counter-point on the discussion of toll roads and privatization of transportation.

Representative Marilyn Lee (District 38 - Mililani, Mililani Mauka) has an op-ed in Sunday's Honolulu
Star-Bulletin questioning the public policy of establishing toll roads and of introducing privatization into our state transportation system. She states: "Some would argue that this
 path is necessary because neither the state nor the counties have sufficient funds to build more highways. U.S. PIRG cautions that through such deals, the public loses control of transportation policy, and there is no guarantee that toll roads will deliver their promised value. The report cites such problems as an inability to prevent toll traffic from being diverted to local 
communities and difficulty changing traffic patterns on toll roads without paying additional compensati
on to road operators. The U.S. PIRG report also notes the difficulty of ensuring fair contracts when they stretch over multiple generations and changing community needs."

Representative Rida Cabanilla-Arakawa (District 42 - Waipahu, West Loch, Ewa) has an op-ed in today's Honolulu Advertiser advocating for toll roads as a means to alleviate traffic congestion, especially on the 
Leeward side of Oahu. She states: " With the toll concept, once the contractor has been paid off through toll collection, the road can then become a free road. It is no different from the "fly now, pay later" concept. The best part of this concept, why it is so successful and catching on like wildfire across the country and world, is that only the end user pays. The public roads will still be there for those who do not want to pay. Even they will still benefit from it, because the free road will be less congested. The savings on fuel and the amount of time spent behind the wheel are very attractive to consumers."

Are toll roads the answer? Rep. Cabanilla's bill, HB70, was introduced in 2007 and crossed over to the Senate. It awaits a hearing.


Anonymous said...

Representative Lee is truly transportation color blind. She visits Puerto Rico and returns to issue a rosy report for one of the worst new rail transit systems. Huge cost overuns and tiny ridership in relation to forecasts.

She visits PIRG and misquotes that PIRG is against tolling. PIRG advocates to "Stop Bad Road Privatization" that is, politicians salivating over multibillion dollar sellouts of existing public toll roads.

The northeastern United States and most of Latin America are full of public toll roads. New York City is getting congestion pricing like London did. Road tolling and privatization are as good as their underlying contracts are. Most contracts are excellent and protect the public interest. Toll operators do not gauge the public... if they charge too much, then too few will drive on the toll road and their revenues will suffer.

It is sad that such a myopic observer represents people in the Legislature and the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization.

M. Lee said...

I received an email today from Phineas Baxandall in support of the article I wrote on privatization of roads and tolling. He may be reached at US PIRG.

M. Lee

Kimo said...

As a citizen that is very concerned about our traffic congestion problems, I find that Rep Lee’s recent op-ed it the Star Bulletin, “Privatization of roads wouldn’t best serve the public interest” ( reveals a disturbing direction that I hope will be properly vetted by healthy debate.

She doesn’t like the private sector.
First, I note her disdain for the private sector. Anywhere she mentions “profit” in her piece, it is attached with negative images or motives, for example, “as bridges and road deteriorate, private investors…reap profits”, or “enormous profits for investors” who have invested in tolls, “putting even more burden on taxpayers”. She sees that “High-priced consulting firms” on “Wall Street” are “promising miracles for our congested roads” in exchange for “huge profits”. In her view, the pursuit of profit can only be accomplished by preying on the disadvantaged and unsuspecting taxpayer while enriching the few. Apparently, Rep. Lee doesn’t seem to have any problem burdening Hawaii voters with ever-higher taxation which is wastefully spent throughout the state. It’s ok to raise huge tax revenues to further one’s own political gain but it’s not ok to risk one’s own capital in anticipation of a fair return on investment.

Tolls=complete failure of goverment
What she fails to recognize is that government at all levels has so utterly failed to serve the public need for flexible, cost-effective transportation that there is now sufficient demand and value to support privately funded highways. The fact that tollways exist at all essentially proves that government is ignoring the needs of its constituents. And it’s not like there is insufficient tax revenue. If the state and local governments were to reinvest 100% of the taxes raised by private transportation (e.g. gas tax, registration fees, etc) back into public roads and highways, we would not have a congestion problem at all. Tell me why the state highway fund is continually raided for pet pork barrel projects and I’ll tell you why our state has some of the lowest highway miles per licensed driver in the country. Tolls can only exist where the government has failed the people. Show me a state that wisely reinvests its revenues in infrastructure that services individual transportation and I’ll show you state that neither has congestion nor tolls.

“Independent” report not so independent
Rep. Lee frequently references an “independent” U.S. PIRG report. So I took the extra step to actually download and read the report ( . U.S. PIRG ( is a private entity that is anything but independent: any organization whose opening line is a blanket statement like, “Public transportation, such as light rail and rapid bus systems, is the wave of the future”, clearly does not take an impartial view on addressing congestion issues if only for the simple fact that congestion is a highly localized problem and its specific solutions will greatly vary from one locale to the next.

Automobiles are the new demon
One thing was clear from the PIRG report, however, was that like nearly all rail proponents (including Rep. Lee), this organization dislikes automobiles. From page 9, “Auto-based revenues to finance transit make double sense…”, apparently Rep. Lee has no problem in making drivers pay more than their fair share (as if making everyone pay extra GEtaxes is fair) for rail systems, even though according to Hannemann’s own Alternative Analysis (AA), installing rail will increase transit usage by scant 1.3% of daily person trips (table 3-3, page 3-4). So one can only guess that Rep. Lee feels it’s less-than-noble for private individuals to risk huge sums of their own capital in anticipation of a return on their money but perfectly OK to involuntarily take more money from 100% of the population of Oahu to benefit 1.3%.

Lee’s own promise of miracles from rail
Finally, her claims of Rail’s benefits have no evidence to support them. She claims, “…modern transit solutions take cars off the road, reduce traffic, shorten commuter time, improve the public health, provide reliability and increase the quality of life -- all leading to economic well-being”. Allow me to show she is far more guilty of “promising miracles” than the apparently questionable private sector.

Congestion will be worse with rail
Will modern transit solutions take cars off the road? The question is whether they will take sufficient cars off the road to improve congestion, and to that, Hannemann’s own report responds with a categorical NO. Table 3-12 of the AA on page 3-25 clearly shows that H-1 is at level “F” (over capacity) today and in 2030 after rail will also be at “F” levels. In fact, today’s HOV/Zipper lanes are at level “D” today but in 2030 will be at “F”. So the common myth rail of reducing traffic is clearly repudiated by Hannemann’s own report which has employed several questionable tactics to put rail in the best possible light and despite that, we see that H-1 will be worse after rail than it is today.

Rail will not significantly shorten commute times
Will rail shorten commuter time? Not to any appreciable difference. Table 3-6 of the AA on page 3-11 shows that today’s transit rider takes 65 minutes to get from Kapolei to Downtown. Using rail in 2030, that same trip takes 65 minutes (folks, that’s not a typo). If you drive from Mililani in 2030, it is estimated that you will spend 60 minutes if you drive. Take bus/rail and you get there in 61 minutes. Where is the shortened commuter time here?

Rail increases public health?
Public health. Public health? I’d love to know more about where she gets that from. I can’t even respond to it because I don’t even know how she came up with that. Until then, I’ll put forth the claim that tollways “improve public health far better than commuting to work in a crowded train car and catching everyone else’s flu”.

Rail does nothing to improve quality of life
Quality of Life (QOL). This is one of my favorites that Hannemann frequently hangs his hat on. How does one quantify a quality of life improvement? The most obvious way relative to transportation issues is to determine how much more free time a better system provides. And from what I’ve put forth so far, rail does not provide any appreciable increase in the quality of life. And I could make a very clear-cut case that the increased GEtaxes reduce my QOL because I now have less money to spend on my own priorities like childcare, healthcare, and education. And let’s not forget the reduction in QOL that results from riding in a public transit system itself: anyone that has ridden any transit system in any city will tell you that driving in a comfortable car that’s properly air conditioned with your favorite music provides an order of magnitude increase in one’s own QOL over a hard seat on a train. If QOL goes in any direction with rail, it’s DOWN.

Disturbing trend from public officials
So yes, I’m quite disturbed when I read a column from an elected official that disdains private sector solutions to government incompetence, advocates an organization that wants to increase taxes on automobiles to pay for public transportation, and “promises miracles” of benefits to be provided by a rail system which Hannemann’s own report does not support. I’m appalled that an official that continues to support Hannemann’s rail project either hasn’t read the AA report, or cannot comprehend it, or worse, is ignoring it. Very disturbing indeed.

M Lee said...

I should have mentioned that the state of Texas now has a two year moratorium on the construction of toll roads by private companies due to questionable deals and a spate of "roads to nowhere".
As an advocate of physical fitness, I must also mention that the reason New York City is one of the healthiest cities in the Nation(see New York magazine)is because people walk to the transit station and back home. Anyone worried about the flu gets his flu shot.
Cheers, M Lee

Kimo said...

I'm disappointed but not surprised that Rep. Lee is so consistently devoid of any thoughtful analysis. She conveniently skips the concerns I raise and continues the same disturbing trend of not spending an iota of time to research the talking points she so conveniently repeats.

Rep. Lee, you'll have to do better than that. I know you're getting catchphrases from USPIRG and that's quite disappointing. You can't point to a SINGLE Texas "Road To Nowhwere" that was constructed by the private sector. Legislators, not the private sector, are the only ones that can so readily propose “Bridges to nowhere” as the Senator from Alaska so readily illustrated.

Had you actually looked into the Texas situation you would find that the purpose behind the moratorium is that the private sector is jumping on the opportunity to provide cost-effective transportation at a rate so high that it is alarming the bureaucracy. I can easily imagine Hawaii lawmakers watching in horror as the people take their own lives into their hands and fund their own projects. If I were you, I’d want a moratorium too. Monopolies don’t have to be efficient or accountable.

Had you Googled for about 5 minutes, like I did, you would have found in Dallas Morning News that despite the moratorium, 121 plans in northern Texas were excluded from the act. I guess those roads must be going “Somewhere” important. Further, there have been no clearly visible problems generated by the boom in privately-financed roads. Lawmakers “just want to catch our breath”. This is not quite as alarming as you characterized it.

Your belief that New Yorker’s health is caused by people walking to the transit station and back home would be really funny if it wasn’t so sad. Once again I went to the source you gave and scanned through the article ( and it stated many different possible explanations for the increase in New Yorker’s health in the nation such as diet, exercise (NY is a great city for walking around), and reducing crime & AIDs. I thought the most interesting theory was the one proposing that those that “who crave to make boatloads of money” move to NY and people who are heavier/less fit gravitate to suburbs. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know , but at least it certainly illustrates the incredible complexity that underlies something as simple as an increasing health trend.

Yet here you simply assign it to transit stations. Please! If that was the case, then the rate of driving should have gone down as well over the years and that curve has definitely NOT gone down in the years that NY’s health went up.

I’m happy that you’re posting comments like this online for your constituents to see when election time comes around. Thank you for your comments and I appreciate the fact that your actions provide more substantive support on my claims of a disturbing pattern.

I wish it wasn’t the case. I wish you would look into something before you take a position on it and at least be in a position to defend your stance with thoughtful debate. Sad. Very sad. Disturbing, in fact.

mM Lee said...

I happened to sit next to a member of the commission looking at Texas Roads when I was in Phoenix last week We had an interesting conversation on the subject.
Sometimes we can have conversations on the blog ttat are useful. Mutual listening is important, I have found and debate is always enlightening. MLee

Kimo said...

I totally agree and look forward to more public debate on this issue.