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by Jamie Story

By now, most Honolulu residents are aware that Mayor Mufi Hannemann purchased more than $20,000 worth of newspaper advertisements under the heading, “Getting Real on Rail.” The ads contained accusations and mischaracterizations of me, the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, and a number of those who question the financial and environmental viability of the mayor’s rail plan.

First, it is important to know what prompted such an expensive personal attack from the mayor. Earlier in June, I wrote a letter to the editor clarifying some aspects of the recent Brookings Institution study on carbon emissions, which did not produce evidence as favorable towards rail as the mayor claimed. Since then, a mostly civil debate has taken place between both supporters and opponents of the proposed train.

Yet rather than use his advertisement to respond to the factual criticisms raised by the Grassroot Institute and others, Mr. Hannemann chose to demagogue those of us who refuse to blindly follow his plan.

First, Mr. Hannemann claimed that “far from representing thousands of people from many diverse groups,” the rail questioners are simply “four people using smoke and mirrors.” That’s funny, since nearly 30,000 people have signed the petition calling for rail to be placed on the November ballot.

The ad also implied that we are part of a vast conspiracy of organizations that “support the automobile, bus, highway construction, urban sprawl development and petroleum industries.” But the Grassroot Institute’s skepticism of rail has nothing to do with an affinity for cars or urban sprawl. Rather, we represent taxpayers who are concerned about the use of $6 billion—upwards of $6000 per Oahu resident, riding or not—for a train that has no promise of reducing traffic or energy usage.

Excluding New York City (which is a uniquely dense metropolis with ten times the population of Oahu), no rail system in the country carries as many passengers as even a single lane of highway. Rail is one of the least effective—and most expensive—means of reducing traffic congestion.

Mr. Hannemann then went on to attack my former employer, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, using quotes that are nearly a decade old. Since he breached the subject, let’s talk about the Texas experience with rail. Last December, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit announced that it had underestimated by nearly $1 billion the cost of its expansion to D/FW Airport. Local politicians are pressuring the legislature to increase the region’s sales tax rate to 9.25 percent – one of the highest in the country – with the extra penny going solely toward passenger rail.

Austin’s first commuter rail line is scheduled to begin service later this year. For $100 million, Capital Metro is converting one of its freight lines to allow passenger service for an estimated 1,700 riders per day. The agency will have to purchase additional cars if daily passenger demand exceeds 2,000 riders—a mere 0.5% of daily commutes. Even this minimal project has soaked up so much of Capital Metro’s budget that it had to postpone a proposed November election on further expansion until local leaders can find some other governmental entity to borrow the money.

And Houston’s 7.4-mile MetroRail line has earned the nickname the “Wham Bam Tram” as the result of 129 auto/train collisions in its first 30 months of operation.

Cost overruns, dismal ridership numbers, and negative cash flow have plagued rail systems in Texas and elsewhere. It’s baffling why Mayor Hannemann insists on emulating some of our country’s biggest boondoggles.

On a good note, at least Mayor Hannemann did not use taxpayer money to fund the advertisement against myself and fellow taxpayers. However, one should question his motive for producing and funding such a piece. If a well-intentioned citizen ignites such a response by stating a few facts and asking some questions, is the mayor trying to stifle all meaningful discussion that might run counter to his plans? And while the mayor paid for the ad using campaign funds, who contributed the funds in the first place?

As for the nonpartisan Grassroot Institute, we will continue to fight for limited, accountable government for the people of Hawaii. Maybe on the next major issue facing our community, the mayor and I will agree.