Ready For A Rail Referendum

Larry Price
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Wednesday - May 07, 2008
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Identifying experts has always been a controversial issue in Hawaii. The reason is because we are an isolated community, and anyone who travels to Hawaii from a faraway location is interesting to listen to because they look and sound different - the farther away, the more expert he or she appears.

The literature shows that true experts in any field are very difficult to identify. For instance, the city hired a hand-picked panel of transportation experts to come here to tell our City Council which technology would best suit Oahu’s transit needs. We predicted at that time that most of their recommendations would fall on deaf ears. Many proponents of the multibil-lion-dollar rail system have been criticized by its opponents as lacking insight, intelligence and political will. They are probably wrong for doing so, because when a group is smart enough to know if someone is a true expert, then more often than not the group is smart enough to not need the services of those individuals.

Another consideration is that all experts, even the ones we imported for this “largest public works project in the history of Hawaii,” as it is being billed, have biases and blind spots, and so they make mistakes. What is also troubling is that not only do they make mistakes, they usually don’t know when they’ve made one. Just about any textbook on the subject of expertise will point out that an expert’s judgments are, more often than not, poorly calibrated. What that means is that there is very little correlation between an expert’s confidence in his judgment and the accuracy of it.

I will never forget the meetings I took part in with the experts on the construction of a “world-class” stadium. The major concern was cost, which was pegged at somewhere around $8 million. The experts ended up selling the state a $58 million “world class” facility built with a new kind of steel that wouldn’t rust. Instead, the experts said, it would turn to a burnt orange color and the steel would get stronger the older it got. Furthermore, it would have movable stands and the three possible configurations would handle large football audiences, rock concerts and Major League Baseball with ease.

Well, it didn’t. Aloha Stadium is now frozen in the football configuration and rusting away with no relief in sight.

Hawaii’s salty air rusts everything it touches - and that includes steel wheels running on steel tracks. It’s a scary thought that, in just 33 years, our “state of the art” sports facility is doomed and judged to be not worth repairing, and still the state Legislature wants to conduct a study to build a new stadium and give it to the University of Hawaii-Manoa to operate and maintain.

I’m not an expert on the cost or technology of any kind of rail system, but the cost of $4 billion for a train route that will take a rider from Kapolei to Waipahu seems a little steep to me. And that just a start. Somewhere along the line the rails would continue, but not to the Waikiki area where the tourists are, not to the airport, where the tourists arrive and depart, and not to the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where the action is.

Will the “Stop the Rail” movement succeed in putting the question before the general public? With the help of the Internet, it probably will. Will the public then vote down the proposed rail system? Probably not. Why? Because people vote on issues because they think they should. It’s their “sense of duty” to vote, because it’s proof they have a minuscule say in how their government is run. However, in the “Stop the Rail” movement, the public will be voting in their self-interest and not what is better for Oahu’s society. There is no clear correlation between self-interest and voting behavior.

And you’d better believe that all politicians know that. Example: Most voters are not wealthy and never will be, but since 1980 they have continually shown no interest in having the government raise taxes on the rich and use the income for its own purposes. What I’m suggesting here is there is no one on either side doing intense research on how voters say they are doing and how they vote on economic issues. Yes, it is true that people will vote on the economy, but generally they are not interested in single economic issues.

The “Stop the Rail” movement has the ubiquity of Internet access and information technology on its side, and there is no question the public is now more connected than ever before and firmly believes their wishes are not being addressed by arrogant elected officials. Said another way, they have few practical hurdles before them they cannot clear with ease. Their real obstacles are mental ones. Our governmental officials would be well-advised to consider this referendum worthy of their utmost attention.

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