YOU’VE GOT RAIL:HOW THE HONOLULU RAIL PROJECT WON AT THE POLLS THANKS TO MEDIA
by Albert Lanier
The Honolulu Area Rapid Transit (HART)-more popularly known by Hawaii Residents as Rail-has been written about, examined, scrutinized, debated, argued over, defended, supported, accepted and rejected by hundreds if not thousands of Oahu residents for the past several years.
Rail’s finances have been the subject of intense controversy and complaint ($3 billion? $6 Billion? $10 billion?). The quality of the construction of the rail project as it winds its way-like a venomous snake looking to sink its fangs- into the urban corridors of Honolulu has been criticized. Its supporters are often savagely attacked by opponents for their reported corruption and dissembling.
In all of this continued recapitulation of the varied aspects of HART, what strangely hasn’t been looked at is the crucial factor for razor thin margin of voter approval for rail years ago during the election in which the rail project was a city ballot issue: Namely, the role that media has had over Rail’s stranglehold over the City and County of Honolulu and thus Oahu in general. The overwhelming python-like squeeze that rail has put the city into to the exclusion of such municipal issues as the poor condition of a number of island roads and struggles and hardships of the still sizable homeless population.
Thus, in defining the terms, this analysis will look specifically at TV and Radio advertising featuring Rail. The point will be to examine how the use of media and mediums allowed Rail to largely win the rhetorical and ideological battle over skeptical and broadly non-aligned forces.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
It is best to set our clocks back to the year 2008 when Rail was then the subject of initial scrutiny because of the municipal vote.
Let us begin with a radio ad that was according to its voice-over announcer “Paid for by city taxpayers.” This radio ad (which was found on youtube titled “2008 Pro-Rail radio spot”) encouraged city residents to back rail. The ad began not simply by exhorting people to vote for rail but by slyly describing traffic on Oahu noting that “congestion builds quickly.” The ad then notes that Rail is “the only large scale solution” to traffic and will reduce the number of vehicles on the road specifically in the Downtown and Ala Moana areas as well as lanes in West Oahu.
This is what I would label a “problem/solution” model ad. In order to get Oahu residents and voters interested in investing support for Rail, they have to see that the “illness”-automobile traffic to and from Honolulu-is so severe enough that they can be told about a possible “cure”-Rail-which will provide sufficient remedy. This ad does this quite quickly and concisely and then totuts Rail not simply as a solution but a “large scale” one. These words are not chosen at random. Since traffic is a problem of geographic scale, it needs a considerable sided solution. By touting Rail as a larger solution, the listener is led to believe that backing a gigantic and costly transportation system, the problem of traffic can be dealt with in its entirety.
The ad also deftly gets specific by citing the need to winnow down traffic flow to the Downtown and Ala Moana areas. Years after construction on HART began, the City found itself having to announce that the project would only go as far as Middle Street-thus ending before the project’s intended end of line which was Ala Moana- which became a campaign issue in the 2016 Primary Election race for Honolulu Mayor. The mention of Ala Moana in the ad is indicative of the false promises promulgated years prior compared to the actuality of the project at this current time.
Perhaps the most laughable assertion made in this radio ad is that “even if Rail transit doesn’t help your neighborhood, it will help overall.” From a municipal standpoint, this point is a losing proposition. It also makes no practical sense since there is no actual, direct benefit-just a shadowy, perceived one.
To compare this to another real issue on the island of Oahu, this is like telling Oahu Residents whose children go to public schhols that lack air conditioners that the fact that other schools in other districts have air conditioning and can keep cool in class will help students in every part of the island including in their schools. Logically, individuals would likely argue “if other kids in other schools can keep cool but ours can’t, how precisely is that helping us?”
The same could be said of this argument about rail. What it amounts to basically is “you should back rail so that other people can ride it and benefit from it except you.”
Still, despite that rather logically impaired point, the overall ad seems to hold up fairly well. When you compare this to a TV ad put out by the rail opposition group Stop Rail Now, the differences become quite clear.
The Stop Rail Now ad is inundated with negative language and phrases such as “wasteful rail project”, “misguided rail project” and the “Mayor and his well connected greedy friends.”
By contrast the radio ad uses constructive language with words such as “solution” and “help” being memorable.
2008 also featured a few TV ads from SupportRailTransit.com, the pro-rail support organization.
“Community” made note of the anti-rail opposition and their intent to get people at the time to sign a petition against the possible Rail project. The performer in the ad noted “that they are trying to turn Hawaii communities against each other” namely on geographical grounds. This is an appeal to unity. Thus support for Rail is couched in togetherness and harmony hile being anti-rail is seen as divisive and fractious.
“Say No has the same individual saying that local people in Hawaii “ cant afford to pay hundreds of dollars for gas every month”. This point raises a few eyebrows. Hundreds of dollars every month? Perhaps if one were living in states like California and Florida. It seems a bit of a stretch to say people spend hundreds of dollars simply for gas month to month. Of course our “concerned citizen” is shown standing next to a sign displaying gas prices while stating this. An obvious but effective way to get this point across visually.
Then our concerned local resident promises-as b-roll of an elevated train is shown at one point-that Rail will “reduce traffic” (Remember that claim?) and “get us out of our cars.” These claims are also made in the previous “Community” TV spot.
These two promises are perhaps the lynchpins of the efforts to approve, fund and build Rail on Oahu. The problem of course is that a 30 second TV ad cant provide details and specifics. Considering that Hawaii is a state of over 1 million people and more than 800,0000 of the state population live on Oahu and that traffic problems on the island are considered some of the worst in the nation, you would need thousands of people-let us just say at least 500,000 residents-to sop taking their cars to work and ride the elevated system. This seems at it is very face to be a statistically unlikely possibility.
Again, I note there is no actual, concrete benefit laid out to Oahu taxpayers and citizens with these ads-just murky, ill-defined promises.
Finally, another SupportRail Transit.com ad from 2008 also noted the Rail’s opposition proposal of an “elevated toll road” and claimed that they saw the solution to “traffic congestion” as “more cars” on the roads. The ad then launched into the benefits of elevated Rail system.
YOU’VE GOT RAIL
So how did advertising through the mediums of TV and Radio pave the way for eventual electoral victory and dominance of Rail?
- They successful defined the opposition: The TV ads mentioned here framed the anti-rail groups and individuals as divisive and fractious and painted their ideas and proposals as ineffective or just undesirable. Categorizing your opponents as negative by contrast elevates the pro-rail forces as positive.
- They laid out a familiar problem in need of fixing: Whether through verbiage like “congestion” or by looking at rail as a “large scale” solution to an expansive issue affecting hundreds of commuters, the radio ad presented an unavoidable and unenviable problem on Oahu that many could relate to.
- They offer a solution with no specifics: An Elevated Rail System is offered as the solution. It will get people to avoid taking their cars to work and minimize traffic. How many people would plausibly need to ride the trains? We don’t know. Percentage wise, how much traffic will be reduced? We dont really know. We wont know specifics until the system is completed and fully operational.
With this three point formula, the media plan for Rail worked. It was barely approved of by voters and the project went into construction where it remains today.
The formula also created the rhetorical and ideological blue print for the pro-rail interests that is used to the present. Construction delays? It doesn’t matter Funding issues? It doesn’t matter Cost overruns? It doesnt matter. Just refer to the blue print.
It is likely too late to stop Rail as miles of track and pillars have been constructed already but if issues and problems develop with the project after the system starts running, at least the average Oahu taxpayer now will understand just how this came to be.
Albert Lanier was a journalist and writer for 22 years. He freelanced for Honolulu Weekly, Hawaii Magazine and Pacific Business News amongst other publications. Now retired, Lanier has contributed op-ed pieces to the news site Honolulu Civil Beat and blogs for Medium.com