Archive for February, 2012

A sea of green and red in Waikiki

February 27th, 2012
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ThinkTech Hawaii

It’s Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Coming down Kalakaua from Beretania you already know you’re in trouble. You’re stuck and all you see ahead of you is block after block of green traffic lights. But traffic is jammed the whole way. Drivers are decompensating while the traffic stands stock still.

The time creeps with the traffic but it doesn’t get any better once you cross Kapiolani. Now you’re good and late, and it’s getting worse. The further you get into Waikiki, the more the traffic compresses. Still a sea of green. It’s total gridlock, not just tonight, but every night. We’ve all been there.

Waikiki, of course, is the jewel, the undisputed engine of our economy. It’s also the exchange point between the tourists and the community. Surely we can do better about the traffic coming and going in and out of Waikiki, but we accept it just as it is, suffering in silence not saying a word.

The lights in and through Waikiki are not timed, even though timed lights are ubiquitous in cities around the mainland, and cheap. I guess we can’t spend even that to alleviate the traffic in the center of the undisputed engine of our economy. We’d rather ignore the elephant in the room.

The makai lane on Kalakaua is lined with a quarter mile of cars who can't turn right. It’s because there are no right turn signals. You’d like to turn right, but pedestrians fill the crosswalk while you wait, so you can’t. Then the light changes and pedestrians fill the other crosswalk so you can’t turn then either. You have to wait for a sliver of a break in the traffic. For dollar half right turn signals could avoid the problem, but in a $12.6 billion industry I guess no one can afford them.

Who’s in charge here? Where’s the Mayor? Where’s his staff? Is there one person at City Hall who cares about this, who has some sympathy for the prisoners of Kalakaua, who spends even one moment dealing with it? Absolutely not - they’re all busy pushing rail. That is what they do.

Signal light sensors could also help, also for dollar half. They could change the signals when there’s no cross traffic. But there are no sensors either, so you’re stuck while the cross-streets are empty, forced to sit watching the lights turn from red to green, green to red, for what seems an eternity. Incredible that our great nation could put a space ship on the moon, but then this.

No, nothing is being done. As a result, the traffic is jammed up without relief, while the lights turn interminably from red to green, green to red and we grow frail basking in the glow. This is a huge barrier to visiting Waikiki. Who says we should go there? This is proof we should not.

People’s tempers flare, their horns blare, everybody is at their wits’ end. Nobody wants to come here again. And it seems to get worse every time, because the traffic is more congested and no one has done anything about it. I used to think that sometime, somewhere, some city employee would notice the agony of the congestion in Waikiki, but by now I know better.

Just as the traffic is hopelessly jammed, city government is jammed on the traffic, leaving the engine of our economy jammed. It’s hard to believe the city could care less. It would be so easy to do something, even something modest, even as a humanitarian mission for all the poor souls suffering there, but in deafening silence no one ever does anything or even speaks of it.

And where are the police? You don’t see traffic cops out there trying to manage the traffic. Maybe they’re also stuck and can’t get close enough. So there’s no human intervention to help get us through it. All you see is that sea of lights, that deadly hypnotic rotation from red to green, green to red, while your time on the planet fritters away.

Really, what cows we are in Hawaii. Why we tolerate this grotesque insult to our quality of life, our economy and our intelligence, is hard to fathom. At the end of the day, or night, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for letting it happen in Waikiki and in so many other places on our island.

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The State of Clean Energy can and should continue

February 21st, 2012
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ThinkTech Hawaii

Good news. The Hawaii Energy Policy Forum will do another energy TV series this year with Hawaii News Now.

The series "Hawaii: State of Clean Energy" on Hawaii News Now series last year was successful in its treatment of the subject and the education of the public and all bets are that this year will be even better. Linda Brock will be the producer again. She learned a lot about clean energy last year and is well-prepared to do it again.

Discussions are ongoing, but based on the “issues and controversies” approach of the Legislative Briefing presented by the Forum in January one would expect that the 2012 TV series will also deal with the hard issues, and that's what we need.

Clean energy has reached the point where it’s a big project, statewide in scope, and in Hawaii projects of that nature often get stuck for decades. The way to keep things going is to engender and encourage public discussion of the hard issues, and that's exactly what the Forum is trying to do in this series.

Will this ameliorate the current public reaction to energy cost increases? Maybe not, but it's better to keep the public informed. Believe it or not, there are those that feel we should not pursue clean energy because it will cost too much and ratepayers should not be asked to pay that much for energy of any kind.

The initiative is four years old, but some people have forgotten why it was organized in the first place. They would now like to write it off and go back to the way things were. That would be truly disastrous. To appreciate the memory loss, let’s look back to the way things were in 2007, only four years ago.

At the time, we recognized that oil was going up and would be sky high very soon; that we were dependent on it for transportation and electrical generation; that we were sending $6 billion overseas every year to buy it; that we had the good fortune of world class renewable resources; that we could use these resources to make clean energy; and thus keep the $6 billion at home to bolster our economy.

Sound familiar? That's because we had this discussion four years ago and we agreed to do clean energy as a way to avoid dependency, keep our money at home and develop a new industry in renewables. Have we forgotten so quickly? What in the world could lobotomize us into forgetting the initiative and all the great reasons that supported our decision? Hawaii - the state with the short memory.

Some people went into shock to find that building new infrastructure to generate electricity with renewables costs money (as if we didn’t know that), and that we actually have to pay for that. If anyone out there is surprised about this, he’s been sleeping at the switch. There is no superhero to bail us out - if we want to transform our energy system, we have to pay for it. There’s no free lunch.

The biggest single reason for the increase in utility bills these days is the increase in the price of oil. Are we surprised about that? We knew this would happen. Anyone who's surprised about it has likewise been sleeping at the switch.

People also have a problem understanding that when thousands of homeowners put PV on their roofs and stop buying power from the utility, the other guys, the ones who can't afford to put PV on their roofs, will have to pick up the cost of maintaining the system, of burning the oil to satisfy base load, and paying for the electricity the utility is obligated to buy from the PV guys. Over time, the disparity can and will be softened, but nobody should be surprised by any of it.

Don’t look, but we’re still in a recession with lots of joblessness and homelessness and a dearth of disposable income; water bills have been increased; income taxes have been increased; and we're being nickeled and dimed and dollared in every way by government. All these things make increases in utility bills harder to take.

We'll have to pay big bucks to repatriate the homeless; fix the sewers and roads; and if we’re really unlucky pay for the rail. All together, it's $20 billion and rising. We'll never be able to afford these costs and as they press in on us, some of will buckle. These costs will undoubtedly have a bad effect on our economy.

But the cost of renewables is absolutely worth it and of the highest priority, certainly higher than rail. Once we build and pay for the infrastructure of our new energy system, utility bills will stabilize. That will have a huge and positive effect on our economy, greater in a relative sense considering that by then the cost of oil will be far higher than anything we’ve seen before.

So the next time someone tells you we need to drop the whole thing, give up the gains we’ve had in clean energy and go back to the "safety" of imported oil, tell him he’s losing it. That's why it's so important that the Forum do its 2012 series and that we all watch it. We need to stay focused and finish what we started. We already know this, but every so often it needs to be repeated.

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Tourism – New directions for new times?

February 14th, 2012
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ThinkTech Hawaii

While we’re busy thinking about tech, energy, globalism and diversification in Hawaii, we also need to take a look at the sea changes in tourism in Hawaii, the primary engine of our state’s economy.

What are the investment opportunities? It's a $12 billion industry, but how much more can it grow? Will it continue to be the driver of economic expansion or do we need a third leg of the stool?

How will the new tourism use, integrate and collaborate with our tech community and participate in our long-awaited diversification. Is this a zero sum game or is there a common interest?

How will it integrate the bed and breakfast phenomenon, and the prospect of gambling? How will it adapt to current notions of ecotourism, energy tourism and adventure tourism?

How will it cope with the changing models of time sharing, shopping, entertainment, transportation and charter flights from China?

What are its interisland challenges, including the cost of interisland airfares, the anti-tourism policies emerging on Molokai and the possible closing of the hotels on Lanai?.

How will it capitalize on the enhanced diplomatic and trade exposure we had with APEC? How will tourism, especially tourism from China, connect with our local real estate market?

Like it or not, tourism is Big Business and changing and influencing Hawaii as never before. Tourism is a discussion we need to have, a discussion that's timely, a discussion that's coming up soon at ThinkTech.

The Hawaii Venture Capital Association and ThinkTech will address these issues in a joint program known as “Tourism in Hawaii 2012” on Thursday, February 23rd at the Plaza Club. There will be two discussion panels:

First Panel - NEW INDUSTRY AND GOVERNMENT DIRECTIONS IN HAWAII TOURISM

Moderator:
Rick Egged (The Waikiki Improvement Association)

Panelists:
Greg Dickhens (Kyo-ya)
Mike McCartney (The Hawaii Tourism Authority)
Rob Solomon (The Outrigger Enterprise Group)
Rob Stephenson (The Molokai Chamber of Commerce)

Second Panel - NEW DIRECTIONS IN TOURIST SERVICES, EVENTS AND ATTRACTIONS

Moderator:
Allison Schaefers (Star-Advertiser)

Panelists:
Mike Carr (The USS Missouri)
Chris Resich (Mary Charles & Associates)
Randy Tanaka (The Hawaii Convention Center)
Susan Todani (Kamehameha Schools)

There will be provocative discussions and Q&A, our usual stellar crowd of entrepreneurs, investors and service providers and the networking these luncheons are known for. For further information, see hvca.org or thinktechhawaii.com, or call Gail Caveney at (808) 262-7329.

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Planning actually requires planning

February 7th, 2012
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ThinkTech Hawaii

Last week a bill surfaced in the legislature to put rail projects on a “fast track.” That means suspending regulatory and permitting process to allow those projects to proceed to an unhampered and rapid conclusion. A few days later, a number of senators in a bill notably numbered 2012 floated the idea of putting state projects on a fast track. Coincidence, or is there a problem underlying both.

Of course there is. Hawaii is one of the great bureaucracies of the world. With a government exceeding 25% of the population, all those employees have to have something to do. What do they do, but regulate? They justify their positions by sitting on applications and finding things wrong with them, and ultimately rejecting them. That’s the nature of bureaucracy in general.

The bigger you make government, the more regulation you get, the more delay and the more denials. The larger number of employees and supporting staff and apparatus the more it costs you. The more delays and denials the more it costs those who are filing applications, and that takes a piece, a huge piece, out of them and out of our economy. That’s just basic Government 101.

But in Hawaii it goes beyond that. We live in a special place and that includes a great number of people who see themselves as the owners and stewards of the environment and who are determined to protect their interest in that environment. It’s not environmentalism in the classical sense, it’s more like personal environmentalism. Over the years, they have achieved a body of laws that supports them.

Taking it a step further, the government itself includes a great number of people who are determined to protect their interest in the environment and who actually go beyond that body of laws to do so. As a bureaucracy by definition, they have great power, but as a bureaucracy bent on environmental protection their power is greater still. This protects the environment, of course, and it also opposes all development in a state that very often says no.

And there’s a step after that. The environmentalists of Hawaii feel very strongly. When there is a controversy about an environmental issue or stopping a given development, they are likely not to accede to a decision adverse to their position. If a permit is granted, they appeal it. If they fail in the appeal, they continue their campaign anyway. They keep fighting long after their legal rights, which are prodigious in the first place, are exhausted. It never ends. This does not encourage development.

The result, of course, is the developers can hardly win. It takes decades and millions to get their projects approved. The only certainty is that every project will be faced with those decades and dollars. Developers know this going in, but even then many controversies exceed their expectations and fail. The quiet and more deadly side of it is that many developers never start in the first place, and many investors and entrepreneurs who might become developers don’t.

And that’s the landscape for development in Hawaii, a place where you can bet on bureaucracy, delay, expense and in many cases never-ending controversy. And with all that, the process often results in huge mistakes. Look at Kakaako, with dozens of multimillion condos approved without attention to the requisite infrastructure or aesthetics, in full view of the thousands of homeless who are swept from one of the neighborhood to the other every day and who will never be able to afford any of it.

With all this bureaucracy, we’ve done permitting without planning administration after administration, and the city shows it. Kakaako is a perfect example of non-planning, where Ozymandias shows himself over and over again all through the heart of the city, blocking the mountains from the sea and the sea from the mountains and the people from both. When you add rail, it will be far worse and hard to recognize Hawaii as a place of beauty.

These projects will last for hundreds of years and will take billions to remove. Omissions and mistakes in planning are long term and under our system are difficult or impossible to reverse. That’s why we have to be extremely careful in permitting and planning. Clearly, we have not been careful so far.

So it’s really scary on two levels when the legislature talks about fast track development. On the one hand, it reveals and acknowledges how impediments to development have clogged the system. Yes, we can be sympathetic to all those developers who have been stopped. They do need relief and hopefully there will be a better day for them sometime before the 22nd Century.

On the other hand, it raises the prospect of unrestricted development without any controls, which is deep water all by itself, and something we cannot afford. The answer is more difficult than status quo or knocking off all regulations. The answer is a thoughtful reevaluation of the planning and permitting process in general. We don’t need so many agencies making the same decisions. We don’t need so many bureaucrats all blocking the way. But we do need qualified and trained government officials with an understanding and a vision of how things should be, with due regard for environment and process.

That we simply don’t have. A “fast track” at this point seems more like a punt, and is not likely to make any progress toward doing the homework we should have done years ago.

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