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Our City on Rails

After decades of false starts, Honolulu is closer than it’s ever been to a mass-transit rail system. So what’s next? What’s this thing going to look like? And will it work?


In december, the honolulu City Council approved the mass-transit plan that Mayor Mufi Hannemann has made a top priority of his administration—a decision that brings us closer to a rail system than we’ve ever been before. But it’s too soon for Hannemann to claim victory. There are huge challenges ahead, and many details that need to be pinned down. And even if we manage to pull it off, will rail work as advertised? Here’s what you can expect over the next few years.

A computer-generated rendering of a possible Downtown transit station.

What’s this thing going to look like?

Most of what we know about the proposed rail line comes from a study commissioned by the city from rail consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff. This Alternatives Analysis compared four different proposals for curbing O‘ahu’s growing congestion problem and concluded that a fixed-guideway system provided the best cost/benefit ratio.

The Department of Transportation Services (DTS) has a pretty good idea about what the rail line is going to look like. It’ll be an elevated, two-track rail line, with roughly 28 stations along the route, each measuring about 50 feet wide and 300 feet long. The system will be open from 4 a.m. until midnight, with trains coming through every three to six minutes.

Check, Please
The City expects a 20-mile transit line to cost $3.6 billion. How do you spend that much money?
CONTINGENCY FUNDS (in case of cost overruns) $670 MILLION
source: Honolulu C&C Department of Transportation Services

Although the vision of rail that captured the public’s imagination was a 28-mile line running from Kapolei to the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, it turns out that the city can only afford to build a smaller section of that line, 20 miles long. Adding enough rail to reach UH Manoa and Waikiki would cost another $1 billion.

As for the specific route, the Honolulu City Council was, as we went to press, deliberating over a route recommended by DTS that connects UH’s new West O‘ahu Campus with Ala Moana Center, running largely along existing city streets—Kamehameha Highway, to Dillingham Boulevard, to Nimitz Highway, before cutting up through Halekauwila and Queen streets.

It’ll be awhile before you’ll actually be able to ride that 20-mile segment: 2017, according to current estimates. The city is shooting to break ground in 2009, with the first segment of track opening in 2012. The segment will be only 7 to 10 miles long, meaning that, if construction starts at the western end, it will only reach Waipahu, maybe Pearl City.

To keep from cluttering lanes where the rail touches the streets, the line will use medians whenever possible, supported by a series of 6-foot by 6-foot pillars spaced 120 feet apart. It won’t be completely unobtrusive; drivers may not like losing the left-turn lane down the center of Dillingham, where the track will need to run. To compensate, DTS plans to leave room for turning in certain areas by lengthening the span between supports to as much as 200 feet.

To keep land acquisition to a minimum, the bulk of each station will be at rail level, 20 to 30 feet in the air. Toru Hamayasu, chief planner for DTS, estimates that the escalators and elevators needed to get people up and down from the second-story platforms will require an additional 2,000 square feet in each neighborhood.

The current plan calls for the city to buy 79 homes or businesses for the 20-mile line, with $70 million in right-of-way costs built into the $3.6 billion budget. But DTS director Melvin Kaku says his department will be working with neighborhoods whenever possible during preliminary engineering to place stations where they are actually wanted. “We want to minimize any impact, in terms of taking land,” he says. “Our hope is that, as we construct and ultimately operate, this will actually be an incentive for local businesses, bringing in more traffic.”

Here’s what a fixed-guideway system might look like running past the Pearl City Sam’s Club on Kamehameha Highway.

Kaku says there are only two areas in which the entire properties will be impacted. One is in Iwilei, by Ka‘a‘ahi Street, where some business parcels will be taken to make room for the transition from Dillingham to Nimitz. The other one is the transition from Queen Street to Kona Street, near Ala Moana Center. “The rest of the areas, we’ll be using slivers of land, if anything, to widen sidewalks.”

The next step for the city is hashing out the specifics, with an environmental impact statement and preliminary engineering. This involves surveying the route, figuring out the exact size and shape of the rail line and stations, figuring out how loud the transit system will be in surrounding neighborhoods. It will also allow the city to refine the project budget and figure out the exact locations of transit stations, park-and-rides and base yards. This is a long process—if all goes according to plan, preliminary engineering will wrap up in early 2009.

Will the system really work?

At a cost of $3.6 billion, and a projected 16 years of construction, rail is the City and County of Honolulu’s biggest civic project ever. It makes sense to stop and ask: Will a fixed-guideway mass-transit system be worth the time and money we spend on it?

Computer-simulated renderings of what a transit station near the Aloha Tower Marketplace could look like.

According to the city’s Alternatives Analysis, the goal of any new transportation system is to provide “improved mobility for persons traveling in the highly congested east-west transportation corridor between Kapolei and UH M-anoa.” Will a fixed-guideway rail system do this for us?

According to the Alternatives Analysis, yes. The study projects that, in 2030, a 20-mile rail system could cut the total daily hours of vehicle delay by 11 percent and reduce overall travel times within the corridor by 17 percent. This doesn’t mean your specific rush-hour commute will be 17 percent shorter. As an average, the overall statistic includes off-peak-hours traffic and bus riders.

The next best alternative, managed lanes, offered improvements of 4 percent and 3 percent, respectively. (In case the term is new to you, managed lanes, also known as High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes, are essentially limited-access roadways for buses and other high-occupancy vehicles. Single-occupant vehicles—that would be you, most likely—could use the lanes as well, by paying a toll.)

The Details
HOURS OF OPERATION: 4 a.m. to midnight.

TRAIN INTERVALS: every three to six minutes

AVERAGE SPEED: 23-25 miles per hour

Fares will most likely match future bus fares with transfers and passes usable on both systems.

Before approving the project, the City Council double checked the findings of the analysis by having a transit advisory task force review Parsons Brinckerhoff’s methodologies. The task force found that the numbers were reasonable, and ended up supporting the report’s overall findings.

One of the task force members, Panos Prevedouros, took issue with the analysis’ conclusions, and produced an 11-page report that listed 18 specific criticisms. Prevedouros, a professor of traffic and transportation engineering at UH Manoa, warns that a rail system will never be as effective as managed lanes in reducing congestion.

Chief among his concerns: Why people would give up their cars to commute by rail. “One of my conclusions, based strictly on their numbers, is that, between ‘Aiea, UH and Waik-?k-?, with 2030 congestion numbers, automobiles will still provide shorter travel times,” Prevedouros says. “Travel time is the key, because rail does not offer the convenience of automobiles. If it cannot improve your travel time by a lot, there is no reason for people to choose it.”

If, for example, it takes 62 minutes to drive from Kapolei to downtown Honolulu, and 65 minutes to walk to the nearest transit station and make the same trip by rail—why give up the freedom and privacy of your car?

Karl Kim, the chair of UH M-anoa’s Urban and Regional Planning Department, and another member of the transit advisory task force, downplays the importance of singling out trip times in gauging rail’s congestion-fighting power. “You have to look at the thing in totality, rather than picking one time of day or one particular type of trip,” he says. In the larger picture, planners are anticipating about 95,000 boardings a day on the rail system by 2030, representing 7.4 percent of all travel within O‘ahu’s main travel corridor.

Your Commuting Future
Here’s how long your rush-hour drive will take in 2030, under two scenarios: By car, if the city doesn’t build a rail line, and by train, assuming you walk or catch the bus to the nearest transit station.
Kapolei to Downtown
62 min.
65 min.
‘Ewa to Downtown 70 min.
63 min.
Waipahu to Downtown 53 min.
41 min.
Mililani Mauka to Downtown 60 min.
61 min.
Pearlridge Center to Downtown 35 min.
35 min.
Downtown to Ala Moana Center 17 min. 17 min.
source: the Honolulu high-capacity transit corridor project alternatives analysis report

“They’re using some pretty conservative underlying assumptions,” Kim says. “For example, since we don’t have a rail system here, the likelihood of using transit is a function of the likelihood of taking the bus now. When, actually, rail riders are different than bus riders. They typically have higher incomes, own cars and are often much more concerned about the reliability of the trip than bus riders are. A lot of people will pay for predictability.”

Other critics contend that Parsons Brinckerhoff didn’t give the other transit alternatives a fair shake. Cliff Slater, a rail opponent, says the Alternatives Analysis of managed lanes handicapped the scenario by removing the zipper lane from the H1 freeway, resulting in a net gain of only one lane. “They exaggerated everything,” Slater says. “They handicapped the HOT on price. They added to the cost 5,200 parking stalls. Every way they did it, they fouled us up. And that’s because they’re client-focused, and their client didn’t want the HOT lanes.”

Will it happen?

Though rail seems like a done deal, both its fans and detractors should know that there are big hurdles to clear before the train leaves the station. Before we can build this system, we’ll have to be able to afford it. Hannemann has gotten farther in this respect than any of his predecessors, by winning the state Legislature’s approval to add a half-percentage-point surcharge on the state general excise tax, earmarked specifically for a fixed-guideway system. Over 16 years of collection, the surcharge is expected to pull in a total of $2.6 billion to $3.2 billion, depending on which forecasting model you use.

A possible transit station near Anna Miller’s in ‘Aiea.

Given the current cost estimate for the project, this means we could potentially be short as much as $1.2 billion in construction costs. The savior here will need to be the Federal Transit Administration, which runs a public transportation system funding program called “New Starts,” and could potentially kick in the funds needed to complete the project.

Of course, federal funding is far from in the bag. Honolulu is competing against cities across the U.S. for a limited pool of funds, and the Feds will be scrutinizing the project closely to make sure it passes muster, particularly after Honolulu’s previous failures to match federal funds appropriated in 1992 and 2000.

But the administration is optimistic about its chances. Hannemann says he’s met with James Simpson, the new FTA administrator, to present his plan, and was encouraged by the response. “They were impressed that we had local, dedicated funding,” Hannemann said at a January press conference unveiling the 20-mile route. “We’re putting our money where our mouth is, saying we’re ready to pay our share. It speaks volumes ... to breaking the negative reputation we’ve had for seven years, after basically saying aloha to $620 million in federal funds that had been appropriated and was ready to go.”

This section of rail, running up University Avenue, is not included in the current 20-mile route.

Hamayasu, also, says that DTS has been working hand in hand with FTA to make sure that this transit project qualifies under its stringent guidelines. “We are expecting about $1 billion, and we’ve been encouraged by FTA that’s a reasonable assumption,” he says.

Not everyone is so sanguine. Charles Djou, one of two city councilmembers to vote against the transit proposal, points out, “If you look, historically, what is the largest single disbursement the federal government has ever given, outside of New York City, for a rail system? $750 million. Every dollar short of $1.2 billion that the Feds give us is a dollar that’s going to be coming out of our wallet.”

A possible transit station at Honolulu Community College.

The wild card here is the prospect of public/private partnerships between the city and developers who want to get in on potentially lucrative developments along the transit corridor. A shopping-center developer, for example, might be willing to foot the costs for a transit station in exchange for the right to build around it.

DTS director Melvin Kaku says, “We fully expect developers to come to the table and start talking to the city about different opportunities. Anytime that a public/private partnership is entered into, that money will certainly be used for one of two things: to reduce the overall cost to the city, or to supplement revenues in order to build more. It could blossom into something bigger than we had originally planned for.”

Can we hack it?

Our final concern is probably the most basic one: Does our city government have the chops to pull off a complex, long-range project like this? Communication and cooperation between city departments are going to be vital in the next few years, and yet already disagreements are popping up over the details of the plan.

The City Council, for example, has reserved the right to choose what kind of vehicle will be running on the fixed guideway. Barbara Marshall, the Council chair, says: “We wanted to make sure the possibility of a bus or rubber-tire transportation was left open. If you do it the right way, the bus can use the elevated system and then go down into the city streets.”

But DTS wants to choose a vehicle technology through competitive bidding, and Hamayasu says the busway-to-streets scenario Marshall is picturing isn’t even possible under the current plan. “The locally preferred alternative says a fixed guideway, not a bus way. It’s obvious that ramps will require a lot more land take as well as additional structures. That’s not in our plan.”

What’s happening when?
source: the honolulu high-capacity transit corridor project alternatives analysis report

While the Council is figuring out how to deal with the technology question, it will also need to start working better with the Department of Planning and Permitting to figure out the zoning issues for transit-oriented development along the rail corridor. Says Marshall, “They’ve been dragging their feet, saying, No, we don’t want to do it, we need to see the route first before we do anything.”

Henry Eng, director of the Department of Planning and Permitting, describes the situation a little differently: “The Council is wanting this stuff yesterday. They seem to be a bit impatient, from my perspective.”

And this is what’s happening with a group of elected and appointed officials who are, with a few notable exceptions, pro-rail. What happens when, halfway through this 16-year process, most of them have been replaced?

A fixed guideway rail system holds a lot of promise for Honolulu’s traffic problems, but with so much to accomplish in the next few years, the road to rail may be bumpy indeed.

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