Smells Like Fiasco

The plans for O‘ahu’s rail system are so screwy, even die-hard mass transit fans can’t get onboard with it.

photo: Linny Morris

Here’s my fear: 50 years from now, people are going to look back at Honolulu’s mass-transit rail system as one of those, “What were they thinking?!” moments.

The workers will curse in the hot sun as they rip up the rails, grown over by weeds, an unused folly. And this just breaks my heart, because I’m such a believer in mass transit.

I’d really like for us to have better mass transit, but based on the route planned for our fixed-rail system, it’s as if the City Council and the mayor are building something designed to fail. They’re not laying track, they’re hammering nails in the coffin. Our state gets 7 million visitors a year, the engine that—for better or worse— drives the Island economy. That’s almost 7 times more visitors than the population of residents. But our planned rail route doesn’t have a link to the airport.

One won’t be able to ride the rail system to Pearl Harbor, either, destination of 1.5 million people a year. The route does not reach UH Manoa, where 14,481 undergraduate and 6,298 graduate students could become daily rail commuters. Nor does it go to Waikiki, home to, according to state data, 10 percent of all the state’s civilian jobs.

I keep thinking of a letter one of our readers, Jeff Merz, sent in about the planned rail route. Merz is a Waikiki Neighborhood Board member, and a commuter who rides the bus to work. He supports a rail system, but notes that “Rail transit only works when it goes to pedestrian-friendly destinations, activity nodes, and employment centers while linking them all in the process. Thanks to mauka/makai natural barriers, Honolulu was blessed with having all of our centers lined up in a row. It was simply a matter of connecting the ‘dots’ in one easy line.”

So why don’t Honolulu’s key “dots” show up in our rail route?

illustration: Michael Austin

The transit times don’t look very encouraging either. It’s projected that by 2030, it will take 62 minutes to travel by car from Kapolei to Downtown. On mass transit, 65 minutes. Um, three minutes slower ain’t gonna cut it. If you’ve been to a city with properly designed mass transportation, you know it should save you time. Boston and New York and great chunks of Europe and Asia have mass transit that shuffles millions of bodies around, and does so expeditiously.

Some say Honolulu is simply too small for mass transit. But I recall riding a freakin’ Monorail around Disney World, and that worked just fine: clean, speedy, got you to your destination in air-conditioned comfort. Why is it that an amusement park can have better public transportation than the 11th-largest municipality in America? Our small physical size should work to our advantage, not cripple us. I’m worried that this rail system—doomed to low ridership before it’s even built—is going to fail, on a huge scale, and that it will give the public-transportation naysayers, and the families owning four cars, and the gas-hogging Land Rover owners, more confirmation of their world view. “See, mass transit doesn’t work,” they’ll say. “People want their own cars!”

I think people want to get where they are going. I think they want to do it in a way that is convenient, reliable and safe. And, done properly, mass transit does just that. But this rail route sure doesn’t loook like it will help change anyone’s mind.