» $5.5 billion, automated rail corridor is expected to attract 100,000 daily riders once it is completed in 2019.
A week after the Federal Transit Administration recommended it for New Starts funding, Honolulu’s rapid transit project took a step forward today with a ceremonial groundbreaking. The massive scheme, which will extend 20 miles from downtown to East Kapolei once construction is finished in 2019, will radically redefine transport on Oahu, offering residents a true alternative to traffic-plagued surface streets and highways.
Honolulu and the surrounding municipalities — incorporated into Honolulu County — are hemmed in by a geography whose natural barriers make the tropical metropolis practically ideal for fixed-guideway transit like the system that is now being designed. With mountains to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south, there is little room for the city to expand, so the only place it can go is up. The “Manhattanization” of downtown and nearby Waikiki over the past few decades is representative of this trend. And transit is a popular way to get around — The Bus, the local transit agency, carries 236,000 daily riders, and the city has a transit work commute share of more than 10%, which is the highest of any major city without rail in the United States and about the same as the City of Portland.
Honolulu is not enormous: The city (officially, the Census-designated place) has about 375,000 residents while the island as a whole has 900,000. But the deficit of space means there is no room for expanded roads infrastructure, and the lack of adequate public transit infrastructure operating in its own guideway poses a serious threat to the health of the region. Without better transportation, the city will not be able to densify further. Current decentralization trends, pushing habitation into previously untouched parts of the island, will be unstoppable.
Thus the likely commitment of the federal government to the rail project sometime in the next year or so is good news for Honolulu and Hawai’i as a whole, since the city serves as the state’s economic engine. Of $5.5 billion in construction costs to cover the 20 miles and 21 stations, Washington proposes to contribute $1.55 billion ($250 million in Fiscal Year 2012) — as long as the New Starts program continues to be funded. The city, which introduced a 1/2¢ sales tax in 2005, will cover the rest. Real construction activity will not begin for several more months.
The alignment, which roughly parallels the curve of the south Oahu coast, hits most of the major destinations in the metropolitan area, including downtown, the airport, and two institutions of higher learning (including one now being built). Especially when considering already high ridership along similar routes, the 2030 estimates of 116,300 daily riders do not seem impossible. And relatively short extensions west into Kapolei, northeast to the University of Hawaii-Manoa, southeast to Waikiki, and north into the Salt Lake neighborhood would make the line even more desirable if they are ever funded and built.
Despite the clear need for improved transportation systems in Honolulu, however, the project’s gestation has been difficult. Previous rail transit proposals were cancelled in 1981 and 1992 and a planned bus rapid transit line was abandoned in 2004. The arrival of Mufi Hannemann in the mayor’s office in early 2005, though, brought significant political support for a new rail line. The mayor pushed through the transit tax and won a hard-fought election against a rail opponent in 2008, as well as a voter endorsement of the project. A fight with Governor Linda Lingle, who argued that the project was too expensive to justify its costs, ensued.
Yet the recent election of Governor Neil Abercrombie and Mayor Peter Carlisle, both of whom assumed office in 2010, represented a major step forward, as each have been solid defenders of the project. As construction moves forward, the city will benefit from this show of support from the municipal and state governments.
It is true that the project remains under debate on both aesthetic and land use grounds.
The elevated nature of the system has a number of advantages: It will allow trains to run much more quickly between the ends of the island (at almost 30 mph on average) than would be possible with an at-grade light rail corridor running through intersections, and it will offer automated trains, allowing high frequencies even off-peak (6 minute maximum) and lower labor costs because of the lack of train drivers.
Nonetheless, the elevated guideway will not be a particularly beautiful addition to the Hawai’i landscape, and in some places it could represent a barrier between the city and its waterfront. The alignment will require 20 residences and 66 businesses to be bulldozed. It is also expensive: A ground-level light rail line or a busway could probably be built for fewer funds. Yet neither would provide the kind of mobility benefits the automated rail line would.
Moreover, opponents of the project suggest that its appeal — fast transit times from downtown to the far west side of the island — will encourage sprawl in areas around the planned university and in Kapolei. Indeed, there are already proposals on the books for a giant project with thousands of homes that will shift patterns of house-building activity to this area. Is it worth paving over now-agricultural land for the purposes of building park-and-rides with the assumption that in the future these areas will become transit-oriented cities of their own?
But Doug Carlson, writing on his site, poses a different question: Does Honolulu have any choice? Given that the city will continue to increase in population, the number of automobiles running up and down its highways will only ramp-up as well. Assuming that growth is inevitable, the city might have no option but to promote new communities designed for commuting by public transit. In that case, this rail project seems completely justifiable.