» The recession pushes the Governor to argue for changes, including a conversion from heavy rail to light rail; the Mayor of Honolulu stays the course.
At $5.35 billion, it was bound to provoke a fight.
Honolulu’s planned heavy rail transit system, which would run 20.2 miles between East Kapolei and Ala Mona Center by 2019, is expected to serve more than 100,000 daily riders along its 21-station elevated guideway. That is, if the city is able to secure a federal New Starts Full Funding Grant Agreement as planned in 2011, and as long as it is capable of maintaining adequate tax revenue to pay for the line.
That’s where Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle (R), now in the last year of her second term, and Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann (D), in the second year of his second term, strongly disagree. Whereas Mr. Hannemann is a strong proponent of the rail system and has campaigned repeatedly on behalf of the multi-billion-dollar project, Ms. Lingle — whose approval for the line is ultimately necessary for construction to begin — has become an opponent, arguing that it will be a top-heavy burden for the city’s taxpayers.
Though the line has been under consideration since the 1970s, Honolulu’s combined city/county council finally approved a financing mechanism and an alignment in 2005, with a 0.5% sales tax to pay for the project going into effect in 2007. Voters affirmed the project’s construction in a special referendum in November 2008 just as they were reelecting Mr. Hannemann. The Federal Transit Administration moved the project into preliminary engineering in summer 2009; construction is to begin later this year.
Yet Governor Lingle, who supported the project earlier in her career, is now making the rail line a political issue. With more than 70% of Hawaii’s population living in Honolulu County (co-terminus with the Island of Oahu), Ms. Lingle made clear last week that it is in the state’s best interest to move the project forward in a way that reflects the effects of the current recession, specifically a lower tax base. To support her position, the Governor is planning to play host next week to a conference by the American Institute of Architects’ Honolulu chapter, which is opposed to the project in its current form. She will also visit Washington in February to discuss the project with the FTA because of her conviction that Mr. Hannemann’s administration has been advancing a scheme for which the city will ultimately be unable to pay.
Ms. Lingle’s cost-cutting position is informed by the proposals being put forward by the AIA: Move the planned elevated rail line to ground level and convert from automated heavy rail technology to a light rail system powered by overhead catenary.
Mr. Hannemann has laughed away the term-limited Governor’s suggestions, but the Mayor will need to solidify his position if he intends to get his project off the ground. The FTA has repeatedly questioned whether the city will be able to fund the project. Because Honolulu is expecting New Starts grants, however, to cover only 29% of total costs (about $1.55 billion), the federal agency has continued to push forward the program with a “medium” cost-effectiveness rating. Despite falling tax revenue, the city has not had to adjust the project’s size significantly because of lower-than-expected construction contract costs.
As a result, the Mayor’s ambition for a rail line whose first phase would go into service in 2012 seems likely to be fulfilled, unless Ms. Lingle is able to raise enough concern at the FTA to put a halt to plans. For the sake of the mobility of Honolulu’s population, one hopes that she fails.
Indeed, it has become increasingly obvious that Ms. Lingle’s objections have as much to do with the project’s design as they do with its financing; the FTA has gotten better in recent years in getting transit project costs under control, and the Honolulu line does have more than $1 billion in contingencies built in already. The Governor’s support of a light rail alternative over the elevated heavy rail line planned would result in a far less-used project that would do far less to affect the island’s commuting patterns.
With the majority of its residents and workforce concentrated along its curved southern coast, Honolulu has an almost ideal population distribution for a major grade-separated transit line. As shown in the map below, density follows a thin corridor paralleling the coastline, a result of the protected mountain reserves north of the city center. The H-1 highway, the only major arterial that runs in the area and therefore the road that carries the majority of island automobile movement, is perpetually traffic-clogged. It would be very difficult to either expand the road or add bus rapid transit lanes because of the built-up nature of the areas around the road. The rail line would follow that linear density.
Ms. Lingle’s solution, which would transfer the elevated line to an on-the-ground light rail corridor, would potentially reduce the price of the line by more than half. But the street-running system promoted by the AIA would eliminate most of the time-saving advantages of the train. The planned system would reduce average transit commutes from Western Oahu to the urban core from 95 minutes today to 65 minutes, a massive improvement due to the 3 minute peak headways to be offered by the fast automated trains unaffected by interfering traffic. Light rail operating in the street, even with its own right-of-way, would be far slower; for example, the 20-mile Phoenix light rail system takes 1h05 to complete its journey, versus the 42 minutes projected for Honolulu’s slightly longer line.
If Honolulu’s estimates of 116,000 daily riders by 2030 seems unrealistic considering that the Phoenix line only attracts about 40,000, the 23-minute (35%) difference in travel time to be offered by the Hawaiian system may indicate that those numbers are too low; Vancouver’s heavy rail Canada Line, only 12 miles long and operating in a less dense area, is already attracting about 100,000 daily riders just a few months after opening. The fact that Honolulu’s population is heavily concentrated in single corridor that is expected to have 760,000 residents and 500,000 jobs by 2030 can’t hurt. Fourteen miles of planned extensions into Waikiki and to the University of Hawaii-Manoa will make the project all the more valuable.
A repeat of the situation in Miami and San Juan, the most recent American cities to build single-corridor heavy rail systems, seems unlikely, meaning that Honolulu shouldn’t hesitate in pushing forward its program. In each of those cities, lines were built at huge prices, but ridership has fallen significantly below expectations.
But the differences are substantial: neither of those projects managed to reach the urban core, significantly limiting work-based ridership; meanwhile, both Miami and San Juan are spread out in several directions from downtown, meaning that one transit line won’t solve many commuting problems. Honolulu’s uniquely linear development will make its rail line useful for a huge percentage of commutes, especially because trains will be substantially faster than automobiles following similar paths on congested roadways.
But those speeds will be only possible with a completely grade-separated line. Mayor Hannemann has to ensure that his vision of a truly rapid transit line is realized. Similarly, he must fight for the construction of all of the project’s 20.2 miles; since the line will only enter downtown in the final planned phase in 2019, it will not acquire its full utility until then. Once it does, however, the advantages of a grade-separated heavy rail line will be made manifest by the large number of commuters switching from their cars onto the train.
Of course, the AIA’s concerns about the visual impact of the line have some merit; there is little beautiful about the planned elevated structure (though the stations should be interesting). There are still plenty of ways to improve the project. As Jarrett Walker notes, elevated lines can add to the urban landscape, but as currently designed, the Honolulu project won’t do much.
Even if Honolulu does build the rail line with its ugly concrete pillars and guideway, though, it will offer far more benefits to the daily lives of Hawaiians than the at-grade light rail project Governor Lingle is now advocating, which will attract far fewer passengers because of its slower speeds. One hopes her objections are a simply a distraction before construction begins.