Sunday, April 3, 2005


State must seize
rail opportunity

The people of Hawaii and especially the island of Oahu are facing very important decisions about how we want to live our lives. Many of us wish we could go back to the days when Oahu was more rural and the pace of life was slower. Realistically, those days are over, and we are starting to realize that the problems we face are not those of a frontier town but similar to those of the most densely populated cities in the country.

State Rep. Marilyn B. Lee (D, Mililani-Mililani Mauka) is vice chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee.

Do we want the entire island to be one large subdivision or would we prefer to protect large portions of it for agriculture and parkland?

Along with these land use decisions, we must decide how we are going to travel to and from work. If we opt for continued subdivision development on ag lands, we can count on more cars. One could imagine a rail system connecting far-flung subdivisions to employment centers, but in practice more subdivisions have always meant more cars.

A better vision for the future is development linked to our transportation system; new development that would occur on or near transit routes (highway, rail, bus or ferry) and particularly near rail stations. This development would be "in-fill" development -- that is, construction on smaller pieces of property near or in areas that already have been partially built up. This would preserve ag land and give urbanized areas the population density that makes public transit most cost-effective. In order to ensure our future, we must stop concentrating on the development of ag land and get serious about building an efficient public transit system that promotes in-fill development.

House Bill 1309 will allow each county to raise the general excise tax by up to 1 percent for transactions attributable to that county. The county may use the proceeds to improve public transportation, including a rail system, ferries, bikeways and buses. This is a first step in getting serious about public transit. Because of the expense involved we are going to need as much federal and private help as possible.

According to officials at the Federal Transit Administration, there are many municipalities chasing limited federal transit dollars and more than 225 projects currently in the pipeline. The FTA must look at several criteria when awarding public transit grants. One is whether local land-use policy is conducive to public transit. The FTA looks favorably on policies that encourage appropriate population density, dovetail transit construction with future development and take into account the costs of suburban sprawl.

HB 1309 should be adequate to demonstrate to the FTA we are serious about the local source of funds. As for development, our land-use laws are second to none; however, we need to be more serious about using our land efficiently. Because of the rising price of housing on Oahu, and all around the state, pressure to build on green field sites is constant. Building a rail-based system will help to alleviate that pressure because a rail line will act as a focus for development.

For the future of our island home and our children, we must add a fast and efficient mode of transportation to those we already have. Not only will building a rail-based system improve and sustain our economy through job creation and improved mobility, it will greatly improve our quality of life for generations.

HB 1309 is quite possibly the most important bill the Legislature will vote on this session. On Oct. 27, 2004, the New York City subway celebrated its 100th birthday. It is likely that in the year 2105 the train system we are about to build will still be in operation.

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