Under the Sun
Rail: great achievement or spectacular failure
IF ANYTHING can be counted as a safe bet, it's that the City Council will choose rail as the way to try to keep Honolulu on the move.
Another safe bet is that the long path from concept to reality will be plowed with a whole lot more conflict than has already been provoked by mere selection from the so-called "transit alternatives," not to mention the hoo-ha that preceded over an excise tax increase that's supposed to pay for the thing.
The rail transit project has been described as the biggest civic venture in Oahu's history, bigger than the H-3 freeway that consumed nearly 40 years with legal and verbal battles about cost, land use and development, cultural and environmental matters -- the typical stew of issues that identify decision-making in the islands.
Rail's price tag dwarfs the H-3's $1.3 billion toll. Whether the Council picks the petite 20-mile design or the plus-size 28-mile style, the estimates of cost are breath-taking at between $3.6 billion and $5.5 billion. And, as everyone knows, estimates have a tendency to veer into the atmosphere; the initial estimate for the trans-Koolau highway was $250 million.
THE H-3 runs a tad more than 16 miles and was built through mountains and valleys that were largely uninhabited, save for endangered plants and animals and historic sites. Both proposed rail routes will course over and above occupied space with the potential of dislodging an unknown number of commercial and residential structures. Old burials will be unearthed, neighborhoods and people disturbed, streets rerouted and familiarity erased.
As happened with the H-3, the hue and cry will get louder. Vocalization even now is in full throat from the usual suspects, like rail critic Cliff Slater, who condemned the H-3 as a boondoggle and who predicts few will use rail, as did highway opponents who said it wouldn't see heavy traffic.
Building the H-3 involved a massive exchange of money. Thousands of construction workers, engineers, electricians, mechanics, accountants, lawyers, surveyors, archaeologists and myriad others earned paychecks that flowed through companies and businesses and into the economy.
RAIL WILL similarly send local and federal funds churning to and fro. Who stands to benefit and who doesn't will be an overwhelming consideration to be determined in large part by route, station locations, bus and water transit links, parking areas -- even the type of tickets riders will buy and the machines that dispense them.
Money, or the possibility of making money, will influence decisions that will come after the Council next week puts its stamp of approval on rail. Businesses and commercial enterprises could live or die by placement of routes. Shopping malls that capture stations would prosper while those bypassed wouldn't.
In the farther reaches of the island, rail could change the equation for housing development, making homes in Central and Leeward Oahu more attractive to buyers while relieving companies that build them of the burden of putting in roads to mitigate traffic congestion.
IF ALL of this enough to make your head spin, there's also a prevailing notion that the people who will continue to make decisions about rail aren't up to the task, that the whole project will end up an unworkable mess because the public's welfare and objectives will be submerged by political egos and ambition, or ceded to influential special interests and power brokers.
It doesn't have to be that way. The deciders can extinguish fears by making certain that whatever they do is responsive to the people they want riding rail, that the process of choosing all aspects of the system is open and unquestionably on the up and up.
Rail is an opportunity to reshape urbanized Honolulu into a vibrant, hospitable corridor with enough room for a population to grow and without scarring the rural spaces that are left. It is also an opportunity for massive failure.
has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org