If we don’t build it now, we will regret it later
When Atlanta debated its rail project 30-some years ago, the opposition was tremendous, with all types of sages and academics weighing in against it. Today, we cannot imagine how Atlanta could do without rail. When New York started its subway more than 100 years ago, it wasn't because city officials were trying to solve traffic snarls, because cars had barely appeared then, but today we cannot imagine what traffic there would be like without the subway.
One needs to look to the future for big decisions that are made today. Those who think big will succeed; those who can't look past their nose in their egocentricity or other restraint are bound to fail. Those who wish to keep Honolulu anchored in the past, doing nothing or little about the current traffic problems, display a lack of imagination.
Seattle has emerged from its opposition to rail by beginning the first stage of a long project that will take multiple stages to complete. The first rail experiment of Seattle within its downtown was a flop because it was pushed by a taxi union that eventually gave Seattle a monorail. Now, any serious engineer will tell you that monorail is not for mass transit where people must be moved at high speeds. Now that Seattle has got its act together, the people there are already beginning to thank their stars they have real rail.
The success of rail must not be judged by its immediate effect. A full rail project takes decades in multiple stages. The whole of Honolulu cannot be given rail in one breath. We have to do Kapolei to downtown separately from Waikiki to the airport or Ala Moana to the University of Hawaii. The only way to eat an elephant is -- yes, you guessed it -- one bite at a time. So, the final effect of rail will be perceived 20 years later when there will be more traffic.
According to the 2020 Oahu Regional Transportation Plan (November 1995), "traffic volume on the H-1 at Waikele is projected to increase by over 60 percent by 2020, while traffic on the H-1 by Aiea is projected to increase by 10 percent." In 2008, we are already halfway there, and it's going to get worse. And, what about to 2050? It is this segment of traffic that is targeted for the first rail project. If Honolulu had embarked on rail in 1994 when it first should have, we would have experienced some traffic relief already. We must strike now while the iron is still hot.
The costs of rail should not be an impediment. If we don't do it now and do it after 10 years, the costs will be twice as much, much as the costs in 1994 would have been about half of what they are today.
We can expect some design problems throughout the project since engineers and owners combined are just not smart enough to be perfect. But the fear of difficulties in design and cost don't stop a project. Design problems and cost overruns are part of life. If humankind never confronted challenges, it would get nowhere.
No doubt, the energy consumption of rail will be significant. Opponents of rail cite this as a problem, based on the assumption that we will continue to burn fossil fuels. However, that assumption is patently false. The world, not just the United States, will be compelled to switch to alternate techniques of power generation very soon.
It's a straightforward no-brainer that Honolulu will benefit from rail. Look how successful the H-3 project has been. There's nothing to dither about anymore.
Amarjit Singh is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.