Wednesday, December 16, 1998

Oahu Trans 2K

Will rail fly this time?

City revisits the concept of an Oahu-
wide light-rail mass transit system—
this time with the public's input

First of Three Reports

Tomorrow: "When you talk vision but not cost, then you're
talking about delusion," says one rail opponent.
Friday: Portland, Ore., loves its rail system.
Here's how it works.
By Gordon Y.K. Pang


Stuck in traffic a lot lately?

Spend the time weighing the pros and cons of a rail transit system.

"For me, it's a good idea because I live in that area," said Ernest Laboguen, 58, of Aiea, which would be included under the latest proposal. As high as taxes are now, "if we have to have it, we could live with it."

But Ted Araki, 75, of Salt Lake, is skeptical: "I don't know where they're going to get people to ride and pay."

Six years after a major intergovernmental rail plan was derailed, Oahu residents are again pondering such a system.

The city Department of Transportation Services has just finished its second round of community meetings for Oahu-wide Transportation 2000, dubbed "Trans 2K." A final set of meetings will take place next month.

By then, says city Transportation Director Cheryl Soon, a comprehensive transportation plan for Oahu will be ready. It is expected to include a rail line.

This past January, Mayor Jeremy Harris announced a "new vision" for transit -- including an at-grade, electric trolley/light rail system running the 10 miles from Aloha Stadium to University Avenue.

It was the first time anyone at the city had seriously suggested rail since 1992, when a 5-4 City Council vote ended the last, closest hope for a rail line.

Riding by the numbers

Honolulu city officials point to the growing number of cars to justify a light-rail trolley system.

The number of registered vehicles on Oahu rose 17 percent to 686,696 from 588,915 between fiscal years 1991 and 1997, according to the city Division of Motor Vehicles and Licensing.

During the same period, the number of licensed drivers increased only 3 percent, to 517,904 in 1997 from 501,260 in 1991.

Dave Mau of the division said the larger-percentage increase in the number of registered vehicles may be heavily affected by the fleet practices of car-rental companies.

TheBus ridership jumped more than 125 percent from 1970 through 1995, rising at a rate higher than the general population, employment and number of cars registered.

But TheBus ridership has dropped 6.6 percent since its high of 79.3 million in 1995, heading for a projected 74.1 million for this year.

Harris, who helped spearhead that project as former Mayor Frank Fasi's managing director, insists he will succeed this time. The reason: Discussion of long-term solutions are starting bottom-up.

Harris wants a multi-pronged traffic approach, including express buses, waterways, bikeways, improved pedestrian paths -- and rail transit.

"We're going to be looking at the various alternatives that arise from the community and what the experts think may work," he said.

Still, signs abound that the way's being paved for rail, including:

bullet In April, the city Transportation Department gave the City Council a proposal for an $8.2 million primary corridor study. Maps were included for express bus lines and two potential trolley routes through town: one along Ala Moana Boulevard, one along Kapiolani Boulevard. An experimental "Route A" using buses to simulate a rail line is expected to begin in March.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, has secured $3 million for the corridor study and is hoping to get an additional $2 million from Congress next year.

bullet In August, the city picked Parsons Brickerhoff, Quaid and Douglass to do the corridor study. Designer of the H-3 Freeway and the new Ford Island Causeway, the company in 1989 was hired to prepare the draft environmental impact statement for the last rail proposal. Parsons Brickerhoff, with an international reputation for transit projects, has taken the lead at the Trans 2K hearings.

bullet Members of the City Council and of the advisory Transportation Commission recently toured the Vancouver and San Francisco rail lines. But the key stop was Portland, Ore., where they saw the Metropolitan Area Express, or MAX, light rail line. It has gained nationwide acclaim for its 12-year-old, 15-mile light rail line.

Public jumps right in

During the Trans 2K meetings, Soon and her staff have heard all types of transit solutions. Meetings averaged about 80 attendees, from a low of 30 in Haleiwa, to a high of 200 in central Honolulu.

"And we didn't have to coax people (to give views)," Soon said. "They just jumped right in and started feeding off of each other."

Also, most attendees had an opinion about rail transit. "I think it enjoys widespread support," Soon said.

But rumblings of disenchantment were heard. At a central Honolulu Trans 2K meeting last month, for example, residents began yelling at each other about the merits of rail.

Anti-rail activist Cliff Slater, who attended one Trans 2K forum, said what Harris envisions is merely a streetcar that won't go much faster than buses and will further snarl city streets.

Slater opposes any form of government-subsidized or -sponsored transportation and is not convinced that any rail line has effectively taken cars off the road.

Instead, his Committee on Sensible Transit group favors opening city arteries to privately run jitneys and creating busways dedicated to high-occupancy vehicles.

Emulating Portland

Should rail emerge as a top option for Honolulu, the Portland transit system would be a top model.

Harris and Soon, both of whom first saw that system a year ago, say it is more than a system of light rail, buses, bike lanes and walkways. Instead, the Portland model is hailed as a development tool that helped revive a stagnant economy that once paled next to its vibrant Northwest cousin, Seattle. Today, it is Seattle that is trying to emulate Portland as a transit-happy city.

"Transit here is a means to the end of a livable community, at least in the Portland application," said G.B. Arrington Jr., director of strategic and long-range planning and so-called "godfather" of Portland transit.

"It's worked well here because it's been part of a broader partnership and a broader strategy," Arrington said.

Harris' vision for Honolulu calls for a light-rail trolley to move people within the "primary urban center" -- between downtown Honolulu and Aiea.

Light rail lines are generally at ground level -- a difference from the 1992 failed attempt which called for elevated or subterranean tracks.

As for costs, Harris noted that the first 15-mile section of Portland's Tri-Met cost $228 million in 1983 dollars; today, that line would cost $500 million to $600 million.

The last Honolulu plan was estimated to cost from $1.7 billion to $3 billion.

"There is no relationship between the two," Harris said about Oahu's old and new proposals. "In the past, we were trying to design a commuter rail to service a growing population in Central Oahu."

Since then, development has slowed, he said, and there is now consensus among policymakers that future growth should be centralized around Honolulu and Kapolei.

As for daily commuters between Honolulu and Kapolei, Harris said: "That's why we're designing this improved bus system with the express buses and all the rest."

Some who attended a Trans 2K meeting in Mililani, however, would not be happy with that.

Steven Anderson, a Mililani Neighborhood Board member, said it would be a mistake not to have a rail line to Central Oahu.

"Some form of transit is going to be essential especially if Waiawa develops out," Anderson said.

Will Harris be able to sell rail in Mililani? In Ewa? In Kailua? Council members in Central, Leeward and Windward Oahu all helped defeat the project in 1992.

And equally important, will the project sell in Washington, D.C., six years after the city said "no thanks" to $700 million?


Long and winding road

bullet 1888: An islandwide transit operation using mule-drawn cars is inaugurated by Hawaiian Tramways Co.

bullet Aug. 31, 1901: The Honolulu Rapid Transit Co. is the first to initiate an electric street railway.

bullet 1925: Gasoline buses are introduced.

bullet 1938: Trolley buses and their overhead lines make a comeback.

bullet July 1, 1957: Trolley buses are retired.

bullet February 1966: City Planning Director Frank Skrivanek predicts a modern rapid transit system for central Honolulu is five to 10 years away.

bullet May 1966: Harry Weinberg, chairman of the Honolulu Rapid Transit board, says traffic congestion can be eased through dedicated bus lanes rather than a full-scale mass transit system.

bullet 1967: The $1.1 million Oahu Transportation Study estimates an islandwide transit system would cost $1 billion, not including parking facilities.

bullet November 1968: Outgoing Mayor Neal S. Blaisdell proposes an islandwide transportation plan that includes a 29-mile rail line from Hawaii Kai to Pearl City. Blaisdell urges incoming Mayor Frank Fasi to give prompt attention to the estimated $279 million project. Fasi agrees.

bullet Sept. 14, 1972: City consultants say a 22-mile fixed-rail system would cost $550 million. State officials say it would cost $700 million and that they would prefer busways.

bullet Jan. 29, 1974: After being told that H-3 Freeway dollars could be diverted to the city's rail transit project, Fasi withdraws support for the state trans-Koolau freeway.

bullet Feb. 22, 1977: The H-2 Freeway opens, featuring "high occupancy vehicle"-only lanes for vehicles with three or more people.

bullet June 24, 1977: The city receives $2 million from the federal Urban Mass Transit Administration for an environmental impact study for a 14-mile fixed guideway system from Aloha Stadium to Kahala Mall.

bullet Jan. 21, 1978: The city jams 120 buses onto Hotel Street at noontime to test the effectiveness of an all-bus system.

bullet Sept. 12, 1979: A federal transit official warns local officials that the H-3 and a fixed-rail system cannot both be funded at the same time.

bullet Jan. 29, 1980: The city formally cuts the length of the Honolulu Area Rapid Transit (HART) project to 8 miles, from the University of Hawaii to Honolulu Airport.

bullet Sept. 25, 1980: Outgoing Mayor Frank Fasi hires John Hirten, former assistant U.S. transportation secretary, to be HART's administrator at $85,000 a year.

bullet Feb. 19, 1981: President Reagan announces massive budget cuts, including elimination of all funding for mass transit projects by 1985; city transit officials shudder.

bullet May 5, 1981: Mayor Eileen Anderson derails the HART project by canceling a $5.75 million engineering study. She says the city needs to focus on incremental transit improvements, noting reluctance by the state and federal governments to support HART.

bullet Oct. 6, 1981: Anderson says she wants to consider studying San Diego's $86 million trolley cars built from state gasoline tax revenues. Mayor Jeremy Harris would propose a similar line in 1998.

bullet March 4, 1986: Having defeated Anderson in 1984, Mayor Fasi proposes raising gasoline taxes 66 percent to generate $3.9 million for a revived HART project. He also wants $777 million from the stalled H-3 project to go to HART.

bullet Feb. 12, 1987: New state Transportation Director Edward Hirata, a one-time managing director to Fasi, endorses the city's plan for a 12- to 15-mile rail transit system.

bullet May 13, 1988: City Council Chairman Arnold Morgado says he won't support a fixed-rail system, calling it "a luxury."

bullet Jan. 17, 1990: Gov. John Waihee proposes a half-percent excise tax increase to allow the counties to pay for transit projects, including the city's $1 billion rail line. Estimates show the average family would pay $70 more in taxes annually. The plan is approved in May.

bullet Nov. 29, 1990: City Council members are told the city's transit project could cost as much as $3 billion.

bullet July 2, 1991: A consultant raises the estimate for the rail project by $300 million because of costs associated with going underground in downtown.

bullet Oct. 3, 1991: The Fasi administration picks Oahu Transit Group to develop the rail project, which features an AEG Westinghouse design similar to San Francisco's BART and to lines in Boston, Chicago, Miami and Washington. The group boasts that the system is environmentally friendly, but critics say its steel-on-steel technology is noisy and outdated.

bullet Oct. 15, 1991: A U.S. House committee amends its transit package to include $618 million for Honolulu's transit project, about one-third of the total cost.

bullet Oct. 29, 1991: City officials revise upward the transit project's cost to Hawaii residents: from between $4 and $15, to between $28 to $40 annually for 10 years.

bullet Nov. 14, 1991: The City Council votes 5-4 to enter into a joint funding development agreement with the state.

bullet April 13, 1992: Seventy-one percent of residents oppose the city's rail plan, while only 22 percent favor it, says a Star-Bulletin poll.

bullet Sept. 23, 1992: The City Council votes 5-4 against the half-percent excise tax increase, effectively killing the project since the Legislature set an Oct. 1 deadline to enact the increase. Councilwoman Rene Mansho, undecided up until the vote, is given police escort home.

bullet March 31, 1993: The state Supreme Court upholds a lower court decision blocking Mayor Fasi's attempt to mail a rail referendum question with Neighborhood Board election ballots.

bullet April 21, 1993: Mayor Fasi calls on private investors to provide half the funds for the rail project. Seven firms submit proposals but the city scraps the proposal when developers ask for too much, including development rights along a rail line.

bullet May 11, 1993: The U.S. House revokes authority to spend some $990 million in federal dollars on the transit project, citing the lack of guaranteed local funding.

bullet Jan. 27, 1994: In his last State of the State address, Gov. Waihee revives the call for a half-percent excise tax increase to fund a transit project. The proposal goes nowhere.

bullet January 1996: After serving two years as Mayor Harris' planning director, Cheryl Soon becomes the city's transportation director. Soon -- a member of the Oahu Transit Group and, in the 1980s, a deputy transportation director -- is spearheading Harris' "Trans 2K" community forums.


Dec. 16: Will rail fly?
Dec. 17: The Portland model: Could it work here?
Dec. 18: Harris lights up at light rail

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