Street-level rail worth a look


POSTED: Monday, April 27, 2009

Say you needed a new car and you're eyeing a beauty on the showroom floor, but your brother calls and says he can get you a car for half the price, that is more energy efficient, has the latest technology, can be delivered sooner and have significant lower operating and maintenance costs. Wouldn't you at least return his call?

This is effectively the rail proposal the Honolulu Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA Honolulu) is offering. If the city would consider an at-grade rail system, particularly for downtown segments of the proposed route, we could have incredible cost savings on construction, significantly reduce the visual blight from pillars of concrete blocking our viewplanes, build the system more quickly, extend the system to areas like the University of Hawaii and Mililani sooner, better integrate the stops and stations into our neighborhoods, and save on future operating costs. The system would also provide better connectivity, flexibility and increased accessibility—and fit better into our neighborhoods.

(A comparison of the systems is shown in the graphic at right.)

Our community supported a steel-on-steel transit system in November's vote. As a rail supporter, I am concerned that the city's handling the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) process will jeopardize the project and its financial viability.

Not only is the DEIS deficient in addressing significant issues such as the cost and impact of future extensions to the University of Hawaii and Waikiki, the city's willingness to commit enormous amounts of taxpayers' money, without assurances of repayment, is worrisome. If we are not careful with how we spend our money—even the local money—the cost per mile of the rail project skyrockets and the city jeopardizes our chances of receiving federal funding due to lack of cost-efficiency per rider.

What's also troubling is the method by which the city single-handedly chose to build an above-grade rail system and the lack of transparency in the process.

For at least the last year, the city has told organizations like the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Honolulu, that “;it's too late”; to participate in the discussions about the system. Ironically, the rail system and technology are supposed to be made based on an analysis of factors which includes comments received during the DEIS comment period; the DEIS comment period ran from November 2008 to February 2009.

Soon after the DEIS comment period ended, the city released two requests for proposals for the proposed transit guideway and for the transit core system. Terminology used to describe the type of system the city wants to build include, “;high floor,”; “;high vehicle platform”; and “;power contact rail”;—these are clear signals that the city is limiting technologies, and in fact, are only considering an entirely elevated system.

To bring this into perspective, in the last 30 years, 30 rail transit projects were built in the United States; one chose above-grade rail, all the others chose flexible technologies.

Whether you support rail or not, we owe it to our current and future generations to build the most affordable, efficient, and environmentally friendly system possible. The spiraling costs of the current planned system and the downturn in our economy could combine into a financial “;perfect storm”; for city taxpayers.

While stimulating the economy with construction projects is important, even more important is making sure the taxpayer's “;car”; is the best value for the money AND the system that works best within our communities and our environment.

As a community, we need to continue to monitor this project so that smart financial and policy decisions are made so we have the best system for the right price. Asking the hard questions will not kill rail—rather, it's NOT asking the hard questions that could kill rail.


Duke Bainum is city councilman for District V (McCully-Kaimuki).