Elevated rail plan is the right way to go


POSTED: Thursday, April 30, 2009

City Councilman Duke Bainum is like the guy who shows up late for the big meeting—and everyone has to endure having to retell and rehear what was explained before. It's no different with Mr. Bainum and Honolulu's rail transit project (”;Street-level rail worth a look,”; Star-Bulletin, April 27).

Mr. Bainum spent most of the past four years outside Hawaii. If he had lived here during the many, many months of study and public debate, he would have known that the city thoroughly researched mass transit technologies, including at-grade, or street-level, rail and decided on the system best suited for Honolulu.

The City Council has invested considerable time and effort in reviewing the research and holding public hearings. As a result, the Council dismissed street-level rail for solid technical and financial reasons. The Hannemann administration fully supported the Council's decision to select an elevated rail system when it approved the Locally Preferred Alternative.

For Honolulu, elevated rail has key advantages over street-level trains.

First, elevated trains will not take traffic lanes away from cars and trucks. Street-level trains will take up to three traffic lanes, particularly in urban areas like Kalihi, downtown, Kakaako and Ala Moana. Taking traffic lanes away from cars and trucks will worsen traffic congestion, as documented by the city's failed Bus Rapid Transit project of the early 2000s.

Second, elevated trains are faster than street-level trains. Congestion slows street-level trains to the speed of buses. Trains in Portland, Calgary and Charlotte—all street-level systems—average 20 mph. In compact Honolulu, street-level trains would be even slower.

Honolulu's elevated rail line will travel above traffic at an average speed of 30 mph, even with station stops. Its top speed will be more than 55 mph, delivering a travel time of under 30 minutes for commuters from areas like Pearl City or Waipahu to downtown.

In terms of cost, construction of street-level light rail is often dictated by whether it can be located within an existing street or railroad right-of-way. Cities with ample land, like Phoenix, have the luxury of street-level rail.

But if a train travels in a critical but congested road, traffic demand means maintaining existing lanes. Then considerable right-of-way acquisition may be needed as well as reconstruction of the existing street. For example, a five-mile street-level section in the Rainier Valley of Seattle required the displacement of nearly 300 businesses and residences.

By contrast, Honolulu's 20-mile elevated guideway and 21 elevated rail stations will require fewer than 40 full acquisitions.

Finally, Councilman Bainum is incorrect in saying that only one elevated rail system has been built in the last 30 years nationally. Since 1972, more than a half-dozen grade-separated rail systems have been built in the U.S.

Councilman Bainum has gone on record as supporting rail. We do not need to send mixed messages at this late date when it comes to this badly needed traffic alternative.


Wayne Yoshioka is director of the city Department of Transportation Services.