Elevated argument


POSTED: Tuesday, May 19, 2009
This story has been corrected.  See below.

The city's plan for a 20-mile elevated rail transit system worries many architects.

Officials with the Honolulu Chapter of the American Institute of Architects want the city to look at building the transit system near ground level in portions of downtown to reduce its visual impact and potential cost.

But a Hannemann administration spokesman, Bill Brennan, said that in its review of a route through Honolulu in 2006, the City Council decided to select a system that includes an elevated rail.

Council Transportation Chairman Gary Okino agrees that is the best alternative. “;I wouldn't have voted for it if it was an at-grade system,”; Okino said. “;It absolutely doesn't make any sense to put the system on the ground. ... There's a huge difference in terms of efficiency, speed, capacity and operating cost.”;

Okino said he agrees the elevated rail will affect the views, but believes it is a “;trade-off.”;

Okino said the system is similar to the elevated rail operated by the Vancouver Skytrain, an operation established in 1986 that has been so successful it “;pays for itself.”;

He said elevating the rail allows the system to be fully automated and reduces the cost of operation tremendously.

At stake is a projected $5.4 billion rail transit system from East Kapolei to Ala Moana, $1.4 billion of which would be paid by the federal government and the remainder by the city.

The city plans to break ground for the project by the end of this year and accepted comments about a draft environmental impact statement for the rail system.

Okino said the Council reviewed the alternatives along with advice from experts before the 2006 vote.

But Councilman Duke Bainum said the Council's vote in 2006 did not require an elevated rail system, and the time to make a decision on the height of the rail system is supposed to be during the review of the environmental impact statement.

“;Insisting otherwise and rushing to put out bids for an elevated system will likely lead to delays and legal challenges,”; Bainum said. “;City taxpayers need a transit system that fits our pocketbook, preserves our neighborhoods and provides the most flexibility.”;

Jeffrey Nishi, president of AIA Honolulu, which has about 700 members, said the city should look into a light-rail system that allows transit cars to move on both elevated and ground-level tracks.

He said the transit cars could be powered by hanging electrical lines or by a system that would only trigger an electrical current when the cars touch the rail.

Nishi said with the elevated system being considered by the Hannemann administration that has a “;hot rail”; with electricity, the rails would have to run at least 3 feet off the ground as a safety precaution.

“;What we think is really important is to get a technology that is versatile, so that we're not locked into an all-elevated system,”; Nishi said.

Nishi said the development cost is reduced substantially by lowering the height of the rail system and eliminating raised platforms, along with elevators and escalators.

“;Obviously, we're not in it for the money, because we're talking ourselves out of a lot of work,”; Nishi said.

Nishi said his group estimates that lowering the rail system through downtown would increase travel time by eight to 10 minutes over the 20-mile route.

He said his group has been receiving “;very general”; responses from the city and wants officials to provide more information.

“;We know they've studied it very hard,”; he said. “;We need a little more convincing.”;

City Transportation Director Wayne Yoshioka said the minimum height of a rail structure will be about 25 to 30 feet above ground, and the city has provided numerous photographs showing the simulated views of a raised rail system through downtown in its environmental impact statement.

He said the photographs show the rail will not be as intrusive as some critics believe.

But former AIA Hawaii president Sidney Char said some photographs make the rail system seem smaller than it actually is. “;You don't get the sense of scale.”;




Public comments

        A sample of comments collected by the city:

“;I expect my grandchildren will pay dearly and will not benefit since they will not be riders. ... I think it is too costly, but I don't know what the answer is to traffic.”;— Tom Barbara, Honolulu


“;I really resent all my taxpayer money that was spent on the slick stuff to get people to vote for the rail.”;— Pat Patterson, Makaha


“;Even in the local streets, like Ward Avenue, I never saw so much traffic. And, you know, it's building up so big and to the point where it's going to choke itself. And mass transit is an asset to this community.”;— James R. McManus, Honolulu, former New York resident


“;As much as I dislike Councilman Djou's 'tactics' to prolong the debate on the project, he has a point in building the Aiea to downtown portion first. It would bring the most ridership at the project's very beginning.”;— Gilbert Lee, Waipahu








Friday, May 29, 2009


The comment period for the draft environmental impact statement on the city rail transit plan officially ended on Feb. 6. The story originally said that comments were still being received.