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Proceed, albeit with caution, on elevated rail


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POSTED: Friday, June 26, 2009

Honolulu architects have criticized the elevated rail transit system planned between Ala Moana and Kapolei, citing new light-rail, street-level systems such as the one in Phoenix as a less expensive and less obtrusive alternative. Their argument is not convincing, even to the head of the Phoenix Metro system, and Oahu should proceed with the elevated system, however cautiously.

Richard J. Simonetta, chief executive officer of Phoenix's Valley Metro, the nation's newest rail transit system, was among six rail authorities who spoke at a Honolulu symposium sponsored by the city. In a subsequent meeting with the Star-Bulletin's editorial board, Simonetta and others praised Honolulu's plan for an elevated system rather than a system similar to the Valley Metro.

Like the Phoenix system, the Oahu rail line will be 20 miles long, but Simonetta said several factors make an elevated system more practical for Honolulu. Paramount, he said, is the speed averaging less than 20 mph that makes the Phoenix setup, integrated in the city's bus system, too slow for Honolulu, where trains are expected to average 30 mph, taking 20 minutes less from Kapolei to Ala Moana.

Another factor is the need to acquire property through condemnation proceedings to make way for the track. Simonetta said 924 properties had to be acquired in the Phoenix system. In Honolulu, only 44 properties need to be acquired for the narrow right-of-way. Condemnation can be expensive and cause long delays through court proceedings.

Simonetta acknowledged that collisions of the Phoenix train and road vehicles are a problem, having occurred more than 20 times since the line opened the first of this year. Critics have compared it to Houston's light-rail system, connecting downtown and the Astrodome and earning nicknames such as “;Danger Train,”; “;Wham Bam Tram”; and “;A Streetcar Named Disaster.”;

Some have suggested that the economic recession should cause suspension of Honolulu's rail project or the general-excise-tax surcharge—or redirection of it to public employee wages—but Bill Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, said that would be foolish. Indeed, Simonetta said recent bids for construction of the Phoenix system's extension are 20 percent to 25 percent less than the cost two years ago for similar work.

Millar and Simonetta also said architects' concern that an elevated system would be an eyesore is unwarranted, failing to account for progress blending transit systems into their surroundings. For many, that concern undoubtedly will persist.

Wayne Y. Yoshioka, Honolulu's director of transportation services, regards the decision on an elevated rail system as final. He is confident that the next mayor, who may quickly succeed Mufi Hannemann if he runs for governor, will go forward with the plan.

Spurs from Ala Moana to Waikiki and to the University of Hawaii at Manoa—included in the initial plan but then dropped because of the expense—may warrant a different system. That question should remain open.