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Is rail transit really the best use of our scarce dollars?


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POSTED: Friday, September 25, 2009

For years, debate has raged over whether Honolulu's mass transit problem can be solved by answering the question, “;Rail or no rail?”;

However, the fixed-rail system approved last year essentially applies only to those living in West Oahu. This fails to address the longer-term and larger problem of solving traffic gridlock for the entire City & County of Honolulu.

The 20-mile fixed-rail system will likely be inaccessible to most residents of Honolulu. Ridership for those in windward, central and east Honolulu areas will likely be nil. Thus, the real question should be how we solve both the immediate problem of commuters from Kapolei as well as the longer-range problem of traffic congestion from other parts of Oahu.

The estimated $5.4 billion cost is a huge commitment of our scarce dollar resources, with no clear plans to provide traffic-congestion relief from elsewhere on the island by the completion of the rail project in 2019.

Further, the lack of transparency in developing this project remains troublesome. If bids are to be solicited in December as the first increment for the elevated rail system, we must be mindful of some caveats:

» How will the $500 million tax revenue shortfall be remedied before contracts are signed?

» If the Federal Transit Administration reports an average 40 percent cost growth for other rail projects, should we remain optimistic that ours will be at or under our estimated cost?

» The $4,000 per capita cost calculated was based upon the entire Honolulu population instead of those accessible to the rail system. Eliminating those unable or unwilling to ride the rail system, the per capita cost will exceed $14,000.

» The 4,100 parking spaces planned for the rail system may prove inadequate to motivate maximum ridership of the rail system.

» Extension of the rail system, beyond the 21 approved stations, to Waikiki and UH-Manoa will add to the $5.4 billion cost.

» If the $1.4 billion federal funds do not materialize, do we have contingency plans?

» Should the project commence from East Kapolei inward or Ala Moana outward?

In addition to the islandwide transit issue, other urgent concerns require commitment of our scarce budget funds. These include: repair and upgrading of our critical infrastructure; energy sustainability initiatives; catastrophic disaster response preparedness; actions to revitalize tourism as well as the Honolulu economy overall; efficient waste disposal; and improvement of our quality of life.

How do we ascertain the priorities to commit finite dollars to the most deserving projects serving the people of Honolulu?

K. S. Kimura, a resident of East Oahu, is a retired U.S. Army colonel who researches security issues for a nonprofit group.