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All-elevated rail will be costly, inflexible and ugly


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POSTED: Thursday, October 01, 2009

Flexibility with strength. These qualities are key to any good plan, be it business, military or urban design.

Local media outlets have recently reported on a transit study by Philip Craig that proposed a rail system for Honolulu that has the flexibility to be built above ground, below ground or at ground level.

That should be a wake-up call to look at alternatives to the all-elevated rail project proposed by the city administration. The advantages of a flexible rail system for Honolulu have been confirmed through research by the AIA's Transit Task Force and are documented in video, slideshow and written report formats on our Web site, http://www.aiahonolulu.org/transit.

We believe there is a compelling case for this flexible system, or Light Rail Transit (LRT), in Honolulu, and that there is an easy fix of the currently proposed system to allow it to run either at street level or on an elevated guideway. We urge concerned citizens to contact the City Council member in their district to consider this.

AIA Honolulu supports the concepts of rail transit, fixed guideway and steel-on-steel technology. Since 2005 it has offered to work in an advisory capacity with city transit planners on the design of the system.

From 2005 through 2007 the AIA was told that it was “;too early”; to be involved; then, in early 2008 the AIA was told it was “;too late”; to make any changes.

In 2008 a rail project was approved by voters, but wording on the ballot said nothing about the vertical configuration (elevated, street level or underground) or power technology (”;hot”; third rail, overhead wire or underground power) to be used.

The City Council has not voted on the specific vertical configuration or power technology of the system; the city administration made these decisions and notified the City Council afterward.

According to the Craig transit study, a system consisting of a mixture of elevated guideway and street level (”;at-grade”;) rails is feasible, economical and timely for Honolulu.

The study indicates that for some riders (such as those between Waipahu and downtown) overall commute times will be shorter using at-grade rail because stations can be located at street level and closer to riders' final destinations.

Under the federal Environmental Impact Study process, there is a relatively easy fix to convert the current system to a flexible one. Two changes in the wording of the project are required:

Change power technology from “;hot”; third rail to overhead power wire and in-ground wireless power for urban areas.

Change rail cars and elevated stations from high-floor to low-floor type.

The change in power technology and car type will require preparation of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and push back the start of construction by six to nine months, but this delay would be more than offset by a shorter overall construction time.

The AIA finds the strengths of the proposed alternative rail system compelling:

» A savings of at least $1.7 billion and two years of construction time.

» Preservation of historic districts and sites along the route.

» Preservation of street trees along the route in the urban core (using wireless power).

» Protection of mauka-makai view corridors (as documented and adopted by policy as part of the Primary Urban Center Development Plan of 2004).

» Ability to start the system in the urban core, bringing rail transit to the largest number of riders as soon as possible.

» Increase in user safety by integrating ground level stations into our existing communities.

» Rider capacity of 9,280 passengers per hour per direction. This capacity is 50 percent beyond the 6,000 passenger capacity specified in the current project documents.

» Ability to extend the route easily into Waikiki and UH-Manoa, offering a “;one-seat ride”; to potential riders to these key destinations.

The technology of the city's rail project locks us in to a system that can't be changed once started.

It's not too late to fix the problem. If we do not act now, we will saddle ourselves and our children with a future we cannot afford.

Jeff Nishi is president of the American Institute of Architects Honolulu.