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Oahu will benefit from rail, but make sure it's elevated


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POSTED: Thursday, October 01, 2009

Since speaking at the Honolulu Rail Transit Symposium earlier this summer, I have closely followed the progress of Honolulu's elevated rail system. It has been exciting to watch your community steadily move forward to groundbreaking for your rail system and an investment that will pay returns for generations.

Investing in rail transit will bring huge benefits to your community, as it already has to the Phoenix area. It will reduce traffic congestion and provide an environmental friendly alternative to the automobile. It will stimulate the economy in both the short term and ongoing. It will create thousands of good paying jobs from rail construction.

New mixed-use developments will spring up around rail stations, allowing sound urban growth to occur where it will be most beneficial. Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa have seen more than $7 billion in new investment along our 20-mile route.

However, it concerns me when I read news accounts about a few advocates who want to change Honolulu's 20-mile elevated rail system to one than runs at least partly on surface streets.

I do not believe that a street-level rail system is the right choice for Honolulu. I say this as the CEO of a 20-mile rail system that runs completely at street level in Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa.

Surface rail works quite well in the Valley of the Sun because we have relative low density and wide arterial streets with ample room for the trains and cars to share the right-of-way.

From my observations, the same conditions do not apply in Honolulu. Widening streets to incorporate a rail system would seriously disrupt communities and be enormously expensive. With the density of development that already exists along your route, hundreds of businesses and residences would be dislocated for right of way. Surface rail would most likely result in the removal of traffic lanes, which would inevitably increase congestion where the desire is to reduce congestion.

The elevated system Honolulu has planned avoids this. With support columns placed in the roadway median, it won't consume through traffic lanes. And while it will require some right-of-way acquisitions, they will be far fewer than a surface route would require.

Honolulu's elevated rail system operating on an exclusive trackway will have other benefits. It will be much faster than surface rail because the elevated trains won't have to compete with other traffic at intersections.

The Phoenix light rail system crosses 149 signalized intersections and takes 65 minutes to travel 20 miles. Increased speed also means more frequent service and more ridership. Honolulu's elevated rail is projected to carry 100,000 riders a day when fully operational. Our system carries about one-third of that.

Finally, an elevated rail line will also be safer for rail passengers, motorists and pedestrians. The Phoenix surface rail line has averaged five collisions per month since opening last December, resulting in personal injuries, costly damage to trains and vehicles, and service delays to passengers.

In contrast, the elevated, automated SkyTrain system in Vancouver, British Columbia, has operated for 23 years without a single accident.

I urge Honolulu to keep moving forward with your elevated rail system. You only have one opportunity to get it right.

In my opinion, you are making the right choice and your community will reap rewards for years to come.

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Richard Simonetta is CEO of the new Valley Metro Rail system connecting Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa and has 38 years of experience in the transit industry.