Street-level rail system would stimulate businesses


POSTED: Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Choosing a transit system ought to be a community project, part of planning the ideal urban and suburban environments we wish to have.

Instead of spending millions to persuade us, that money could better be spent assisting us to plan our own living spaces and transit options. City planning shouldn't be subservient to politics or powered by political contributions.

The choice of elevated or grade-level transit determines who reaps the economic benefits of the system.

No small business or retail store makes profit lying in the shadows underneath elevated tracks - just the opposite, the clang of steel wheels signals that business is passing them by.

Instead, developers of mega-complexes surrounding the stations will command inflated rents for retail space economically unavailable to mom-and-pop stores. Commuters will find Macy's, Starbucks and chain restaurants greeting them as they disembark, not the local okazuya.

What we could have for Honolulu - but won't, if the mayor's elevated rail system goes forward - is a vibrant retail corridor at ground level extending as far as the length of the system. Riders would see new shops through the tram windows and get off to visit them. New restaurants would fill with curious commuters as soon as they open their doors. Transit tweeters would spread the word of any hot new find along the right-of-way. That's how it works in Portland, and there's no reason why Honolulu should not have the same opportunity to prosper.

Nor does it have to be limited to the Honolulu core. With a grade-level system, expect retail to spread all the way to Waianae. There's nothing about an elevated line that will bring that kind of retail and small business prosperity to our city. Nothing.

In Portland, there is no fare for travel in the city center. Imagine that in Honolulu: One could pop off the tram on the way home to pick up the dry cleaning, buy some eggs and bacon for tomorrow's breakfast, or pick up a replacement light bulb at the hardware store. That's possible with grade-level transit, unthinkable with overhead rail.

No home or condo dweller benefits from the noise of trains overhead or whizzing past the lanai. Having a tram stop within a block or two adds greatly to property values and convenience.

Grade-level transit brings positive economic benefit to small business that we will need to boost recovery from a long economic downturn. It will never hurt small business to have improved access and free advertising (just open, they will come). Construction jobs disappear when the system is completed, but a vibrant urban corridor will remain an asset to Honolulu on into the future.

The choice is ours, not the mayor's, whether we will go for it or let developers be the only winners in Honolulu's transit future.

Larry Geller is a resident of Nuuanu.