Transit-oriented development could help pay for rail system


POSTED: Thursday, January 21, 2010

The City & County of Honolulu presents transit-oriented development (TOD) as housing, retail and other facilities within a half-mile radius of a transit station.

Benefits are obvious: Commuting workers walk to stations and leave cars at home; retailers gain consumers from the transit system; and students at some campuses will not have to worry about parking.

Other than increased ridership, however, nothing directly benefits the transit system.

There is another way to look at TOD, something done in other municipalities. San Francisco is a good example, with its Transbay Tower TOD in the Embarcadero area aimed at supporting the city's transit system. Plans call for a central tower and high-rises, with derived income directed toward building a rail system extension. Such income on Oahu would go into the general fund. It is unlikely that revenue changes would occur for existing developments, but every new TOD should be undertaken with a goal of diverting some percentage of income into the city's special fund for transit. This would be especially important for later transit operations and expansion. The state already takes 10 percent of that fund. Relying on the state or City Council to provide future transit funding would be risky.

According to the city, funds from the 16-year surcharge on the general excise tax and federal sources will be enough to buy the trains and build the 20-mile guideway for the minimum operable segment (MOS) and the maintenance and storage facility. In the draft environmental impact statement, however, there is no funding plan for extending the system to the University of Hawaii-Manoa, to West Kapolei, and into Waikiki. Fare revenues would not cover system operations and maintenance; to maintain ridership, fares would have to be subsidized, as they are for TheBus. Many have criticized starting the system on the Ewa Plain. What if the first two planned transit stations were examples for revenue generation, the price for placing West Oahu first?

The first station would be a focal point for the Kroc Community Center, as well as a huge shopping center and housing built by the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. The latter two projects would benefit financially from rail, so a predetermined percentage of their revenue should subsidize transit. The second station would be between the UH-West Oahu campus and the proposed Ho'opili development. Some state land west of the station and D.R. Horton-Schuler land on the east could be designated as a TOD area. A similar arrangement there could subsidize transit as well as UH-West Oahu operations.

Applying TOD-generated funds to the locally preferred alternative could produce a future financial plan much sooner, possibly enabling continuation of rail construction jobs. This would provide earlier connection to UH-Manoa, boosting rail ridership; rapid development of Kalaeloa (from the West Kapolei extension), with new TODs along the route; and a Waikiki link benefiting both residents and retailers. TOD funds could help subsidize operating and maintenance costs, perhaps avoiding extension of the general excise tax surcharge. Funds realized from ridership increases also could be banked for a future extension to Central Oahu.

Discussions of high-rise development on the Ewa Plain brought outrage from community leaders at a meeting of the Ho'opili Task Force, which was formed by D.R. Horton-Schuler to get community input for the development. One wonders: Why worry about an area with no scenic views, particularly when there has been no criticism of high-rises sprouting at Ko Olina that actually block ocean views? The up-rather-than-out compromise suggested previously for Ho'opili would give the developer a similar number of housing units while also preserving a considerable amount of acreage for agriculture. This compromise may not satisfy activists on both sides of the land dispute—or involved developers—but could make Kapolei a city with a real center that attracts both residents and visitors.

Frank Genadio is a member of the Ho'opili Task Force, formed by D.R. Horton-Schuler.