Oahu’s Transportation Woes: Elevated System is the Best Option

Honolulu Rail Transit

By Ross Uehara-Tilton

Mayor Mufi Hanneman was a major supporter of a fixed rail transportation system connecting the communities on the west coast of Oahu  (East Kapolei) to Ala Moana Center.  A city charter amendment containing necessary provisions to begin construction of the Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project (HHCTCP) and associated infrastructure was placed on the ballot in the 2008 elections, and passed with a majority vote of 53%.   A groundbreaking ceremony was held on February 22, 2011 at the future site of the first terminal on Kualakai Parkway in Kapolei.  The construction and operation of such a system would provide Oahu with many positive benefits not limited to just relief of traffic congestion.  Some of these many benefits are: new jobs for Oahu residents, increased General Excise Tax revenue which could be invested in Hawaii’s economy and an environmentally friendly alternative mode of transportation.  The benefits that an elevated, fixed rail system would provide far outweigh the benefits of any other transportation system that has been proposed for Oahu.

Majority of the current opponents of the HHCTCP do not oppose Hawaii’s need for alternative methods of transportation, especially for the purposes of reducing commuter congestion on Oahu’s limited thoroughfares.  Anyone who has ever had the unfortunate experience of working their way to the west side of the island during rush hour can only hope that a solution to the pain and frustration of sitting in stop and go traffic for 20 miles could be discovered quickly.  The issue at hand is whether or not a light rail system such as the one proposed for the HHCTCP is the best solution to the problem.  Many other proposals exist, such as an at-grade (AG) rail system, or the expansion of Oahu’s current award winning bus system.  Other alternatives also include a sub sea tunnel beneath Pearl Harbor, a waterborne ferry system, expansion of the current bus fleet and managed lanes.  Naturally each proposal has its pros and cons.  It is important to weigh these pros and cons and choose a solution with benefits that outweigh its disadvantages.

There are many factors of each proposal for a new transportation system that must be considered.  Since the purpose of a new system would be first and foremost the system’s ability to alleviate congestion, one must consider how many commuters that currently travel by car will use the proposed rail system instead of driving their own car.  Sub-factors of this question include questions such as, “will taking the train get me into town more quickly than taking my own car?”  A secondary factor that must be taken into consideration is the fiscal implication of such a project.  Can the City acquire the necessary funds to complete such a project without imposing unnecessary financial burdens on tax payers?  Other fiscal implications encompass secondary aspects such as the number of jobs the HHCTCP will create, both in construction and operation.  Finally, one must consider the impacts, both positive and negative, that the HHCTCP will have on the environment.

A study by the Honolulu chapter of the American Institute of Architects compared an elevated transit system, like the current HHCTCP, and an AG transit system, like the systems currently in place in Los Angeles and San Francisco.  At a first glance, the report seems convincingly in favor of an AG system.  An AG system would cost significantly less, take less time to build and use less energy than an elevated system.  An AG system would also bring in GE tax revenue comparable to that of an elevated system.  However, one must consider the original purpose of the HHCTCP–to relieve traffic.  An AG system would either need to be constructed on already limited roadway space, or constructed where current buildings and businesses exist.  Furthermore, an AG system would severely impact vehicular traffic transiting surface streets.  Imagine having to wait at a traffic light at every single major intersection in town every few minutes while the trains passed.  In addition, an AG system would create a  safety hazard for pedestrians as well as vehicles.  Businesses that could benefit from being in close proximity to a train station would be mostly limited to existing shops.  Elevated terminals could create retail space in addition to the space that already exists.  An elevated rail system would take up less space on the surface streets, have a minimal impact on vehicular traffic, pose no risk to public safety, and allow for new retail space.

A sub sea tunnel beneath Pearl Harbor is not a viable alternative.  Although it would provide additional roadway for vehicular traffic, once constructed, expansion would be difficult and expensive.  If the population continues to grow per the DOTS Report projections, additional lanes would need to be added to accommodate increased demand.  This would require essentially rebuilding the entire tunnel every few years.  Charging a toll to use the tunnel would be a source of income for the State.  In addition, a tunnel would not have the potential to create jobs after the construction phase was completed.  At the very greatest, there may be toll booth attendants, but certainly not on the scale of the proposed HHCTCP.  Also, the impact of a tunnel on the ecosystem of the harbor would need to be studied as a construction project of such a scale would likely disrupt the natural habitat of many of the flora and fauna that exist in and around the harbor.

Adding managed lanes, such as the current zipper lane from Waikele to Nimitz, would share the same problem as a sub sea tunnel.  The addition of only one or two lanes would only help for so long.  After a period of time, the traffic congestion issue would need to be addressed again.  As an existing example, the expansion of the H-1 freeway in the Pearl City/Waimalu area did little to ease traffic.  By the time construction of an additional lane was completed, the need for additional roadway had already exceeded the space made available by the project.  A fee could be charged to use a managed lane, but it is unlikey that commuters would not object to such a toll.  Assuming a system similar to the current zipper lane, drivers are not likely to agree to have two or more people in the car and pay a toll to use the lane.  Toll booth fees in California can be upwards of $5.00.  This would translate to a cost of $2600.00 per year, assuming that a driver passes through one toll booth twice a day, five days a week.  Some thoroughfares have multiple toll booths.

A waterborne ferry system has already failed.  TheBoat, a ferry system from Barbers point to Honolulu harbor in conjunction with TheBus, began operating in September 2008.  The success of the system was short lived.  Commuters were stricken with sea sickness as a result of the turbulent waters off Oahu’s south coast.  There was little motivation for commuters to take TheBoat.  Transit times were barely less than commuting by private vehicle, and commuters still had to take a bus from Honolulu Harbor to get to their final destination.  Finally, the ferries were powered with diesel engines, which were costly to fuel and bad for the environment.  Diesel fuel is more expensive than regular unleaded automobile fuel.  The American Automobile Association reported a record average high cost of $4.845 per gallon of diesel fuel compared to $4.114 for regular unleaded gasoline  The fees for using the ferry could not be kept reasonable and still offset operation and maintenance costs.

An expansion of the current bus system would not adequately address traffic concerns.  Eventually, Oahu’s thoroughfares would be congested with buses instead of cars.  Buses are known to be extremely crowded at peak operating times, and are notoriously delayed due to traffic, weather and mechanical issues.  Although advances in technology have allowed for the manufacture of buses that are increasingly environmentally friendly, such systems are costly and rendered ineffective given the amount of buses that would need to be on the road to serve commuters.  Since the buses are not constructed in the state, contracts would need to be outsourced to companies in the continental United States.  The additional jobs created in Hawaii would be limited to bus drivers and support staff.  As it stands, there is little excess revenue collected from riders after employee wages and maintnance costs are paid.

Several of the proposed examples, including expansion of the current bus system, the implementation of managed lanes and the sub sea tunnel, simply provide additional roadway for vehicular traffic.  These proposals will achieve success in alleviating congestion for only a limited time. Eventually, these systems would need to be expanded or re-constructed to meet increased demands.  Furthermore, these options would create limited positive externalities in terms of job creation and environmental benefits.

An AG system would provide limited success in that it would provide an additional means of transportation, but it would compromise already congested traffic patterns in town and provide little benefit in retail opportunities.  An AG system would also introduce a hazard to pedestrians and vehicles in the crowded areas of the city.

An elevated system, such as the one currently proposed, appears to be the best alternative transportation project for Hawaii.  The system’s capacity could easily be expanded with additional train cars in the future.  Elevated terminals would provide increased retail space without disturbing current businesses.  Many new jobs would be created during the construction, operation and maintenance phases of the project, and income for the State could be generated through ticket sales.  The proposed system would have little environmental impact.  Most importantly, the HHCTCP will succeed in removing vehicles from Oahu’s congested roadways.

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