HONOLULU -- Surfboard storage is not the usual worry among urban transit planners. It’s different here.
Honolulu Authority Rapid Transit (HART) has been planning a modern rail system for this city’s bustling tropical downtown for 40 years. The plan is visible now.
In five years, surfers, tourists, and workers will ride on elevated tracks from this city’s downtown open air Ala Moana Shopping Center to the airport, to Pearl Harbor, and then out to the “new town” of Kapolei, in the fast developing western heart of the island.
The rail system is not arriving fast enough for those stuck on the H-1 morning and night, the only highway running east-west for this island’s one million sun-happy, traffic snarled citizens. In rush hour, the trip can take an hour and half, or more. This means leaving work at six calls for dinner at eight, and a lot of expensive island fuel. Ouch! It should be noted that Honolulu’s traffic competes notoriously with Los Angeles for the title of “worst traffic” in the U.S.
Is it any wonder tourists head for the other islands?
Polishing Up A Gem
With its award-winning beaches, hotels, surf options, gorgeous mountain ranges, original eateries, and great shopping, Honolulu could easily become the jewel of the Pacific, much like Singapore turned itself into the miracle of Southeast Asia. But it does take urban planning faith, and a very large tray of money, to bring urban mass transit to life and make believers of everyone.
The city, wisely or cowardly, left the decision to its citizens. With votes counted nearly a decade ago, an amendment was passed with 53 percent saying yes. It was not a resounding victory, but enough for a groundbreaking in February 2011.
Back then, the first trips for the new HART line were planned for 2017 at a cost of $5.2 billion. Predictably, it’s looking more like 2018 and billions more. The printed benefits: reduced auto congestion (by 18 percent), 40,000 automobiles off the road, and those surfboards and bike racks for those Kapolei and Pearl City residents looking to avoid parking at Waikiki.
When completed the trains will run like those Google driverless automobiles, without troublesome humans at the helm, making it safer, cheaper, and more reliable, city planners say.
Building West to East
The first phase is being built backwards, from from west to east, from the master-planned, less expensive new town of Kapolei (not far from Disney’s Aulani Resort) to Aloha Stadium.
Why there? The wide-open swamp and agricultural land on the lonelier, cheaper western side of Pearl Harbor was an easier starting point and, well, because the political and lobbying machinery said so.
The second phase takes the line from the stadium to the airport, and then into urban Honolulu and the Ala Moana Shopping Center. It was scheduled to open in 2019, but now looks like 2021. This phase expects to be trickier to complete, what with land acquisition squabbles, sacred burial grounds, and the general fuss of city people.
Some want to kill the whole thing and tear it down. Others want to expand it to lessen the traffic. What to do? Costs versus benefits versus sacred ground? When does progress become too much, or not enough?
As early as 1966, then-mayor Neal S. Blaisdell suggested a rail line as a traffic solution.
"Taken in the mass,” he said, “the automobile is a noxious mechanism whose destiny in workaday urban use is to frustrate man and make dead certain that he approaches his daily occupation unhappy and inefficient."
Let’s face it’s no fun being a visionary, especially in today’s political climate.
The Cost Factor
Rail systems cost between $20 million and $100 million per rail mile to build, while a new highway costs about $2.5 million per mile. Sounds like a no-brainer (roads win, right?) until you factor in that pesky rush hour traffic, the long-term pollution, the wasted hours, and those tourists turning up their noses.
Rail transit projects are notorious budget busters, too.
In a 2002, Danish planning professor, Bent Flyvbjerg, found after adjusting for inflation the average North American rail project cost more than 40 percent more than the original approved cost, while highway projects were eight percent over-budget, on average. Two studies of other recent rail projects found that their costs were also 40 percent over-budget, on average.
Here are some examples of over-budget rail projects:
In 1998, Phoenix proposed a 13-mile light-rail line for $390 million, or $30 million per mile. The final cost of the 19.6-mile line was $1.41 billion, or $72 million per mile.
In 2000, Charlotte, North Carolina, estimated a light-rail line cost of $331 million. The final cost was $427 million.
In 2004, the first 12-miles of the Dulles, Va., rail project was to cost $1.5 billion. Today, the projected cost is $3 billion.
In 2004, Denver's Regional Transit District got voters to fund a $4.7 billion rail transit system. The tab for completion: $7.9 billion.
Why is this pattern so predictable? And does anybody remember the cost after it’s completed? Does anyone remember how much the new Denver Airport cost? Or, the Brooklyn Bridge?
The professor says the cost and delays are due to one common cause: “strategic misrepresentation.” Some call this lying.
Flyvbjerg says planners deliberately overestimate benefits and lowball estimates to get the project approved. Otherwise, no one would green-light them. Once approved, real budgets kick-in and the political maelstrom hits full force, lengthening the originally proposed project while naturally putting more money in the pockets of construction and management consulting firms, and inflaming “I told you so” citizens.
Of course, 30 years later those same citizens are forgotten and everyone is saying the project was “brilliant.”
Part of the Solution
One can see why the populace split the vote: 1) it’s a budgetary and management nightmare, and who wants that, and 2) what other way can an overcrowded tropical paradise fix a massive traffic problem? More highway lanes? More buses? Taxes on city car driving? All of the above? Do nothing?
All of the above may be the long-term direction for every major city.
Singapore did it, but they operate on a different political level. They don’t worry about the nasty business of local democracy. They just went ahead and built a new underground metro, taxed city center drivers, taxed new car purchases, created living and work areas around stations, and more.
Singapore has five million residents on an island about the same size as Oahu. Somebody had to do something about the future, and the wave of automobiles hitting their shores.
Singapore, 30 years later, is reaping the benefit. Can Honolulu, can any US city, plan 30 years out and weather the political storms? Honolulu is doing something, but it ain’t been easy.
"It's finally going to be happening a lot sooner than we had all anticipated," said Georgette Stevens of the West Oahu Economic Development Association in a recent Hawaii Metro article. "It will definitely help with traffic. As we can see, traffic just seems to get worse day after day.”
Brennon Morioka, Honolulu Authority for Rail Transit's Deputy Executive Director, said recently in a Hawaii News Now story that the partial opening would provide a much-needed psychological boost.
"There's been so much skepticism whether the rail is actually going to be built and whether it's going to work," he said. "So I think now that people see the amount of guideway that's up there right now, it's already causing a sense of optimism."
More Than Moving People
There are more benefits to a new rail transit systems than just moving people with surfboards. Planners know that the land around metro train stations can turn into mini-economic engines, specifically the half-mile radius around stations. These are known as transit-oriented developments, or TODs, and are defined as the reasonable distance people will walk to train stations.
In Honolulu, this means there will be 21 new stations, or 21 new opportunities to create new sub-communities. This means 21 new areas less dependent on cars.
I don’t think anyone, except perhaps auto dealers, will argue against lowering the number cars on the road, lowering pollution levels, and creating faster transit to and from work and play.
The stations, and the half-mile circles around each one, means more people will likely walk to the train, meaning more will ride the train, and likely more will buy a paper and a shaved ice along the way to the train, and more will get to where they are going faster and greener.
In addition, as more people see this movement more will move into new living spaces built around the stations, find new places of work within walking distance, which in turn generates more new riders.
New riders are key to transit success. University of California research shows that without new riders, and TOD’s, there isn’t much economic, social, or environmental benefit long-term to these rails.
But studies aside, and blown budgets aside, in the end it’s not about the missed deadlines or billions overspent (will anyone remember that in 30 years?), it’s about creating better cities. It’s about thinking ahead and thinking about the person born ten years from today, the one who will live in the charming old town of Kapolei, the one who is lucky enough to live in affordable housing, hop on a train, and in 45 minutes be paddling out at Waikiki Beach.
Oh, yeah, and he or she will be working at a new tech job near Ala Moana Station and will be catching the train at five for dinner at six.
I’ll bring the poke.
Robert Chew is editor of Urban:Fix Magazine and writes on urban design, planning, and architecture.