Spin Zone: Oahu Rail

July, 2007

David H. Rolf executive director, Hawaii Automobile Dealers Association

Is rail Oahu’s best transit solution?

We have not publicly reached the point of economic reality settling in. The feasibility of the rail project will be heavily scrutinized in the future when the dollars needed to fund all public works projects are aggregated and the funding shortfall becomes clearly evident to the general populace. The impending tax ramifications for any rail project in Honolulu are staggering.A: Right now, politically we’re beyond the “either/or” decision point regarding rail or other mass-transit alternatives.

Keeping discussions of complementary roadway solutions alive today will allow practical solutions to be seriously reviewed in the near future.

Users of the traffic-clogged leeward corridor are coming to appreciate that overhead lanes, called HOT lanes, can provide a tried-and-true solution, at a third of the $6.4 billion cost for rail’s full 28-mile alignment.

The $2 billion HOT lane package of traffic solutions includes:
• 14 miles of three-lane high occupancy and toll highway (HOT lanes)
• Six urban surface-street underpasses to improve traffic flow in town
• Synchronized traffic lights

HOT lanes are not as flashy as a train system, but they provide a way to keep us and the economy moving. Traffic gridlock carries economic penalties.

HOT lanes are created through private investment, while no private financier will touch a metro rail system because of the heavy operating subsidies. Each train ride will, in effect, require a government subsidy of around $30 per trip.

Train travelers, because of the 30 station stops, will travel at 25-30 mph, while the HOT lane travelers, including those in Skybusses, will flow along at 50-60 mph. Energy used per passenger mile, by the way, is 3,593 BTUs for auto; 3,687 BTUs for rail.

The best solution will save time and money. HOT lanes will do both for travelers and taxpayers.

Toru Hamayasu Chief, Transportation Planning Division City & County of Honolulu, Dept. of Transportation Services

A: Rail or a similar form of fixed-guideway system has been determined to be the best mass-transit option for Oahu.

Several technologies fall within the “rail” option, including light rail, monorail, magnetic levitation and rubber-tired systems, and a competitive procurement will select the technology for Honolulu.

Last year, with assistance from the Federal Transit Administration, the city completed a report evaluating various mass-transit options. That alternatives analysis studied the options in terms of cost, performance, service and environmental impacts and concluded that a fixed guideway provides the best combination of efficiency and effectiveness to address the anticipated mobility demand for the next 20 years and beyond.

Three other alternatives were studied: (1) No-Build, (2) Expanded Bus (the federal term for this alternative is Transportation System Management, or TSM); and (3) a two-lane highway viaduct from Wahiawa to Iwilei to be used by buses, high-occupancy vehicles and toll-paying single-occupant vehicles.

The analysis concluded that the fixed guideway would improve travel time, attract the most riders and be the most effective in reducing the growth of future traffic congestion. Sufficient revenue from the general excise tax surcharge for transit and federal funds is expected to fund the $3.6 billion first project, from West Kapolei to Ala Moana Center. It is a significant cost, but as the alternatives analysis determined, expanding the bus system or building the viaduct would result in even greater operating and maintenance expenses with far less benefit.

Rail is a vital investment in Oahu’s future that will improve our mobility, quality of life and sustainability. Mayor Hannemann is committed to bringing about a rail project that has eluded Hawaii policymakers for nearly 40 years. He has the strong support of our entire congressional delegation and the majority of state and city government officials to finally bring this idea to fruition.

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