If you've read any of my previous blogs, you know that I spent the first twenty-five years of my life in Honolulu, Hawaii. Despite the fact that I'm closing in on my tenth year in Los Angeles, California, you just can't take the island out of the man. Now, in my twenty five years in the islands (O'ahu to be specific), traffic increased due to rapid population growth on that tiny rock, and several proposals for a rail system were attempted since the late 1960s, but failed any approval processes before the first tracks could be installed. In 2015, the city and county of Honolulu, along with HART (Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit), has just finished the first mile of the twenty-mile elevated guideway that will stretch from an undeveloped section of West O'ahu to the state's largest shopping center, Ala Moana Center, on the east side of the island just outside of Waikiki. With this project being the largest (and possibly the most expensive) of its kind in the state of Hawaii, to say that this rail system has generated a lot of controversy would be a gross understatement. Local politicians and especially residents have strong views for and against the project, along with myself. I have always been in support of building the rail since I lived there as a child in the 1980s, however I have two major issues in how it was planned and how it is being built, so let's jump right into those concerns:
The Route: While some local residents question the high cost of the system or the visual impact on scenery, I believe that where the rail line is being placed is the larger issue. I do agree that an east to west alignment is really the only way to go in order to properly service the island with another option to travel from the country to the city. What I don't agree with is the line's starting point, in which the aforementioned first constructed mile of elevated track sits on farmland, with the first phase of a major university a half-mile away from one of the planned rail stations. I understand that this farmland will be rezoned into a master-planned compact residential and commercial community which will be linked to the rail stations, but there's no guarantee that these new developments (mixed use areas known as smart growth) will be completed by the time this rail system goes into service. More importantly, the existing town of Kapolei, several miles west of the rail line, is missed entirely. From my experience using Metro Rail in Los Angeles, it's very important to have a rail line begin in an existing town or city, as not everyone will be willing to drive or use a bus to reach that first station. This omission (along with other areas on the lsland such as UH Manoa college and Waikiki) is planned to be remedied through future rail line extensions through those areas, so long as funding becomes available. Hopefully this does happen, and the city of Kapolei will be able to benefit more directly from the rail line going right into their downtown, preferably ending near the existing Kapolei Bus Transit Center, with a single station and park-and-ride serving the area. That suggestion goes into my other issue with the system:
Station Alignment: If you visit the honolulutransit.org website, you'll see both rail line maps that display the station areas, as well as digital and artist's renderings of rail stations. I once again go back to my metro rail experience and note how some stations are too close, while others are in are in areas with very low foot traffic. Just to give you a better understanding of the line, the 21 planned stations (west to east) are: East Kapolei, UH West Oahu, Ho'opili, West Loch, Waipahu Transit Center, Leeward Community College, Pearl Highlands, Pearlridge Center, Aloha Stadium, Pearl Harbor, Honolulu International Airport, Lagoon Drive, Kalihi Transit Center, Kalihi, Honolulu Community College, Iwilei, Chinatown, Downtown, Civic Center, Kaka'ako, and Ala Moana Center. The East Kapolei, UH West Oahu, Pearl Highlands, and Aloha Stadium stations will have park and ride lots. I'll just go down the line with the planned stations I disagree with. While the first five stations are fine, I have some reservations about the next two (Leeward Community College and Pearl Highlands): I don't envy HART one bit in the conception of these stations, as this area on Oahu is extremely complex and dangerous in terms of its layout. The area consists of an interchange for two freeways and one highway, with the college sitting to the south of all this action, connected to the highway by a sidestreet that crosses one of the freeways. It's safe to say that the only convenient way to access this school is by car, as a bus ride requires a half-mile walk partially uphill to cross the freeway. There is a shuttle service to the school, but it is extremely unreliable. That being said, the station servicing the college solves that inconvenience perfectly being placed right at the foot of the campus. It is also one of many essential areas that all rail lines should serve such as hospitals, sports stadiums, and shopping areas. The Pearl Highlands Station on the other hand, serves a low residential population area with two large shopping centers built for cars (one of the shopping centers has a Sam's Club as an anchor tenant). The proposed station meanwhile, will be sitting in a former small village and banana patch near the highway interchange. This isn't an area that would benefit from a mass transit station, as it is not a walkable area at all, and is inconvenient for pedestrian access. For the rail line as a whole, the distance between the college and shopping center is too close to allow the train to move quickly across the south side of Oahu. A better place for the Pearl Highlands station would be near the cross streets of Kamehameha Highway and Waimano Home Road, in the heart of the suburb of Pearl City. The proposed park-and-ride for the Highlands station could be moved there too if need be. Businesses in this area would need to be relocated of course (the auto dealership and strip mall on the south side of Kamehameha Highway specifically), but a station here would serve a larger area of residents.
Lastly, for outlying areas too far from the rail line, large express buses can feed those passengers into the system. Oahu's bus company currently runs an all-day limited stop express bus service in its suburban and rural areas to carry those residents into town. Those routes can be reconfigured to take passengers to the appropriate rail station for an easy transfer. These buses (all 60-footers) can become BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) lines originating from the Waianae Coast, Central Oahu, Windward Oahu, and East Oahu. The Waianae BRT can travel from Makaha to the East Kapolei Station (later the Downtown Kapolei station if/when the rail extension is finished), The Central Oahu BRT would come from the towns of Wahiawa/Millilani/Mililani Mauka and end at the Pearl City Station, the Windward BRT would take residents of Kaneohe and Kailua to the Ala Moana Center station, and the East Oahu BRT would cover Hawaii Kai to Ala Moana. Some of these BRTs could be grade separated to run faster if space allows, while others would have dedicated lanes and some signal pre-emption. I do know that a BRT system was proposed for Hawaii years ago, but it was brought up as a cheaper alternative to a rail line. A system like this should never serve as a mass-transit backbone in a heavily populated city like Honolulu, due to its slower speed compared with trains, rather it should complement and feed into a rail line. This is how the Metro Orange line in Los Angeles is used, as it connects with the Red Line subway to transport people from the San Fernando Valley to Downtown L.A.
So that's my five dollars on the Honolulu Rail Project. I hope that at least some of these issues are addressed by HART to make it a more attractive system for island residents who are tired of having highway and freeway travel by either bus or car as their only option.