Hawaii Elevated Train
January 5, 2012 by staff
Hawaii Elevated Train, From the farmlands here on the western side of Oahu, the hotels of Honolulu and the bluffs of Diamond Head can be seen rising 20 miles in the distance. This is rural Hawaii: waves and coastline on one side, lush mountains on the other and barely a building or vehicle in sight.
The train project symbolizes how much Oahu has changed. Its few highways are now crammed with traffic.
But sometime this spring, a $5.3 billion project is scheduled to rise from the Kapolei farmlands that offers powerful evidence of how much this island, a symbol of Pacific tranquillity, is changing. A 40-year battle to build a mass transit line appears to be nearing its end. Barring a court intervention, construction is to begin in March on a 20-mile rail line that will be elevated 40 feet in the air, barreling over farmland, commercial districts and parts of downtown Honolulu, and stretching from here to Waikiki.
The two-track line —a 30-foot-wide span, with 21 elevated stations — is designed to accommodate an increasing crush of commuters and tourists while encouraging new growth and development, particularly on this undeveloped part of the island. The Honolulu rail project, scheduled for completion in 2018, seems certain to change sharply the nature of much of the south side of the island, as well as downtown Honolulu.
The project has drawn fierce opposition from many environmentalists and some community leaders, who describe it as a concrete gash across green Oahu that will blight pristine coastlines and farmland at the western end and throw a shadow over city streets in Honolulu. It could still be delayed or frozen by a pending suit in federal court from opponents who assert that planners failed to properly explore alternatives to the project in environmental studies.
Still, for many islanders, its mere existence underscores a fact that some resist and others celebrate: Honolulu has joined the ranks of major metropolitan regions, with more than 930,000 people. “It starts to remind everyone that we are not all grass huts anymore,” said Cliff Slater, a leader of the opposition to the project. “There’s this illusion as to what Hawaii is all about, and New York-style trains don’t cut it.”
In recent years, the few highways here have routinely been as crammed with traffic as those in Los Angeles, a problem that seems likely to get worse. “This is not a sleepy, lazy, little city anymore,” said Toru Hamayasu, the interim director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit. “It’s a big town now.” Notably, in a state known for bristling at much development — on the island of Molokai recently, a small band of protesters took to the waters to blockade a tour ship operator trying to make a stop there — opposition to the transit line, while strong, does not appear to be widespread.
Even opponents say the project appears to have reached a critical mass. It is supported by most of this area’s elected officials, and by unions. Most of the financing is in place, in the form of an excise tax approved by the state and the city. And contracts for more than half the work have been awarded.
“It’s our genuine belief that there is sufficient momentum for this to carry itself forward on its own, absent some adverse ruling by the court,” Peter Carlisle, the mayor of Honolulu, said in an interview. “There isn’t any doubt that this is something a majority of people in Oahu want. The number of people who are opposed to it are slowly withering away as people realize that first, we have to do something to get people employed, and second, traffic is unbearable.”
Reaction to the train defies some of the usual lines. Some environmentalists are loath to oppose any project that encourages the use of mass transit over cars, while others question the wisdom of Oahu essentially doing the opposite of what New York City did half a century ago, when it began removing elevated train lines that cast a shadow along Manhattan avenues, and at a time when so many other cities are trying to bury highways and rail lines. Some of the opposition is financial, with opponents arguing that the cost is wildly expensive for the benefits it will bring.
“It is really a lunatic project. There is no other way to describe it,” said Panos Prevedouros, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Hawaii and a past candidate for Honolulu mayor. “It’s twice as expensive — for only 20 miles of track — as the Washington Metro.”
He described the elevated platforms as “almost like compact football fields in the air.”
Donna Wong, the executive director of Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, an environmental group, expressed fear that the elevated line’s lights would distract birds in migration patterns and disrupt Hawaiian historical sites. “I think it’s a slap in the face of native Hawaiians,” she said.
Opponents of the project include some prominent names, among them Ben Cayetano, a former governor. Mr. Cayetano said the project was “motivated more by politics than by sound engineering” as political leaders used it to burnish their credentials.
Mr. Hamayasu said the cost of the project would be recouped, in no small part because of reduced operating costs compared with buses. “One train carries the equivalent of five or seven buses with no labor cost for the driver.”
Mr. Carlisle described the project as essential to the economic transformation of the area, saying it would lead to more development on this part of the island and also rescue commuters from an often brutal drive.
“They are screaming a lot about aesthetics, but aesthetics is in the eye of the beholder,” he said. “In terms of aesthetics, I can’t think of anything less attractive than staring at a car in front of you and seeing nothing but its brake lights, of being stuck hours on end. If you are looking at the rail, you won’t have to look at traffic at all. You’ll be able to sit down and work.”
Mr. Cayetano, who is a plaintiff in the suit, said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the court would order Honolulu to suspend the project and redo the environmental impact statement. But Mr. Hamayasu said that at this point, he felt there was little that could stop the transit line.
“I’ve been here for almost 40 years, and this was my first job starting off here. The first study I got involved in on it finished in 1972,” he said. “This is as far as we’ve ever come.”
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