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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, November 16, 2004

New hybrid buses roll Thursday

 •  Chart: Special route for new buses

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

Honolulu's newest transit service, now scheduled to start Thursday, will feature hybrid buses, frequent service, newly designed shelters and stations, and a new route to Waikiki via Kaka'ako.

Ten new hybrid gas-electric buses, which can each carry 75 passengers, will be featured on TheTransit routes.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

But almost as telling is what it won't have — no dedicated lanes and no federal construction money.

"It's not perfect, but it's a step in the right direction," said city Managing Director Ben Lee, anticipating the start of the new TheTransit line running from Iwilei to Waikiki.

Mayor Jeremy Harris said the new 75-passenger, hybrid diesel-electric buses will be cleaner, quieter and more fuel-efficient than conventional diesel buses. Much of their power comes from electricity generated by the buses themselves.

As originally planned, however, the buses would have been given their own dedicated lanes for much of the route, in some cases borrowed from existing traffic lanes or newly built with federal money.

When the city began drawing up the original Bus Rapid Transit project in the late 1990s, it was touted as a lower-cost alternative to rail transit, which twice before had been shot down in Honolulu.

In addition, the buses were supposed to be a precursor to a BRT system that by 2009 would have extended throughout Honolulu and beyond to Kapolei.

None of that, however, is likely to come to pass.

Critics, worried by the loss of lanes for passenger cars, effectively forced the city to roll back its plan for dedicated lanes on the initial line. Gov. Linda Lingle, meanwhile, said she would not allow the buses exclusive use of state roadways. The federal government, amid the bickering, rejected the city's request for money to widen parts of the Waikiki route. And Mayor-elect Mufi Hannemann says he has no plans to move forward with the rest of the BRT plans, in town or in the suburbs.

"The important thing is that the in-town portion of the BRT is dead, dead, dead," said Cliff Slater, a leader of the Alliance for Traffic, an organization that has legally and politically fought the city's plans for years.

The increased service on the existing line — buses will run every 10 minutes during peak hours — will shorten the time it takes to get from downtown Honolulu to Waikiki and back, Harris said. The line will also serve makai portions of Kaka'ako, including the University of Hawai'i medical school, for the first time.

Sometime before the end of the year, drivers on the line also will be equipped with new technology that will give them the ability to turn red lights to green as they approach certain intersections. That should significantly reduce travel time for TheTransit customers, Lee said.

There also will be several new stations among the 20 planned stops on the route, some with raised platforms and canopy shelters and at least one on Kapahulu Avenue designed to look like a replica of the old Honolulu Trolley stop in Kapi'olani Park, city officials say.

"Light rail is in the future, but we've got to do something now and this is the first step," Lee said. "We'll make great street improvements, we're improving the air quality and saving energy. I think when people become accustomed to all that, they'll really like it. I think you'll find people leaving their car in the garage and catching the bus instead."

The parts of the BRT plan that go into effect Thursday are likely to cause traffic problems, Slater said.

"We've said all along that the narrowing of lanes in Kuhio Avenue and the extra buses on Kalakaua Avenue are going to be disastrous for traffic," he said. "It's already happening, even before the buses are running. The people in the travel industry are going nuts over it."

Lee said that he hopes the new mayor will consider other traffic changes in Waikiki that will ease congestion and noise. "We need to do more to get delivery vehicles and tour buses off the main streets during the day. There are other things we could do to improve the travel flow for everyone," he said.

Even without those changes, the city estimates the new line should get a passenger from Iwilei to the Honolulu Zoo several minutes faster than existing lines, some of which may be phased out as traffic shifts to the new buses.

Harris, Hannemann and state officials now agree that a new rail system, not bus rapid transit, will be necessary to help solve the city's traffic problems in the future. No one, though, has yet to come up with a plan for the rail line or a proposal to pay for it. Any new service, they agree, is likely to be at least a decade in the making.

Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.