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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, February 27, 2005

Next stop: Honolulu?

By Karl Kim

While recent developments regarding the possible use of excise tax revenues for transit hold some promise, we're still a long way from gaining a new transit system.

To move ahead, there are three big questions which need to be addressed:

Portland's light rail system is among the options Honolulu can consider.

Karl Kim • Special to The Advertiser

• What type of transit technology makes the most sense?

• What is the best initial alignment (or route) for a new system?

• How can we most efficiently plan, finance, build, manage and operate rail transit in Honolulu?

Since the last time transit plans were scuttled more than a decade ago, there have been significant developments in transit technology. In addition to the ultra high-tech, high-speed maglev system built in Shanghai, there have also been advances in guidance and train control systems, as well as improvements in light-rail vehicle design.

New systems built in places as diverse as Houston and Minneapolis as well as throughout Europe and Asia provide opportunities for us to design a better, more modern system in Honolulu.

These are new, sleek vehicles that are not just great looking, but are fully accessible for people with disabilities, with wide doors and low floors, and are much more quiet and comfortable to ride than older systems.

In addition to light-rail technologies, we should also look at smaller, less-expensive streetcar systems such as the one built a few years ago in Portland, Ore. We also should examine new "people mover" technologies which have been implemented in airports, amusement parks and museums.

The choice for Honolulu might come down to two different kinds of technologies:

One involves at-grade light-rail vehicles, similar to what has been implemented in St. Louis or Houston. The other alternative might be a medium-capacity automated, elevated, grade-separated system similar to what has been built in Vancouver, British Columbia, and being planned for Yong-in outside Seoul, South Korea.

Since the first "new" light-rail system was built in the United States in San Diego more than 20 years ago, there has been something of a renaissance, with new systems springing up in many cities — everywhere, it seems, other than Honolulu. Typically, at-grade light rail systems carry 2,000 to 10,000 passengers per peak-hour direction.

Advanced Light Rapid Transit

Another option for Honolulu is something similar to the Vancouver, British Columbia, SkyTrain. The system first opened in 1985, in time for the World's Fair. It was an elevated, automated, grade-separated 14-mile system which used driverless 60-foot vehicles that were sometimes coupled together in pairs or joined together to form up to six-car trains.

ALRT is more expensive to build because of the costs of automation and advanced communication systems. These systems, however, can carry much higher passenger loads of more than 20,000 people per peak hour direction with headways (time between trains) of only two minutes during peak travel times.

Last July, it was announced that an international consortium including Bombardier, which owns the technology used in the Vancouver system, will build the proposed 11.6 mile rail system between Yong-in and Seoul. This fully automated system, which will have a total of 16 stations, initially will have 32 transit vehicles and will cost about $600 million.

The Yong-in project should be closely monitored as an example of a potential technology that might make sense here.

What is the best route for fixed rail?

While we know the primary corridor that must be served by a transit system, there will, undoubtedly, be debate about which areas should be served first. In some ways, the question about which route makes the most sense is also related to which technology — light rail or ALRT — is chosen.

There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma because in virtually every city that has built a transit system, development has tended to accrete and concentrate around stations. Do we seek out already densely populated areas or popular destinations or work centers?

Or do we instead choose stations in areas where there is room for more growth and development, perhaps allowing for new high-rise construction or even acres of park-and-ride facilities which would serve to support transit ridership?

The U.S. government seems to recognize the value of such development bonuses, because its "new start" transit grant program encourages supportive land-use development around transit systems.

The millions of dollars of new investment in Portland's Pearl district has coincided with the construction of the streetcar system. Many other cities report that transit has played a key role in revitalizing urban areas similar to Kaka'ako.

Ideally, a transit system in Honolulu will serve not just the University and Waikiki, but also much of Honolulu, racing out eventually as far as Mililani.

But choosing the exact route may involve avoiding difficult terrain or places where the opposition to change is great — and still managing to serve communities with large transit-dependent populations or potential to support ridership over the long term.

We should be closely examining not just where people live, work, shop and go to school today, but where they may travel in the future.

There are two or three alternative routes that need to be studied more carefully. One involves putting an at-grade light-rail or streetcar system along the coastline, running between Waikiki, Ala Moana, downtown and perhaps along Nimitz Highway to points west.

Another version of the at-grade system might follow either King Street or Kapi'olani Boulevard in the primary urban corridor. Perhaps some combination of the coastal and in-town light-rail system could be devised.

The more ambitious, more costly alignment involves building an elevated, automated system above and along the H-1 Freeway between Kapolei and UH-Manoa. This provides a more long-term solution in that it would carry 20,000 people or more per hour between 'Ewa and the urban core.

There would also be a built-in solution to congestion: Motorists stuck in traffic would see sleek, modern transit vehicles whizzing past, creating an incentive to switch from driving to riding.

How to get from here to there

Among the many different kinds of rail transit systems is the smaller, less-expensive, streetcar type built recently in Portland, Ore.

Karl Kim • Special to The Advertiser

The biggest challenge, however, is not which technology or even which alignment should be chosen, but rather how we should go about planning, financing, building, managing and operating a new transit system on O'ahu.

Since the last time around, there have been significant changes affecting the planning and procurement of a fixed-rail transit system for Honolulu.

One of the most significant involves the addition of new federal criteria which were added in 1997 as a condition of federal support and participation. The criteria include demonstrating that new projects should improve mobility; have environmental benefits; demonstrate operating efficiencies; be cost-effective; and be supported by land use.

In some ways, these additional criteria are nothing new. What is different is the adoption of these criteria and rating procedures that will be used to rank our proposal against competing Mainland systems.

One alternative that has been bandied about has been to forgo federal money entirely and build a system using only private funds, similar to the $650 million Las Vegas Monorail.

This project was built under a "design-build" fixed-price contract by a consortium led by Bombardier. Bombardier also operates it for renewable five- year terms.

This approach, sometimes referred to as BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer), involves far greater private-sector participation than conventional approaches to transit procurement. It also involves transferring the project risks from government to the private sector.

But to get from here to there will require other big changes.

For transit to succeed, it must be a shared responsibility. Not just between the state and county governments, but also with the federal government, the utilities and the private sector. This project is too big to be just left alone to the City Council (like it was the last time we tried) or to be carried out by a division of the city's Department of Transportation Services.

For transit to succeed this time around, it has to be a real joint venture, with politics put aside.

For transit to work on O'ahu, there must be a new coalition of people interested not just in transit but in the integration of all travel modes — walking, biking, ride-sharing, taxi and shuttle services, public and private buses, park and ride, and those who continue to drive.

We need to be much more inventive in terms of thinking about how to pay for a new transit system. Rather than view the excise tax as the end all and be all, we should also be looking more closely at value-capture techniques, such as transit improvement districts or tax-increment financing, whereby landowners and businesses that share in the benefits of a new system help pay both capital and operating costs.

We should also be identifying other potential sources of revenue — highway tolls, parking fees, gasoline taxes, luxury-vehicle taxes, registration fees, employer subsidies, student fees and other potential sources of revenue to support a new transportation mode.

We also need to look at ways of exporting the costs of transit — by making sure that tourists who will benefit from transit help pay the costs of it, and that international investors and others who have benefited from the increase in land values and properties in Hawai'i also have made contributions to improve the quality of life.

In addition to deliberating how best to pay for the system, we also need to think about our city's long-range transportation needs; we must look into the future and consider what Honolulu will be like 20 or 30 years from now and even beyond.

We need to view transit as a way of promoting greater densities in urban areas, so that our precious lands and natural environments can be preserved. We need to see it as a potent planning tool, one that can be used to shape and guide the future growth of our communities in a more rational and predictable manner instead of merely accommodating the private automobile.

It is time for us to set aside our differences and work collaboratively to plan and build a transit system that will carry us into the next century.

Karl Kim is a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.

By Dale Evans

Do we need it? Can we afford it? Can we maintain it? Those are the questions that should be answered by tough-minded financial analysis rather than wishful thinking about rail transit.

Rail tax-increase bills

Three bills that would provide financing for rail transit are moving through the state Legislature.

What they would do: House Bill 1309 would authorize counties to levy a surcharge on the state tax to pay for public transit through 2015.

It has a companion bill in the Senate, Senate Bill 1731.

Another Senate bill, SB1366, would authorize each county to levy a general excise and use tax surcharge to pay for public rail transit or other transportation improvements.

How to get involved: To share your views on these bills, reach legislators in your district. For a complete list of legislators and their districts, see www.capitol.hawaii.gov.

Tell us what you think: Should Honolulu have a rail transit system? Send your thoughts to letters@honoluluadvertiser.com, or by fax at 535-2415.

The National Tax Foundation's Business Tax Climate Index rates Hawai'i as the worst state for business taxes in the nation. We're already the fourth-highest-taxed state, per capita, in the nation. Can the average hard-working taxpayer with two jobs afford an increase of $900 a year to pay for rail transit?

We at the Alliance for Traffic Improvement and the Hawaii Highway Users Alliance believe that the U.S. Department of Transportation's approved concept of an elevated, two-lane reversible HOT lane (one-way town-bound in the morning and one-way out in the afternoon), where buses and carpools go free and others pay a toll, would do far more to reduce congestion in the Leeward corridor than rail. But the city has shunned the HOT lane option, without any analysis, even though it offers the advantage of reliable travel times for bus, van and auto users and serves police, fire and emergency vehicles, whereas rail is restricted to trains.

Federal data reveal some surprising facts on rail transit:

• We are the 55th-largest metro area in the United States, and a clear majority of the 54 that are larger than us do not have rail lines. The smallest metro area in the United States with a high-cost elevated rail line totally separated from the streets, as is being proposed for Honolulu, is Miami, and it is four times our size.

• The average speed of rail transit of the type envisioned for Honolulu is 22.5 mph. The Washington Metro only averages 23.4 mph, and Boston's is 20.4 mph. And when you add getting to the rail stations by bus and then, at the other end, getting a bus to the workplace, you begin to understand why the percentage of commuters using public transportation continues to decline. HOT lane speed is 55-60 mph.

• Rail transit does not increase the use of public transportation. Of the 12 metro areas that installed rail transit between 1980 and 2000, 11 saw a decline in the percentage of commuters using transit of any kind and only one, San Diego, held its own. All those metro areas that had rail before 1980 experienced a decline in commuter use. (For more information on these statistics go to www.honolulutraffic.com).

Here's why the percentage of commuters using transit is critical:

Today, 8 percent of Honolulu commuters use public transportation and 70 percent use automobiles. That means that if the percentage of public transportation commuting stays steady, every 10,000 additional commuters will mean 7,000 new cars on the road, and only 800 new users of public transportation. That is why congestion keeps getting worse.

Rail transit does nothing for traffic congestion.

The recognized national authority on traffic congestion is the Texas Transportation Institute, or TTI, at Texas A&M University. It issues a report annually on traffic congestion changes in the nation's 75 largest metro areas. The latest one compares 1982 and 2002 and divides the nation's metro areas into four population-size categories as follows:

• The "Very Large" category of more than 3 million in population has 11 metro areas, all with rail lines — except Houston, and it had the least increase in traffic congestion in this group.

• The "Large" category of 1 to 3 million has 27 metro areas, half with rail lines. Excepting those with stagnant population growth, the best performers for traffic congestion were Milwaukee; Norfolk, Va.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Oklahoma City — and none of these had rail.

• The "Medium" category of 600,000 to 1 million population has 30 metro areas (including Honolulu) and of these, only Salt Lake City, which is 50 percent larger than us, has a rail line — and it had the third-worst showing in traffic congestion increases.

• In the "Small" category of less than half a million, there were, of course, no metro areas with rail lines.

Rail transit has less capacity than a single highway lane. A single lane of freeway has three times greater capacity than is carried, in practice, by the nation's busiest rail line, New York's 8th Avenue subway.

Here's why: A single lane dedicated to buses has the capacity to carry 1,500 buses an hour with 75 passengers each or 112,000 people during peak direction per hour. But that is just theoretical capacity and is as meaningless as those statements rail proponents make discussing rail capacity as being equivalent to 12 lanes of freeway.

The fact is that neither a rail line nor HOT lanes could possibly use all the capacity available to it.

But in practice, high-occupancy vehicle or HOV lanes generally carry far more riders per hour than do rail lines of any kind. Only New York's 8th Avenue subway carries more than the busiest HOVs.

For example, the Eastside Max light-rail line in Portland, Ore., only carries 1,980 passengers per hour in the peak direction, whereas Portland's 6th Avenue HOV lane carries 8,500 passengers per hour in buses. That one HOV lane carries more than four times what the rail line carries.

Not only does rail transit do no good, it's harmful.

Rail uses prodigious amounts of taxes and leaves nothing for the construction of new or expanded highways, and often results in significant reductions in bus service. This is why there are emerging bus-rider unions in rail cities such as Los Angeles and New York.

If there is room for a rail transit line, there is room for a two-lane highway.

The rail line would cost $2.6 billion (before cost overruns) and would only be eligible for $500 million in federal funding. That leaves $2.1 billion to be funded locally, and on top of that, $57 million annually is needed for additional costs.

On the other hand, the reversible HOT lane option would cost $1 billion (including cost overruns) and be eligible for the same $500 million in federal funding. Future tolls could be sold for $200 million, leaving $300 million for local funding, together with $5 million to $10 million in operating costs. This could be handled without a tax increase.

Trains are an old idea. Let's move forward with a more modern option: HOT lanes.

John L. Garibaldi is chief executive officer of Hawaii Superferry. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.