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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 22, 2006

Mass-transit system historic vote at hand

 •  Special report: Deciding O'ahu's transit future

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

In what's being called one of the most important votes in Honolulu's history, the City Council is set to decide today on the size, shape and location of a new mass-transit system for O'ahu.

The decision, though, is likely to have ramifications far beyond local traffic jams and commuting times, leaders said. Instead, the vote could end up changing the way residents and visitors think about their lives and affect how and where they live and work for generations to come.

Call it the $4 billion question: Whither Honolulu?

Officially, nine council members are charged today with picking a locally preferred transit alternative, a key step in obtaining federal financing.

While the city administration and most council members already have indicated a preference for a "fixed guideway" line for rail or buses, its exact mode and route could remain in doubt right up until the vote, expected to come after a full day and possibly evening of testimony and debate.

2009 GROUND-BREAKING?

Today's decision will launch the city on a project that could see ground-breaking in 2009, a first segment operating by 2012 and an estimated 128,000 riders daily using a line running from Kapolei to the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, with a possible spur to Waikiki, by 2030.

Beyond that, the system could reshape the economy and relocate the growth of housing, leaders said.

"It's about widening choices, expanding options," said Karl Kim, a University of Hawai'i urban planning professor. "It's about providing a real alternative to driving, but it's also important for changing lifestyles and increasing urban vitality."

In many other cities, transit has given urban areas an economic shot in the arm, created new densely populated areas, and helped curb urban sprawl, Kim said.

"You have to think of it as a very progressive social investment that will pay off in terms of where people live and work," he said.

Critics said a possible rail line will not reduce traffic congestion and is the least cost-effective way of dealing with transportation and other urban growth problems.

"All you have to do is go back to any rail line built in America and see what was promised and what they really got," said businessman Cliff Slater. "This is a major loser."

Slater and others have advocated that the council more carefully consider managed traffic lanes, in which buses and carpools would be given priority and car drivers would pay a varying fee to use the lanes when space is available. Other options available include improving existing bus service or a so-called no-build solution.

"The odds are better than 50 percent that eventually, like Seattle, Honolulu will bury rail," said Panos Prevedouros, a University of Hawai'i engineering professor who specializes in transportation. "It has to. No city twice Honolulu's size has heavy rail. Such an expensive system requires a large enough population to use it. We do not have it, and we won't have it in the next 30 years."

HEATED DEBATE EXPECTED

The bill before the council today calls for the selection of a fixed guideway option running from West Kapolei to Manoa, with a possible Waikiki spur.

However, a heated floor debate is expected on a proposed amendment that would have the preferred route run through parts of Kalaeloa and the 'Ewa plain, where several large projects are being planned, including a new University of Hawai'i campus, several housing developments and a $100 million Salvation Army community center.

"It's the most important infrastructure improvement we'll make in this decade," said Sen. Will Espero, (D-20, 'Ewa Beach) and a supporter of the Kalaeloa alignment. "It's imperative that we look for what's best for O'ahu and what's best for West O'ahu."

Grant Teichman, president of the Associated Students of the University of Hawai'i, said today's vote will have a long-lasting impact on his life as well as those of thousands of other young people.

"It's absolutely essential that the line come to the university," he said. "But it also has endless other possibilities. My hope is that people like myself can graduate and continue to live here without a car. All the students right out of college have a hard time with rent and other expenses, including a car. A rail line might make the difference between being able to stay in Hawai'i or having to leave."

City leaders have tried at least three times since the 1980s to start a mass-transit system in Hawai'i. All of the projects eventually died because of public opposition, a change in city leadership or concerns about funding.

Last year, the state Legislature approved a one-half percentage point O'ahu surcharge on the state excise tax to pay for the transit project, clearing one of the biggest hurdles in its way. City officials say they expect the surcharge to raise between $150 million and $230 million a year, which will be put toward the cost of the project, estimated between $3.8 billion and $4.6 billion.

The tax surcharge is expected to raise about $3 billion, with the rest coming from federal funds and other sources, including partnerships with private developers.

Reach Mike Leidemann at mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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