|||Special report: Deciding O'ahu's transit future|
|Mass transit hearing gallery|
|||Vote delivers holiday cheer to supporters|
|||Next move: picking exact route, method|
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By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Leidemann
The City Council yesterday approved a mass-transit plan for O'ahu that could go from Kalaeloa to Manoa and Waikiki and cost more than $5 billion.
After a daylong session with more twists and turns than a train heading up a mountain pass, council members voted 7-2 to designate a fixed-guideway system, using either buses or rail, that supporters say will shape and guide O'ahu's growth for generations to come.
"It's going to give us the ability and means to improve the quality of life in Honolulu for years to come," said Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who for two years has shepherded the transit project through public and political ups and downs. "It's the best Christmas present one could have asked for."
Yesterday's vote to pick a locally preferred alternative clears the way for the city to move forward on a transit project that has been considered and stalled in one form or another for more than three decades. Hannemann said he hopes to begin construction on a transit line by 2009, with a first segment open for ridership by 2012.
The decision drew enthusiastic approval from residents of traffic-clogged West O'ahu, who had feared right up until the last minute that the transit line would bypass their communities.
Instead, several council members reversed their positions on the preferred route at the 11th hour after hearing impassioned pleas from some of the 130 people who had signed up to testify.
"It was the fantastic response from the community that carried the day," said Councilman Todd Apo, who championed an alignment favored by the city administration that would start in Kapolei and wind through the developing areas of Kalaeloa and North-South Road before turning toward town.
"I'm not one to push changes down the community's throat," said Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who late in the day backed off a proposed route that would go through urban Kapolei and include a spur partly down North-South Road.
DECISION FOR LATER
In the end, council members left a decision on the final alignment up to the city administration, saying that the designated route could include both West O'ahu alignments as well as two possible routes through Salt Lake and Honolulu International Airport.
"It helps out 'Ewa and 'Ewa Beach, and it won't make that much difference for the folks coming in from Wai'anae. And it will serve more people that way," said Tesha Malama, a former 'Ewa Neighborhood Board member.
With the Kalaeloa plan in place, it would take someone in 'Ewa Beach about five minutes to drive to a transit station; under the other plan, the same person would have to drive about 35 to 45 minutes to reach the first park-and-ride facility along a transit line, she said.
If the entire route is built, it will be more than 30 miles long, include more than three dozen stations and cost at least $5 billion.
However, the bill passed yesterday includes a provision that bars the city from spending more money on the rail than it can raise through an excise tax increase, federal grants, and state and private development funds.
"We're all going to keep an eye on it to make sure it's done correctly," Apo said.
Hannemann said the city can reasonably expect to raise about $3.6 billion from the first two funding sources.
"We will continue to be prudent in our assessment of what we can afford," he said. That means the city will have to decide which portion of the line will be built first and which will have to wait until more funds become available.
Those voting in favor yesterday were City Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz, Apo, Kobayashi, Romy Cachola, Nestor Garcia, Gary Okino and Rod Tam.
Opposed were East Honolulu Councilman Charles Djou and Windward Councilwoman Barbara Marshall.
Earlier in the day, it appeared that the council might not vote at all on the transit bill before Christmas. Kobayashi's same-day introduction of the route-change proposal raised state, city and ethical questions about the need to give adequate public notice to the public before proceeding.
Concerned about those issues, council members spent almost two hours hovering with each other and meeting with corporation counsel attorneys before voting 5-4 to delay a decision until at least Tuesday but accept testimony from the more than 100 people waiting to be heard yesterday.
That testimony produced several heated exchanges between West O'ahu community leaders and Kobayashi, who said she was trying to bring the rail line closer to Fort Weaver Road while giving riders starting in Kapolei a more direct ride to town.
"We want rail and we want it now. We did our part by going to all the meetings for years telling people what we need, and now, at the 12th hour, you are doing something different. How dare you?" said Maeda Timson, chairwoman of the Makakilo/Kapo-lei/Honokai Hale Neighborhood Board.
Kurt Fevella, head of the 'Ewa Neighborhood Board, went toe-to-toe with Kobayashi over the need for building the full Kalaeloa alignment, also known as the green route.
"The route you're choosing is a big mistake," he said. "The green route is the one people from Makaha to 'Ewa Beach voted on. We don't want your chopped-up line, with a trunk here and stop there. We're tired of having hamburgers and french fries; we want lobster and steak."
Those exchanges helped the council revisit the earlier decision to postpone the vote and decide to proceed with a final decision yesterday.
Apo said the vote gives city planners a choice to decide whether one or the other or both lines will be included in the final alignment: "They have the ability to do both."
Councilman Gary Okino, a longtime supporter of transit, said he was happy and relieved to be finally voting on the start to transit after decades of debate. He said he studied this issue as a career city planner since the 1970s when "it was clear that this was the one answer."
Opponents of a fixed-guideway system said they were disappointed in yesterday's decision and promised to keep fighting as the project continues.
"I don't think that the public realizes that even with rail, traffic congestion will be much worse," said businessman Cliff Slater. "Right now, we are 6 percent over capacity. With rail, we will be 31 percent over" by the year 2030.
Djou, who had been the council's staunchest opponent of a rail transit proposal, said he doesn't think the traffic congestion will be eased enough by the plan and that it will cost far too much.
"If the city had an unlimited supply of money, we could think, maybe, in terms of doing rail, but the average family is paying too much in taxes as it is. I fear this will bring them to their knees," Djou said.
Marshall said she couldn't support the system as planned.
"I cannot subject our constituents to a major decision with too little information," she said.
Several council members made a point of thanking the public for participating in the year-long alternatives analysis process and waiting through several daylong meetings in the last few weeks as the council decided how to proceed.
"I can sleep good tonight knowing that we listened to them through this whole process," Tam said.
A TRANSIT HISTORY
A history of mass-transit proposals on O'ahu:
Reach Mike Leidemann at firstname.lastname@example.org.