Rail transit system cost estimate: $3 billion
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By Mike Leidemann and Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writers
By Mike Leidemann and Robbie Dingeman
A new rail transit system from Kapolei to Manoa would cost more than $3 billion to build and attract between 120,000 and 150,000 riders a day by the year 2030, city officials said yesterday.
The new cost estimate is at least $200 million more than previous estimates, but Mayor Mufi Hannemann said that does not necessarily mean more taxes will be needed, citing the possibility of public-private partnerships.
The early projections show the costliest section of the 24-mile system would be in outlying areas between Kapolei and Aloha Stadium. Heaviest ridership would be in urban Honolulu.
Also yesterday, the city released its first drawings of what the elevated portions of the line might look like. In most cases, the rail structure would be about 30 feet above ground, but in at least one location — where the line along University Avenue would soar over H-1 Freeway — the structure would be as high as 60 feet above ground, officials said.
On the other hand, city officials said they were pleasantly surprised by cost projections showing that building a tunnel for rail through downtown Honolulu would be far less than expected, even less than when the last such tunnel was proposed 15 years ago.
INPUT FROM PUBLIC
The new information is the most detailed glimpse yet at the city's mass-transit analysis and it comes at the midway point in a yearlong effort to determine the best mass transportation alternative for O'ahu.
It also comes as the city prepares for a new round of public meetings beginning tomorrow in which residents will be asked to help pick the best route alternatives based on construction costs, potential ridership and other factors.
"To use a horse race analogy, we're halfway around the racetrack and trying to figure who has the best chance of winning at this point," said Toru Hamayasu, the city's chief transportation engineer.
Hamayasu said the city is committed to sharing progress reports at various points in the analysis rather than waiting until the Nov. 1 deadline to present a preferred alternative to the City Council.
He knows that the views — especially one of the rail structure towering over University Avenue — will get a lot of attention. But he thinks it's important for the community to see and understand what's being planned.
If that alternative is chosen, Hamayasu said, "this is what's going to happen: There's no hiding a concrete structure in the middle of the road."
The city figures released yesterday do not include costs of the trains themselves, any right-of-way land that needs to be purchased, or operation and maintenance costs. Even so, just building the infrastructure needed for the rail line would top $3 billion, the city said for the first time.
With the added expenses, the line might end up costing more than $4 billion to build, said rail transit opponent Cliff Slater.
"That's what we've been saying all along. I'm happy that the city's figures are in line with ours," said Slater, who was reached for comment while traveling to the Machu Picchu ruins in Peru.
NO TOLL-ROAD FIGURES
The projections do not include cost or ridership figures for a "managed lane" toll-road highway still being considered as an alternative to rail. Figures on that option will be available in several weeks, Hamayasu said.
The city expects to receive $150 million annually from the excise tax surcharge that goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2007, to help pay for the transit system. The city had asked for twice that amount, hoping to take the excise tax from 4 percent to 5 percent instead of the 4.5 percent that passed the state Legislature.
Still, Hannemann said he's not ready to say the higher cost estimates will send him back to state and city lawmakers asking for higher taxes.
"It's too soon to tell because I'm a big believer in public-private partnerships," Hannemann said.
He pointed to Salt Lake City, where the University of Utah donated the land for a transit parking lot while the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated the $10 million parking structure. Because of the donations, he said, the Utah transit authority was able to take over one level of parking exclusively for riders.
"There are ways we can reduce the dependence on the state tax dollars," Hannemann said, including federal money, contributions of land and rights of way, and developers willing to pay for the benefits that a transit system could bring to their community.
The city did not provide a breakdown of costs or detailed ridership figures for specific route options. Instead, it offers "relative" figures, showing how much more one route would cost compared to another and how many people would ride the rail depending on where it goes.
Several business owners and residents near the University of Hawai'i-Manoa said yesterday they thought the design of the rail line through the area would be acceptable to the community, but worried about potential noise problems and keeping fare costs down.
"It looks absolutely gorgeous. A little out of place, but still gorgeous," said Kristine Browner, owner of the Well Bento Restaurant on Beretania Street near University Avenue. "The important thing is that they keep it affordable to ride. It's going to be good for business and going to help a lot of people. It's a move toward the future that will open a lot of doors and create a lot of jobs."
Honolulu resident Chris Okudara said he didn't mind the design.
"It looks kind of big and noisy, but I don't find it objectionable," Okudara said. "I don't think I'll use it myself, but it would be perfect for my son who lives in Pearl City and could go to the University of Hawai'i."
IT'S NOT 'THAT NICE'
Elizabeth Rudinoff, a UH-Manoa psychology student who lives on Dole Street, said the rail line "certainly doesn't look that nice, but it could have its advantages.
But she said: "We've got a good bus system that covers pretty much the same ground, so I don't think I need to use it."
City Councilman Charles Djou and Councilwoman Barbara Marshall were the only two on the council to vote against the transit tax.
Djou has questioned whether the city is prepared to embark on the huge public-works project, but after seeing the preliminary analysis this week, he's cautiously impressed by the concept.
"I think it looks great. If it works, I think that's fantastic," Djou said. "My objection hasn't been against mass transit; my concern has been the tax increase and getting this thing done right."
But he's got some major questions. Since the planners have yet to select a technology for the rail line — light rail, monorail or a magnetic levitation system — it's hard to get a handle on the actual costs, he said.
"The cost estimates are just that — they're wild estimates," Djou said.
Hamayasu said many other factors — social, environmental, technological and financial — will be considered in ultimately deciding the preferred transit alternative for O'ahu.
City officials hope to present a preferred alternative recommendation to the City Council by Nov. 1. The council then will make the final selection on a new transit system.
The effort marks the fourth time in the last 25 years the city has tried to develop a new mass-transit system for O'ahu. The previous efforts, including two rail projects and one bus rapid transit system, floundered and ultimately failed because of cost concerns or changes in local political administrations.
City Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz, a rail supporter whose district includes the North Shore, said it's crucial for the city to plan transit-oriented development districts.
"It's a land-use issue," Dela Cruz said. "Development will occur around the stations."
Reach Mike Leidemann at firstname.lastname@example.org and Robbie Dingeman at email@example.com.