City must plan for rail without wasting time
|StoryChat: Comment on this story|
In the search for strategies to cope with its transportation problems, Honolulu seems to be on the right track, at last.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann and the City Council seem committed to building a system with fixed-rail transit at its core. Although it was just a preliminary step, the vote favoring rail by the council's Transportation Committee is itself an encouraging sign.
Fourteen years ago, council members stunned O'ahu rail proponents and federal agencies poised with financing when they failed to muster enough votes to get transit through. This time the political will has materialized — helped, no doubt, by the fact that a tax to generate the local funds is ready to roll out in January.
The challenge now is to keep that commitment focused, so that key deadlines can be met, the feds can deliver the funding and work can begin.
As city streets become more crowded and as east-west traffic chokes highways, it's clear that a system reliant on cars and buses won't be sufficient to meet the demand as more homes are built in West O'ahu.
Compounding the problem: Parking spaces in the urban core, already in short supply, would become a full-fledged endangered species in a Honolulu fed by even more four-wheeled vehicles. A mode of transportation that moves independently has to be part of the mix.
Hannemann also rightly acknowledges that a comprehensive solution will have to include complementary elements — rail, ferries, buses and shuttles, in addition to highway improvements — in a unified metropolitan network all accessible for the same fare. His notion of using a "smart card" that travelers could swipe on all the transit modes sounds sensible.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The first order of business is for the council to choose the route by year's end so that O'ahu residents will know what they're buying when they start paying the increased excise tax Jan. 1.
On this score, the Transportation Committee has added needless complications. In addition to the two alternatives already vetted by engineers, the committee has resurrected two rejected routes and has added a new alignment that would end at Iwilei.
What then was the point of going through all the scoping meetings, of taking the community's pulse, of having trained professionals examine the feasibility of all the options, if the council's just going to go over the same ground now? The Iwilei alignment hasn't even been defined, which means even putting it on the table is sure to delay a final decision.
Let's not go there. Let's just stick with the estimated $3.6 billion, 20-mile route to Ala Moana or the estimated $4.6 billion, 28-mile alignment to Manoa.
It's important for the council to agree as soon as possible on the "locally preferred alternative", so that the congressional delegation can move quickly to lock in funds from the Federal Transit Administration. There's still federal skepticism about the strength of Honolulu's mass-transit resolve — remember, we've been down this path twice before — so a firm, timely commitment is needed to counter it.
The council panel also made a smart move by tabling a proposal to enact a "transit development ordinance" laying out development plans for transit stops. Although it will be an essential part of the planning process and it should be done at the front end, it makes more sense at least to know the course for rail before attempting to set those plans.
The city is off to a good start. Let's not stray off course now.