City considers shorter rail transit system
A scaled-down O'ahu transit system that no longer would extend from Kapolei city center to Manoa is being considered by city officials to avoid exceeding the project's original $3 billion price tag.
Instead, new routes being considered likely would start somewhere in West O'ahu and end near downtown Honolulu.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann said cost estimates up to $4 billion to build the full system forced him to consider starting with shorter, less expensive system that could be expanded over time.
"Given the Hannemann administration's prudent fiscal philosophy, Honolulu's current economic reality and previous public representations that a rail system would cost approximately $3 billion, the decision has been made to stay with that price tag," said Melvin Kaku, the city's director of transportation services. "That means we will be recommending a basic, no-frills systems that meets the most needs in the most costefficient manner."
Rail supporters on both ends of the island yesterday said they were disappointed with the change in scope, but said it was more important to start with a shortened project, if necessary, than risk not doing anything.
"It's always better to have something than nothing," said Maeda Timson, chairwoman of the Makakilo/Kapolei/Honokai Hale Neighborhood board. "As long as Kapolei isn't cut out completely, I could accept that."
City planners briefed City Council members this week on the scaled-back possibility, saying that the new route could start at Leeward Community College or the new University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu campus in east Kapolei. The route could also be shortened or possibly end in downtown Honolulu instead of stretching to Ala Moana and on to UH-Manoa.
"I'm still insisting that we start someplace in West O'ahu, and West O'ahu is not Pearl City or 'Aiea. It has to go beyond that, as close as we can get it to Kapolei," Hannemann said. "This is an evolving process."
Starting smaller is not an admission that rail is too expensive to work, Hannemann said. "I just really believe that once people ride it, they will support it. Over time we can add the other components."
Hannemann compared his latest proposal to buying a car: "Instead of buying a fully loaded vehicle, I just want something without air-conditioning, without AM/FM radio, without CD/DVD component. I just want something very basic."
Kapolei lawmakers said yesterday that they could probably accept the shortened line for now, as long as it begins somewhere in West O'ahu.
"The shortening of the rail is unfortunate, but sometimes the realities of these types of projects is that as costs go up you have to look where you can scale back," said Sen. Will Espero, D-20 ('Ewa Beach-Waipahu). "Even if they only go to the West O'ahu campus, there would still be a critical mass of users. But this is a 20- or 30-year project that eventually will be extended all across the island."
On the other end of the island, however, some officials said they'll continue to push for an initial rail line that goes all the way to Manoa.
"I'd be very, very disappointed if the rail line doesn't come all the way to the university," said Denise Konan, chancellor of UH-Manoa, which had been targeted as a likely final destination of the rail line as first proposed. "We've been having many discussions with the mayor about all the great benefits to the university and the community of having a transit stop on campus. The student riders are a big part of what could make transit successful."
Rep. Kirk Caldwell, D-24th (Manoa), said he also was disappointed by the announcement and hoped it wasn't set in stone.
"The only way you can give people a true alternative is having a rail system that goes all the way to the university, where they have only 3,000 parking spaces for 22,000 students," Caldwell said.
"When it's built, it's going to have the largest impact of any public infrastructure project in Honolulu history. There's still a long process ahead of putting forth proposals and getting the public to accept them."
City Council members, who will make a final decision on a new transit system's route, technology and costs by the end of this year, said they want more information before they commit either way to a reduced system.
City Councilman Charles Djou, who voted against a half-percent increase in the state general excise tax to pay for the transit project, praised Hannemann for trying to cut costs and warning the Council before the city sends out a recommendation on Nov. 1.
While Djou voted against the tax, he said he remains open to transit. "What I think is frightening is this may indicate that the costs may be spiraling out of control," he said.
City Councilman Todd Apo, who represents the Kapolei-Leeward Coast, said the proposed changes don't shake his support for a transit system and thinks it's logical for the city to continue refining the options as new information about cost and ridership come in.
"If we're going to do rail, we've got to make sure we do it right," Apo said.
While Hannemann said he would insist on holding the costs to about $3 billion, including rights-of-way acquisition and rolling stock, others said it's possible the city could always seek more transit funds from the state Legislature or elsewhere. "Having to find ways to get additional funding may be something we need to do," Apo said.
State lawmakers contacted yesterday expressed sharply different reactions to the possibility that the city might seek authorization for another tax increase to pay the increasing rail costs.
"As far as I'm concerned, that's it for now," said state Rep. Joe Souki, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "The state has many other needs and it would be premature for them to come in and make a request right away. If they don't have enough money, they have to figure out what they're going to do on their own."
Hannemann yesterday said he has no plans to seek any additional tax hike.
State Sen. Lorraine Inouye, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Government Operations, said that the Legislature might consider raising the tax increase to 1 percent, as was originally proposed two years ago. "If the city feels there won't be enough money to carry on, they can come in and tell us. I'm sure we would be open to an increase, and there is enough will to get it done," she said.
Hannemann said Tuesday's gridlock on O'ahu roads showed how important it is to find another transit option. "It's clear we need it now more than ever," he said.
Hannemann said managed lanes or toll roads could be useful if the state wants to push those as an option, but they would be no substitute for a rail plan.
"I don't see that as a replacement for a rail system," he said. "You're still putting more cars on the road."
And drivers might not favor toll roads if they realize that officials could charge $8 each way to drive in peak traffic, adding $80 each week to drivers' commuting tab. "Working people are going to find that very, very expensive," he said.