Mass-transit route to airport still alive
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By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Johnny Brannon
A key environmental study for Honolulu's planned mass-transit system will evaluate a direct route to Honolulu International Airport — the clearest indication yet that the controversial Salt Lake Boulevard path chosen by the City Council could later be changed.
But officials caution that there is no current push to take such action, even if it remains theoretically possible.
"There is no hidden agenda or secret plan to change the route chosen by the council," said top city transit planner Toru Hamayasu. "That decision has been made."
A draft environmental impact statement commissioned by the city will include three options for the project's first phase, all of which would stretch from the planned University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu campus in Kapolei to Ala Moana Center.
The three would:
The study will also evaluate future links to UH-Manoa and Waikiki, and to West Kapolei.
City officials have indicated since February — when the council made the surprise decision to dump the airport in favor of Salt Lake Boulevard — that environmental and engineering studies would consider other options.
But the release yesterday of a "scoping report" for the environmental statement clarified which routes could still be in play.
In written comments submitted for the report, state Department of Transportation Director Barry Fukunaga called for a direct airport route to be included.
Hamayasu said doing so is prudent and responsible, but shouldn't be seen as a move to junk the Salt Lake alignment.
"The reason for studying the airport-only route has nothing to do with any desire to change it," he said. "We're doing it only because it was suggested in comments made during the scoping process."
Mayor Mufi Hannemann had initially pushed for the airport route, but the sharply divided City Council chose the Salt Lake path in order to secure a crucial swing vote from Councilman Romy Cachola, who represents the area.
Others on the council hated the choice but said they held their noses and voted for it to avoid delaying the project or jeopardizing federal grants it will rely on.
Hannemann indicated he was satisfied with the Salt Lake route, even if it wasn't his first choice.
Cachola said yesterday he was not surprised that a direct airport route will also be studied, but said he does not fear the Salt Lake route would be abandoned.
"As far as I'm concerned, I'm looking at the commitment and the words that were given to us by the administration," he said. "Whether there are going to be any changes later, I don't even want to speculate."
SALT LAKE DEFENSE
Cachola said he remains convinced that the Salt Lake Boulevard route is a better choice for the transit system's first phase because it would be less expensive and would serve more people immediately.
A branch to the airport should be added later, when the system stretches to Waikiki, the final destination of many airport passengers, he said.
"We don't have the money to complete the whole route anyway," Cachola said. "We might as well serve those who will be using it day in and day out, and who will pay the tax."
The project is to be funded in part by a 0.5 percentage point excise tax surcharge, on O'ahu, added to the state's 4 percent general excise tax.
Hannemann has repeatedly stressed that he prefers a rail transit system, but some council members want to consider one that uses rubber tires or other technology, and an official selection is not expected for about a year.
The environmental report will consider light rail, rapid rail, rubber-tired guided vehicles, and magnetic levitation and monorail systems.
The council has the option — but not the requirement — to select the technology. Hannemann's administration would make the choice if the council does not.
TRANSIT PLAN OPPOSED
Several groups and individuals voiced concerns about the transit plan in comments submitted for the scoping report.
The League of Women Voters of Honolulu said the city appears to be encouraging high population densities around transit stations to be built.
Such development can reflect good urban planning, but "it is highly unlikely that it will be paid for by the main beneficiaries, the landowners near the stations," the group said. "Instead it will most likely be funded at the local level by the increase in (the general excise tax), the most regressive possible tax that will fall heaviest on persons with the least ability to pay."
The Outdoor Circle, the state's oldest environmental organization, said it was "appalled at the lack of effort" by city officials to encourage public participation in the scoping plan.
The outreach effort for a city-sponsored public meeting at McKinley High School in March "was, without a doubt, one of the poorest attempts to engage the public and gather meaningful information that we have witnessed," The Outdoor Circle complained.
The group said it was very concerned that the project would spoil views and result in the removal, relocation or severe pruning of important trees.
The Hawai'i Hotel and Lodging Association said it supported a route from Kapolei to UH-Manoa and Waikiki, but is "very concerned about the Waikiki spur utilizing an elevated guideway along Kuhio Avenue.
"The impacts of any elevated lines along Kuhio Avenue will outweigh the benefits of this service," and other options should be considered, the group said.
Hamayasu said the Draft Environmental Impact Report should be completed before next summer, and the final report should be finished a year later.
Reach Johnny Brannon at email@example.com.