HOT lanes can't be ignored in transit plan
By David H. Rolf
Years ago, streetcars didn't take us to where we wanted to go, so we became a car economy.
Most American cities, including Honolulu, moved away from public rail long ago and developed extensive highway and surface street systems to allow suburban development, a comfortable lifestyle which many consider the American Dream.
Today's rush-hour traffic congestion, however, is taking the glow off of that dream. Many in their cars on O'ahu now must squeeze through the tight-lane hourglass when coming into town from 'Ewa, Kapolei, Mililani, Waipahu, Makakilo, Nanakuli, Wai'anae, Wahiawa, and now even those coming in from Pearl City, 'Aiea, and St. Louis Heights are joining in the morning traffic queue.
A previously enjoyable 20-minute drive in from the suburbs has turned into a grinding hourlong session on the congested roadways. Still, it is estimated that a small percentage of current drivers on O'ahu will give up their cars to take the train. Why so few? Most commuters will continue to choose to drive because work commutes, family lifestyles, or errands require more transportation flexibility. The train just won't go where they want to go.
Also, most of the commuters on O'ahu live more than 600 feet from the proposed train route, and that distance seems to be the limit when it comes to walking to the station.
Is it too late to stop from making the wrong turn when it comes to solving transportation needs on O'ahu? Some think it is not.
Consider the idea for HOT lanes. These elevated highway lanes, with electronically collected fees paid by the users, are needed even if the train project goes through. The biggest mistake now is to focus on the train as a solution to traffic congestion. It isn't one.
Surprisingly, the city's Public Transit Alternatives Analysis report reveals that all the alternatives proposed will lead to a level of service (LOS) of "F" on the Leeward highways in 2030. This information however, has largely been swept under the rug by the process.
The report shows that all the options proposed by the city (no build, improved bus system, managed lanes, and rail) leave the roadways in the Leeward corridor at a degraded "F" level of service.
Hawai'i's driving public, however, is expecting a much more positive traffic outcome after all this public transit effort and what may be $6 billion in expenditures. It seems ill-advised to "plan" for "F."
However, the Hawai'i Highway Users Alliance proposes a "super HOT lane," which features elevated overhead lanes with automatic fees collected electronically.
This alternative, an overhead, three-lane, reversible toll highway, would be designed to maintain a traffic LOS of "A," with the remaining "free" lanes below potentially operating more smoothly than any of the current options the city is considering.
Stakeholders advocating smooth-flowing traffic in the corridor feel the proposal for the super HOT lane alternative needs to be fairly considered.
For the next 25 years, the solution to traffic congestion should likely be lanes, not trains. Many acknowledge that on the longer horizon, when more vertical development takes place in the Leeward corridor, a train solution may be needed 25 to 50 years from now.
Smooth-flowing lanes and smooth-running trains can be in our future; we just can't ignore one at the expense of the other. The current focus on the train needs to be expanded to include additional HOT lanes.
De-politicizing the process through the creation of a quasi-government transportation authority to create HOT lanes is something the Legislature should consider next year.
Otherwise, it looks like the focus on the train and the current gridlock between the city and the state will lead to continued gridlock on the roadways.
David H. Rolf represents The Hawai'i Automobile Dealers Association. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.