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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 20, 2008

Rail will give Honolulu new look

 •  Route will affect native shrub, dozens of trees

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

A stunning view awaits Honolulu commuters when they pull into the highest station on the city's proposed rail line, 86 feet above ground level, at Ala Moana Center.

The view from below could be equally awe-inspiring as the Ala Moana station will be 50 feet wide and as much as 300 feet long with a roof that's 100 feet high.

The height of the city's proposed transit system will range from 30 to 50 feet above ground level along most of the 20-mile track from East Kapolei to Ala Moana, but in some spots it will climb much higher.

The size of the elevated track has caused some neighborhood groups and architects to question whether it will damage the city's attractiveness and block views of the ocean or mountains.

Supporters of the transit plan say the elevated track will not disrupt views or change the aesthetics in already congested urban Honolulu. Elevating the train is also cheaper than building a network of underground tunnels or running the tracks at ground level, where land purchases would be prohibitive. Elevating the train also should reduce commuting times and increase ridership.

But opponents have their doubts.

"I think it's going to be visually impacting wherever it is," said Betsy Conners, president of The Outdoor Circle, an organization dedicated to protecting beauty in Hawai'i. "We cannot afford to really totally damage the visual beauty of the island in order to have a traffic solution. We would prefer a less imposing infrastructure."

The city would not provide artist renderings of future stations. However, city officials said the guideway won't be an eyesore at Ala Moana Center, the highest station.

The "Ala Moana station would not be visible from the street level on Kapi'olani or even from Makaloa because it would be behind the Nordstrom building," city spokesman Bill Brennan said in an e-mail response. "The only place to see the guideway would be at the intersections."

The city hopes to break ground on the $3.7 billion transit system next year and complete the first phase, from East Kapolei to Waipahu, by 2012. An extension to Ala Moana is to open in 2018. Future spurs would connect West Kapolei, the University of Hawai'i-Manoa and Waikiki.

The highest point of the rail measured from the ground is where it crosses about 90 feet above Waiawa Stream, Brennan said.

Another high point would occur when the guideway crosses about 30 feet above H-1 Freeway en route to the UH-Manoa campus, according to preliminary plans.

Aesthetics and other issues were behind opposition to an elevated guideway from neighborhood boards representing Waikiki; Diamond Head/Kapahulu/St. Louis Heights; and Ala Moana/Kaka'ako. And at least one major neighbor of the transit system declined to have the guideway on its property.

UH-West O'ahu was given the option of having the guideway run across its future East Kapolei campus next to its library. However, the university declined, citing aesthetic and noise concerns.

Other future neighbors are worried about property values.

"Don't tell me property values will go up with that monster in the way," said Myrna Perez, who lives in high-rise building about a block from the planned route along Salt Lake Boulevard. "It's a big concern."


While the planned transit system isn't expected to prevent traffic along the busy H-1 Freeway commuter corridor from worsening, it is expected to give commuters an alternative to highways while reducing urban sprawl. The 19 planned transit stations also are expected to foster the creation of live-work-play communities and opportunities for moderately priced, high-density housing.

Those economic development opportunities have some guideway neighbors looking forward to the project. Those groups include General Growth Properties, which owns Ala Moana Center and the planned Ward Neighborhood project, and D.R. Horton, which is developing East Kapolei's massive Ho'opili planned community.

"We just view it as an opportunity and a kind of a different way of lifestyle," said Mike Jones, president of Ho'opili developer D.R. Horton's Schuler Division. It's about "having choices for commuting for people and having it with some type of walking distance to the majority of the homes in the community," he said.

Other groups in favor of the project include neighborhood boards representing Waipahu, Makakilo/Kapolei/Honokai Hale; Mililani/Waipi'o/Melemanu; and Aliamanu/Salt Lake/Foster Village.

The city wants to build a dual-rail guideway that's less than 30 feet wide in most locations and possibly wider in areas such as Aloha Stadium to allow for the staging of extra trains.

Last week, the City Council failed to reach a decision on which rail technology to use: steel wheels, rubber tire, monorail or magnetic levitation. The council has scheduled another vote on the issue on Wednesday.

Mayor Mufi Hannemann said on Thursday the commuter rail will use steel wheels on steel rail technology regardless of what the council decides. The mayor can veto any council decision, and it is unlikely the nine-member council would be able to override him.


The dimensions of the guideway will depend in part on the train technology. Quieter, lighter monorail and magnetically levitated trains would require a narrower, lower-profile elevated guideway. Cheaper and less proprietary steel-wheel technology is expected to require a wider guideway with short walls to mitigate noise.

In addition, maglev and monorail vendors say their vehicles have the smallest guideway requirements of any technology under consideration. For example, maglev vendor Mitsubishi-Itochu said its guideway could be as small as 21 feet wide, including a centerline emergency walkway.

In contrast, the guideway for Advanced Rapid Transit trains manufactured by Bombardier Transportation would range from 24 to 26 feet wide, said Andrew Robbins, a Bombardier vice president involved in the company's Honolulu sales effort.

Bombardier, the world's largest train maker, is expected to vie for Honolulu's estimated $230 million vehicle contract.

A city-appointed expert panel in February recommended Honolulu stick with reliable, nonproprietary, steel technology. However, some council members wanted to re-evaluate the decision because of concerns that steel wheels could cause noise problems for neighbors of the elevated commuter rail and possibly hurt property values.

Regardless of the types of trains used, the elevated guideway is expected to have a greater visual impact in Kapolei rather than in urban Honolulu, according to an October 2006 report by transit project consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff. That's because the East Kapolei area has low and open landscape. Visual impacts are expected to be moderate to low along Dillingham Boulevard, Nimitz Highway and Kuhio Avenue because of a large number of nearby high-rise structures.

In some areas, trees could be used to partially obscure the guideway, according to the city.

Other groups that are concerned the elevated guideway could spoil views and scenery include the Honolulu chapter of The American Institute of Architects and the Hawai'i Hotel and Lodging Association. Both organizations said they support mass transit.

"We believe that the ultimate solution is not just about the best engineering solution, but that priority needs to be placed on the planning and design of the overall transit system to sensitively serve the needs of the O'ahu community and its visitors, while protecting the beauty of the unique environment in which we live and work," according to a written statement by the AIA.


The Hawai'i Hotel and Lodging Association expressed similar concerns.

"We have not supported the fixed guideway down Kuhio Avenue and have encouraged the city to explore alternative alignments for serving Waikiki," said Murray Towill, president of the Hawai'i Hotel and Lodging Association.

Other groups such as Ala Moana Center owner General Growth view the transit system, and its maximum 9,000 passengers per direction, per hour of projected traffic, as an economic opportunity.

General Growth plans to eventually replace everything that exists on its Ward land today including Ward Warehouse, Ward Centre, Ward Entertainment Center and the IBM Building with medium- to high-density housing, retail and open space all within walking distance of a transit station.

"Our (Ward) development is designed to work with transit," said Jan Yokota, General Growth's local vice president of development. "It really works well especially at Ward because we can be both an originator and a destination of trips."

Yokota said it's too early to discuss aesthetics of the planned Ala Moana station.

"Clearly it's very close to the center but we haven't gone beyond early conversations," with the city, she said.

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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