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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 10, 2008

Transit system likely won't improve traffic

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By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Drivers coming from the west to jobs Downtown will spend more time on the road in 20 years, despite a planned transit system launch in 2017.


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Number of vehicles H-1 Freeway was built to handle per hour


Actual average vehicles per hour in 2003


2030 forecast vehicles per hour with transit system


2030 forecast vehicles per hour without transit system

*Assumes minimal improve-ments to H-1 Freeway

Figures plotted for H-1 Freeway Koko Head-bound near 'Aiea during morning peak traffic

Source: City and County of Honolulu Alternatives Analysis Report

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It's unlikely Honolulu's planned $3.7 billion transit system will affect deteriorating peak-hour traffic conditions along the H-1 corridor, according to city projections.

Potential gains in transit ridership are expected to be eclipsed by the added traffic that will come with rapid population growth in West O'ahu.

Drivers commuting from the west to jobs Downtown will face significantly more hours on the road in 20 years, even if the transit system launches full service as planned in 2017.

Projections from the city's Alternative Analysis Report paint a gloomy picture. Even with the transit system, there will be an estimated 57 percent increase in traffic on H-1 during morning rush hour in 2030 compared with 2003. If the transit system were not built but a few improvements were made to the freeway and bus system, traffic would increase by 64 percent by 2030.


Mass-transit proponents, including Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, say the project represents the best alternative for increasing mobility and accommodating growth in the H-1 corridor.

"People want action now, and I believe this could be the catalyst for an integrated multi-modal system that would enhance our quality of life," Hannemann said during a recent legislative hearing.

City officials add that transit ridership could outstrip expectations as gasoline prices rise and traffic congestion grows.

"When congestion becomes so bad in the future, more people will use the system," said Toru Hamayasu, chief of the city's transportation planning division. "This is to give the mobility option in the future. You have it, (so) you don't have to be stuck in traffic."

Those driving from the west into town on H-1 Freeway will certainly spend a lot of time stuck in traffic. In the next two decades there will be a surge in the number of homes on the 'Ewa plain from about 25,000 today to about 60,000, according to city estimates. Meanwhile, no major upgrades are planned for H-1, Kamehameha Highway and Moanalua Road.


The transit system is expected to reduce daily vehicle trips by 45,000 on O'ahu in 2030. That would have a significant impact if the system were running today. However, by 2030 there will be nearly 600,000 more vehicle trips a day on O'ahu than in 2005. The impact of the transit system will be overwhelmed by the impact of more drivers.

Rail critics say the project is too costly given its limited impact on rush-hour traffic.

"Even if you just accept the city's numbers, we've got vastly increased traffic congestion," said rail opponent Cliff Slater. "If you have no increase in capacity on that highway and you build 60,000 new homes ... on the 'Ewa plain, then what else can it be other than far worse, given that we're not going to see hordes of new people going on the rail line?"

Mass-transit ridership is expected to account for 7.4 percent of all trips in 2030, according to the city.

The project is expected to cost taxpayers $3 billion or more via a half-percentage-point surcharge levied on nearly all O'ahu transactions. That could equate to several thousand dollars in added taxes for the typical Honolulu household during the 15-year life-span of the tax surcharge.

This current rail effort marks the fourth time in three decades the city has tried to develop a new mass-transit system for O'ahu. Previous efforts including two rail projects and one bus rapid transit system failed because of cost concerns or changes in political priorities.

Groundbreaking on the mass-transit system could occur next year with the first segment starting service between east Kapolei and Waipahu in 2012. The full 20-mile route from east Kapolei to Ala Moana Center would begin service in 2017, according to city plans.


One potential barrier to increased ridership is the route of the rail, which excludes 'Ewa Beach, Honolulu International Airport, and the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.

Also, a rush-hour commute via the planned transit system would take about 40 minutes end-to-end, including 19 station stops.

That may be too slow to persuade commuters to park their cars in favor of rail, said City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who opposes a rail-based mass-transit system.

"People are surprised when I tell them the rail will only go (an average of) 25 to 30 miles an hour," she said. "They envision something like a real train that goes high-speed into town, but that's not the case because there's so many stops."

City Councilman Nestor Garcia said the rail or fixed guideway system was never meant to solve traffic congestion. Rather, the project is a means of constraining urban sprawl to the 'Ewa plain and urban Honolulu.

"The project is going to be sitting alongside this traffic corridor where at present 60 percent of the people live," Garcia said. "That number will increase."

"So we want to try to accommodate that majority of the population who live and work along the traffic corridor to avail themselves of an option should they decide to exercise it," Garcia said. "That way we can keep the country country by placing this infrastructure where most of the people live and work."

Other benefits of the project include reducing crude oil usage and improving accessibility of Kapolei and other locations along the rail route, Garcia said.

The transit project, which is expected to be the largest public-works project in state history, also is expected to provide an economic boost both during the construction phase and, once operating, in each of the 19 communities that will host transit stations.

Garcia, chairman of the council's Transportation Committee, said the fixed guideway remains the best mass-transit alternative for Honolulu, which has limited area available for highway expansion.

"If we don't make allowances for additional automobile usage what else do we have? We have to go through this way public transit," Garcia said.

"If we don't do something to try to open up modes of transportation, can you imagine the gridlock?" Garcia asked. "I don't ever want to get into that scenario (where) people look back to this time and say, 'Why didn't you do something? You knew this was going to happen. You should have done something.' "

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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