76% of Oahu voters want rail on ballot
By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Sean Hao
In the first major public opinion poll on Honolulu's planned $3.7 billion rail system, an overwhelming majority of residents said they favor putting the issue on the November ballot and would vote for building it.
More than three-quarters of the poll's respondents said the electorate should get to decide the issue, and nearly two-thirds said they will cast their ballot in favor of rail.
The Hawai'i Poll, conducted by Ward Research Inc. for The Honolulu Advertiser and KGMB9, queried 510 O'ahu residents by phone from July 12 to 17. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.
"People are so frustrated with traffic and this is the solution that they see," said Rebecca Ward, president of Ward Research.
The plan to build a 20-mile, elevated commuter rail line from East Kapolei to Ala Moana has generated strong opinions on both sides.
The nonprofit group Stop Rail Now has collected 42,000 signatures to place an anti-rail initiative on the November ballot. Rail opponents point to the costs, aesthetics and noise as potential problems. They argue that not enough people will use the trains and that cheaper alternatives would do more to reduce traffic congestion.
Proponents, led by Mayor Mufi Hannemann, have said the city needs to give commuters an alternative to the highly congested H-1 highway. They contend that the commuter line with its 19 stations will encourage more sustainable urban development and reduce suburban sprawl.
The Hawai'i Poll shows that proponents seem to be winning the debate. A total of 63 percent of residents strongly support or somewhat support moving ahead with the rail transit line, while only 32 percent said they strongly oppose or somewhat oppose the plan.
Support for rail was highest among poll respondents living along the route. But even those residing in Windward, Hawai'i Kai, Kane'ohe and other areas removed from the route felt that the train is needed.
"I've been around many, many years and I've seen this thing go up and down and up and down," said Edward Gomes, 57, a semi-retired consultant in Kailua. "This thing has gone on long enough. Let's do it."
Gomes added that the city should have built the train decades ago to help relieve traffic.
"I support it, but unfortunately it won't be going in my area," added Waimanalo resident Laura Santi, 61. "I think it's a positive, necessary step in trying to solve some of our congestion problems."
VOTERS WANT FINAL SAY
In the poll, 76 percent of residents say voters should get to decide the issue in November, versus 23 percent who oppose a vote on the issue.
After opposing the petition drive to put rail on the ballot, the mayor and most City Council members now appear headed toward putting some form of the question to voters in November.
Last week, the council voted 9-0 to put the rail issue on the ballot, and Hannemann said he is open to the idea, depending on the wording.
Hannemann hopes to begin constructing the commuter rail in late 2009 or early 2010. Service would launch in phases from Kapolei toward town between 2012 and 2019. The current rail effort marks the fourth time in three decades the city has tried to develop a new mass-transit system for O'ahu.
The project, which is well into the planning phase, would be the largest public-works project in state history.
While a majority of poll respondents favor rail, about 55 percent of those polled said the cost of the project is too high for a city the size of Honolulu.
Construction of the rail line will cost $5 billion when adjusted for inflation, and operating it over more than a decade will add another $1 billion.
Nearly half of respondents agreed that money spent on the rail project should be spent on other city services.
"I feel kind of bad about those people out on the west side, but $5 billon is a chunk of change," said Kailua retiree Ernest Vasconcellos, 70. "We're going to take money away from things. Nowadays times are getting harder, gas prices and everything going up."
A state tax to pay for the train has raised $211 million in 16 months, which equates to about $233 per O'ahu resident, or $634 per household, based on population statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.
"That's a lot of money to me," Vasconcellos said. "I'm retired, living on my Social Security."
Hawai'i Kai resident Dean Otsuki, 46, said the cost may be high now but it'd be higher if the city delays.
"It's going to cost even more later," he said. "With the cost of petrol going up and up, I think more people are going to vote for rail. It's going to cost more in the future to have anything done. I think now's our last chance" to build a train system.
That opinion was supported by 62 percent of respondents who agreed with the statement that "this is our last and best chance to build a rail system for future generations."
COST, NOISE WORRIES
North Shore writer Mike Royce, who opposes the project, said the city should consider less costly alternatives.
"There's lots less expensive things you can do to get traffic moving," he said. "You can have bus turnout lanes. You can have fixed guideways for buses. You can meter the freeways.
"If you're having trouble with a car, you say well let's try to fix it. What they're doing is basically running out and buying a new car."
According to the poll:
A stout 82 percent of those polled agreed the rail system must serve Waikiki, the University of Hawai'i-Manoa campus and Honolulu International Airport. Although spurs to those locations are included in city plans, it's unclear when or if there will be funding to build those extensions.
Among those that opposed rail the most common reasons cited were costs, ridership concerns and the route.
Those supporting rail cited a need for traffic relief, a reduction in commuting times and rising gasoline prices.
WON'T SOLVE TRAFFIC
Even with the train system, there will be an estimated 57 percent more traffic on H-1 during morning rush hour in 2030 than in 2003, according to a city study. If the transit system is not built but a few improvements are made to the freeway and bus system, traffic would increase by 64 percent by 2030, the study concluded.
Crissy Fraticelli, 30, a Kane-'ohe teacher's aide and cashier, said she wouldn't use rail and wouldn't vote for it.
"I don't think it's going to cause people to stop driving vehicles, because it won't service everyone," she said. "It wouldn't affect me because I live out on the Windward side. I know that sounds selfish, but ... I work out on the Windward side and I live out here so ... I totally oppose it."
Waikiki hotel cook Michael Wong, 52, said rail would ease his commute from Downtown to Waikiki, where it's often "hard to find parking."
"I come from Hong Kong, and in Hong Kong you don't have to worry. You name it, they have every ... (kind of mass transit)," he said. "It's convenient. I think its very important, especially right now with the cost of gasoline so high. To me it's worth it."
Reach Sean Hao at email@example.com.