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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 30, 2008

All sides of rail debate presented

By Mark Platte
Advertiser Editor

Readers may have noticed that we recently placed a special emphasis on covering the City & County of Honolulu's efforts to create a commuter rail system.

In the past two months, we have assigned a reporter, Sean Hao, to work full time looking at all aspects of rail, from its financing and its deadlines to the type of rail technology likely to be selected. Future installments will look at the location of rail stations, land deals, route alignments and all other aspects of the project. In the past two months, Hao has written 14 stories on rail, 11 of them for Page One. And we're just getting started.

Why the focus and prominent play on rail all of a sudden?

The answer is fairly obvious. At current estimates of $3.7 billion, this will be the state's largest public works project and by the time it is finished, it may very well cost even more. Honolulu taxpayers are expected to foot about $3 billion of that bill through a half-percentage point excise tax surcharge that expires in 2022. We have been writing about this issue for some time but certainly not with the same depth we are employing now.

Supporters and opponents of rail and their opinions frequently fill our Letters and Commentary page and our online forums. A rail system for Honolulu has a long and tortured history and attempts to get one moving have failed in the past, which is precisely why we need to explore all aspects of the project. The worst thing The Advertiser could do would be to ignore the details of a massive public project that will have a tremendous economic and societal impact on us for decades to come.

The publication of just about every story on rail, however, has brought about accusations that we are pro-rail or anti-rail in our news pages simply because we are asking important questions. Although the Editorials page has generally been supportive of rail, those on the news side know our job is to explore all aspects of the project without taking sides.

A few have criticized some recent stories ("Steel rail cheaper but noisier option"; "Transit timetable a risk"; "Transit system likely won't improve traffic"; "Rail could cost O'ahu more") as being highly negative of the project while others have scolded us for what they see as us being too positive toward rail with articles such as "9,100 may find jobs working on the rail"; "Housing, health centers near stations could get tax breaks" and "From Kapolei to town: 40 minutes."

This project is too expensive and too important to the future of transportation not to have a full-fledged debate and that's the way we look at our stories. We are obligated to present all sides of the rail debate and know that if we don't, few others will.

Although the rail option is well along in the process, the selection of a technology is still to be determined, an environmental impact statement is to be drafted and studies are due that will look at development plans for the stations and surrounding areas. A few are still pushing for something other than rail, although that is not likely to happen. There are other hurdles to overcome before service can begin, possibly in four years.

If our coverage sparks further discussion about the future of transportation on O'ahu, and at the end of the day we can say we have covered every conceivable angle fairly, then we will have done our jobs.

Mark Platte is senior vice president/editor of The Advertiser.