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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 8, 2009

Kamehameha Schools urges that Honolulu rail be at ground level

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawai'i's largest private landowner wants the city of Honolulu to again consider building the planned $5.4 billion train at ground level.

The city eliminated that option long ago on concerns that a ground-level train would operate at slower speeds and generate lower ridership and higher long-term costs.

However, Kamehameha Schools has joined others, including the American Institute of Architects, in raising concerns about the visual impact the approximately 30-foot-wide, 50-foot-high elevated track system will have on Honolulu's scenery. A ground-level train also could shave millions of dollars off the cost of the project, and that could allow the city to build a longer train system.

Whether the planned 20-mile train from East Kapolei to Ala Moana runs on the ground or on an elevated guideway could depend on how concerns about elevating the train affect the outcome of an ongoing environmental impact review. According to comments submitted to the city and federal government in early February, Kamehameha Schools supports the transit project.

However, the landowner expressed concerns that options such as an at-grade train system were not fully analyzed during the city's analysis of alternatives. In addition, the drawbacks of an elevated train weren't fully addressed in a recent draft environmental impact study, according to Kamehameha Schools.

Kamahemeha Schools is also concerned about the effect on its land values and rental income. Kamehameha Schools has about 229 acres with 1,000 lessees and sublessees near the rail route. That makes Kamehameha Schools one of the biggest private landowners that could be financially affected by rail.

"While it is understandable why an elevated system might be utilized in rural areas of the transportation corridor ... a host of adverse economic and environmental impacts are associated with an elevated guideway system, including noise, reduced visibility and access to businesses, visual blight, and increased crime," Kamehameha Schools wrote the city.

ELEVATED SYSTEM

Kamehameha Schools, which owns properties along Farrington Highway, Kamehameha Highway, Dillingham Boulevard and Halekauwila Street, issued the following statement, but wouldn't comment further on the letter to the city:

"I do want to emphasize that we believe the rail system can be a powerful stimulus to revitalize our economy, and we look forward to working with the city on actions that will mitigate the development impacts of the system," Kamehameha Schools spokeswoman Ann Botticelli said in an e-mail statement. "We feel we have a kuleana to respond to the (draft environmental impact statement) ... both as a landowner with ancestral ties to the lands in question and as a landlord to small businesses."

Kamehameha Schools isn't the only entity raising concerns that alternatives to an elevated rail weren't adequately considered.

City Transportation Director Wayne Yoshioka did not return calls for this story. However, City Councilman Gary Okino said that as far as the city is concerned, the planned commuter rail will be entirely elevated.

"It has to be an elevated system for several significant reasons," he said.

Supporters of the transit plan contend that the elevated track will not disrupt views or change the aesthetics in already congested urban Honolulu. In addition, elevating the train is also cheaper than building a network of underground tunnels or running the tracks at ground level, where more land would need to be acquired, proponents say. Elevating the train also should reduce commuting times and as a result, potentially increase ridership.

Over time, the higher costs of building an elevated train are offset by lower operating costs created in part because the trains won't need drivers, Okino said. That's because an elevated train that doesn't interact with auto traffic can be automatically operated without needing a driver.

Kamehameha Schools and other groups, such as the American Institute of Architects, need to become more informed about the benefits of an elevated system, Okino said.

"I think they're just not aware of the issues and they can deal with it," said Okino, who chairs the council's Transportation and Planning Committee. "There's tradeoffs. An at-grade system is definitely better looking, it's definitely cheaper in the beginning, but to me it lacks foresight."

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

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.

An ongoing environmental study is a major hurdle in the city's effort to obtain about $1.4 billion in federal money to build the train system. The city expects to complete the environmental review in time to begin construction in December. The city's timeline calls for service between West Loch and Waipahu to start in late 2013 and full service to Ala Moana by the end of 2018.

According to the city, the elevated guideway is expected to have a greater visual impact in Kapolei rather than in urban Honolulu. 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.

Still, Kamehameha Schools said it is concerned that the visual blight of the elevated guideway over time could lead to less tenant interest, higher tenant turnover and reduced property values. The landowner also expressed concerns about the financial feasibility of the project given the economic slowdown.

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

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.

Jeff Nishi, president of the Hawai'i AIA chapter, said a rail system built at least partially at grade would cost less, have less visual impact and have greater potential for transit-oriented economic development.

"We're very much for rail," he said. "We want to see it go through and we certainly don't want to get in the way of it.

"But we want a versatile system that doesn't have to be above grade as planned."

Councilman Duke Bainum said the city shouldn't ignore cost and aesthetic concerns being raised about an elevated guideway. A train built at grade would cost significantly less money, which would allow the city to build an even longer train system.

"Instead of looking at 20 miles of redevelopment and renewal, you could be looking at 38, 40 miles," Bainum said. "Imagine that, if we could go to Mililani (and) go to Manoa in the first phase.

"This is too big a project too important a project not to look at every option and to relook at every option."

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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