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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 14, 2010

Street-level rail deserves a forum


By Michael A. Lilly

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

On Monday, members of the Honolulu chapter of the American Institute of Architects will offer a much-needed presentation on viable options for O'ahu's rail system.

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With the City and County of Honolulu preparing to launch the largest and most expensive construction project in state history the 20-mile elevated rail line from West O'ahu to Ala Moana Center it is vital for the future of our state that the entire community be fully informed and engaged. That is not only the essence of democracy, but also the very least one should expect before saddling our citizens with a massive tax bill for decades.

It appears to me that is why Gov. Linda Lingle is encouraging citizens to learn more about the proposed rail transit options by attending a presentation by the Honolulu Chapter of the American Institute of Architects from 9 to 11 a.m. Monday in the state Capitol auditorium.

AIA representatives are raising some compelling issues about the design, cost and visual impact of current plans for elevated rail. I, along with others, give these architects credence, because they have nothing to gain by publicly airing their concerns and many have much to lose when they compete for city contracts.

Among the issues identified by AIA is the enormous expense about $270 million per mile of constructing an all-elevated railway. By contrast, the price of an at-grade light rail project (which would also avoid the visual blight of an elevated system) is nearly three-quarters cheaper at only $70 million per mile.

Allowing O'ahu's residents to comment at this time is especially critical as tax revenues continue to decline during one of the worst economic downturns in state history.

Another AIA concern is the lack of flexibility inherent in a fixed elevated railway. Once built, O'ahu residents will be forever burdened with the result. By contrast, a street-level system would have some versatility since railroad tracks can be lengthened or redirected as transportation needs evolve. The AIA also expressed concerns about accessibility to an elevated rail, particularly for senior citizens, those with disabilities, children and bicyclists.

The AIA recommends constructing a street-level electric light-rail system similar to those operating successfully in Houston, Barcelona, Nice and Bordeaux. Those modern systems are more versatile and less expensive than elevated rail, can be readily expanded as needed, and avoid visual blight.

While rail transit is a city initiative, state and federal governments also have critical roles to play in the approval process. And, because 80 percent of Hawai'i's population lives on our island, the outcome of the project will have profound statewide impacts. If the project fails, as some fear, it would burden us the taxpayers and our children for generations and could materially impact the city's and state's credit ratings.

As a former Hawai'i attorney general who has litigated claims under the federal and state environmental laws over the past 35 years, I know that Lingle has a fiduciary responsibility to thoroughly evaluate (and not merely rubber-stamp) the rail project's Environmental Impact Statement, especially its consideration of transportation alternatives.

Concerns have been expressed that all alternatives may not have been fully and adequately addressed. In the case of H-3 freeway, the failure to consider all alternatives stalled construction for more than a decade as the issues were challenged in court. The public has a right to consider and comment on the pros and cons of various options in the absence of which it is difficult to make a persuasive argument that the EIS reached the correct conclusions.

When Lingle travels to our nation's capital in February, she will meet with leaders from the U.S. Department of Transportation and learn their views about the EIS, the advantages and disadvantages of elevated versus street-level rail and the financing of this multi-billion-dollar project. I look forward to hearing from her, first-hand, about what is really going on in Washington.

Constructing an urban rail system is an enormously complicated and important undertaking that could greatly benefit or harm our citizens. I therefore appreciate the civic-mindedness of AIA Transit Task Force members who are willing to step forward and publicly share their expert opinions about rail before it is too late.

I encourage everyone to join concerned O'ahu citizens like me at the Capitol auditorium Monday so we can all hear what the AIA architects have to say. There will also be an opportunity to ask them a wide range of questions at this much-needed open forum on a topic of statewide concern.