Hawaii architects urge more discussion of Honolulu rail options
• Photo gallery: Rail
By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer
Reconsidering a street-level alternative for Honolulu's planned elevated commuter rail line would delay the start of the project by only six months, the American Institute of Architects' Hawai'i chapter said yesterday.
The city is planning to build a 20-mile elevated rail line from East Kapolei to Ala Moana for $5.3 billion. The architects yesterday proposed building 10 miles of the track at street level and said that would save the city $1.8 billion. The suggestion was made at a three-hour informational briefing at the state Capitol hosted by Gov. Linda Lingle.
"While time is of the essence, it's essential that we get it right, even if it means a six-month or so delay," said AIA member and Chinatown architect Peter Vincent.
City Managing Director Kirk Caldwell said considering the street-level alternative could set the project back years.
"That means starting over, not six months" of delay, Caldwell said.
Yesterday's briefing was for informational purposes and resulted in no decisions for or against the project. Hundreds of proponents and opponents crowded the Capitol auditorium, forcing the organizers to set up a second viewing area. Outside, about a dozen large trucks lined South Beretania Street in support of what would be the state's largest infrastructure project ever.
Waikíkí resident Sanna Geugsch said she found the presentation helpful.
"I'm really concerned about the aesthetics, so certainly I'm with the AIA," she said. "If it has to be built, it should be built on the ground."
Kapolei resident Maeda Timson, president of pro rail group Go Rail Go, questioned the AIA's qualifications.
"They're not qualified and it's all one-sided," she said. "It's just a come-on just to delay it just to make us upset about it and to make us keep suffering needlessly."
Lingle said she hoped yesterday's presentation by the AIA would spur a discussion of alternatives.
The city eliminated a street-level, or at-grade, light rail system from consideration before conducting a key environmental impact study. Instead, the options explored included an all-elevated train, managed highways and a bigger bus system.
The last time the city studied the feasibility of an at-grade train was in 1998. That study found that a ground-level train running through Honolulu's urban core was feasible.
The city has acknowledged that a street-level train would be cheaper to build, but says it would have lower ridership while increasing traffic congestion. An elevated train operating on an exclusive right of way would operate at higher speeds and have higher ridership, according to the city.
Lingle yesterday said she supports rail, but remains concerned about its costs.
In her presentation, Lingle said she had spoken to federal transit authorities last week and was told the city needs to change its financial plan for building rail. The Federal Transit Administration has expressed concern that the $5.3 billion cost could outstrip the city's ability to pay for it.
"This is not a political exercise for me," Lingle said. "This is an attempt to share with the general public the largest project in our state's history and the impacts some people believe it would have on the state and to share my concern for the financing of the project."
City officials declined to attend yesterday's briefing , Lingle said.
The train's biggest proponent, Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, is in Washington, D.C., this week. Hannemann has accused Lingle of trying to block the project for political reasons.
Caldwell said after the meeting that any review of the basic plan to build an elevated train could delay or kill the project.
"In the end, I don't think (Lingle's) for rail and any delay she can cause she believes is good because delays jeopardize the project," he said.
Yesterday's developments signal a potential conflict between the city and state over the rail project.
"I'm hoping it won't be a fight," Caldwell said. "I'm hoping the governor will step back and see this as a policy issue, but she's playing a dangerous game and that she can kill this project."
The city needs Lingle's approval of the final environmental impact statement before it can break ground. The city had anticipated it would be ready for Lingle's signature early this month . Yesterday, Caldwell said it may not be released for a couple of months.
Lingle has said she won't sign off on the EIS until she conducts a thorough analysis of the study to ensure that the financial plan is feasible and that alternatives were adequately considered.