Elevated rail called good as 'gold'
By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer
City officials yesterday held their second news conference this week in support of building an all-elevated commuter rail line in Honolulu.
Yesterday's news conference and a similar one on Sunday were part of the city's push to rebut claims that a partially at-grade, or street level, train is a more affordable and effective alternative to an entirely elevated rail. The at-grade option was highlighted at a forum hosted by Gov. Linda Lingle on Monday.
An elevated train may cost more, but would run faster, more reliably and safely than street-level trains, William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, said at yesterday's news conference. An elevated train would have less interference with roadway traffic and generate greater ridership, Millar said.
"A grade-separated right-of-way such as what you have proposed here is the gold standard," Millar said. "It is a sealed right-of-way. A sealed right-of-way is the safest right-of-way that you can have. It has the least interference from any other conflict ."
Millar is in Honolulu for the public transportation lobbying group's annual business meeting, which is being held at the Ihilani Resort and Spa at Ko Olina.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who's in Washington, D.C., this week, supports building a 20.5-mile elevated commuter train from East Kapolei to Ala Moana for a projected price of $5.3 billion.
On Monday, the American Institute of Architects Hawai'i chapter, speaking at the Lingle forum, urged the city to consider a cheaper, street-level rail line for portions of the route. The group said building 10 miles of the track at street level would save the city an estimated $1.8 billion.
City Transportation Director Wayne Yoshioka yesterday said he was "frustrated" with a small group of architects that propose building street-level rail.
That debate was settled by a 2005 City Council vote for an elevated train, he said. Yoshioka also questioned the transit expertise of architects advocating for at-grade rail.
"While I have great respect for architects ... we have a group of architects that clearly are not transit professionals — they've not ever built a transit system," Yoshioka said. "We have a line of exceptional professionals who have tremendous years of experience in transit. These are the experts."
"It seems that people are giving credence to an alternative brought up by this group of architects who have no transit experience."
During Monday's forum, Lingle said Honolulu should consider adjustments to the planned rail project to save money and avoid putting more burden on taxpayers in a down economy. The city already has proposed diverting more than $300 million in federal funds for buses to help pay for the train system if tax revenues fall short of what is needed. The city said the possible use of federal bus funds would not compromise bus service.
The AIA along with transportation consultant Phil Craig contended Monday that a train that runs at street-level in East Kapolei and Downtown Honolulu would be cheaper, which would allow the city to extend rail service to the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa and Waikīkī.
The trains, which would run along city streets, would run at slower average speeds, but still provide enough capacity to meet city needs, according to the AIA. Street-level trains also would have less impact on the city's scenery, the group said.
OBJECTION TO DELAY
Reconsidering a street-level alternative for Honolulu's planned elevated commuter rail line would delay the start of the project by only six months, according to the AIA. City officials said a review of street -level rail now would take far longer and likely would kill the project .
Construction on the elevated rail line from East Kapolei to Ala Moana was to have begun in December but has been delayed as the city gathers approvals from state and federal agencies.
The issue of whether the city adequately considered street-level rail and other alternatives including managed highway lanes ultimately is expected to be the subject of a lawsuit filed by opponents of the project. 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.