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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 7, 2010

For rail, 3rd time must be the charm

By Donald Clegg

Listening to the ongoing debate on the city's rail-transit project, it reminds me of that tried and true phrase, "The more things change, the more they remain the same."

The reasons why rail transit is strongly needed today are identical to the reasons the late Mayor Frank Fasi tried to bring rail to Honolulu in the early 1980s and early 1990s: fighting traffic congestion and increasing mobility. The lessons from the past on rail can also help us avoid repeating the same mistakes today.

As a member of the 1992 selection committee for the then-proposed Honolulu Rapid Transit System, I was involved in selecting the technology, the route and the contractor who would have implemented and operated the rail system.

Just like today's Honolulu rail-transit project, the 1992 selection committee determined that an elevated steel-on-steel rail system would best suit our island's transportation needs.

And just like today's rail planners, we studied the feasibility of a rail line that was partially elevated and partially on surface streets. It became obvious that running the train on the surface streets would have many negatives, including being slowed by the same traffic delays as cars and buses, or slowing cars and buses if it had a dedicated ground level right of way.

We also certainly did not intend rail to be some type of slow-moving streetcar as some local architects are proposing today.

There is one significant difference however, between the current rail project and the 1992 effort: the local share of funding for today's rail project is already in place, with $460 million collected so far, according to the city.

Why is this important? According to Federal Transit Administration head Peter Rogoff, the Honolulu rail project's local funding puts us in a much stronger position for the $1.55 billion in planned federal funding. This was the lesson learned following the short-sighted 1992 vote by five City Council members who shot down the local transit funding, and hence the transit system and any federal support that went along with it.

This is not the first time we watched the federal funding for rail slip away. In 1980, a rapid transit fixed guideway system was planned for O'ahu, with the federal government footing up to 80 percent of the costs for eligible cities like ours. But under Mayor Eileen Anderson, the administration killed rapid transit, and that federal money went to other fortunate cities.

In 1992, the feds were funding 50 percent of the cost of many rapid transit systems. When the City Council took that infamous vote not to provide city money for Honolulu's commuter train, rail died a second death. Again, the federal funding for our rail system went elsewhere.

Now comes what may be our third and final opportunity at making rail happen. Based on its geographic restrictions, Honolulu is a perfect fit for rail transit: a strip city between the mountains and the sea where West O'ahu and Honolulu are connected by mainly by one freeway.

This is the perfect place for a "spine" rail route that can be integrated with bus service to shuttle in passengers from each community.

I don't believe there is a country or city in the world that has opted to get rid of an existing rail system. Instead, rapid-transit systems are being expanded and extended to meet demand. Can they all be wrong?

We have gone through the selection process in excruciating detail twice now. The technology and route are basically the same as 1992. It's time to move on and get a rapid-transit system for Honolulu. And yes, a rapid-transit system will cost money, but the bottom line is we can't afford not to build it.

Donald Clegg served as city land utilization director under Mayor Frank Fasi and now works as a planning and permitting consultant, but has no business ties to the current rail project.