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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 25, 2010

Rail could reshape Honolulu's identity

By James H. Spencer

As an urban planner, I believe urban infrastructure is the backbone of a strong and modern democracy. Whether you live in the most rarefied enclave or the most hardscrabble housing project, you depend on your city to provide you with the most basic services like water and sanitation, electricity, and transportation. It is these shared resources, investments and interdependencies that keep us all engaged in productive discussions and negotiations. And it is because of these interdependencies that I worry about the future of Honolulu.

I encourage us all to set aside the cost-benefit analyses and technical debates surrounding the Honolulu rail project for a moment. Fiscal naysayers and technical critics certainly have valid points, but mega-projects such as our proposed rail are always about much more than the dollars and cents.

The Sydney Opera House, New York's Empire State Building and Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers are all defining characteristics of their respective cities, and all were major fiscal burdens. As visionary projects, they were never meant primarily as sound financial investments to make a profit or to cover costs. They were investments to create and develop each city's identity on a global stage by coalitions of municipal and private interests. It is this identity that is the subtext of the ongoing debate on Honolulu rail.

Whether he is aware of it or not, Mayor Mufi Hannemann has been leading the charge to reshape Honolulu's urban identity and turn it into a city worthy of being called the Capital of the Pacific. His strategy, including embracing Kapolei as the second city and emphasizing its walkable streets, has been impressive over the past six years, and the rail line is only the tip of a larger iceberg.

There are at least two major reasons why voters should continue to push for rail and the promotion of Honolulu as the Capital of the Pacific. First, it is the only viable way to "keep the country country." The North Shore is one of the wonders of the world; Kailua and Kāne'ohe are peaceful gems within a short drive of downtown. However, O'ahu's housing shortage is severe and will not easily disappear through our island version of suburbanization. Without taking advantage of and "densifying" the Honolulu core, the paving of O'ahu's rural hamlets is inevitable.

Secondly, Honolulu must become a global "destination" if we are to hang on to our best and brightest youth. Many of our successful students leave after high school because they feel they cannot get a challenging university education in Hawai'i. Young professionals from Hawai'i or elsewhere like the excitement and culture of big-city life like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Honolulu can be an attractive alternative to these places if the city invests in growing the right way.

Which brings me back to the rail. The rail itself will not bring back Hawai'i's off-island young people, nor will it be the only thing to "keep the country country." What it can do is provide the physical backbone for a world-class city in Hawai'i.

I believe that this has been Hannemann's goal all along, and he has made some progress during his time in office. His impending departure from Honolulu Hale, however, threatens to place the vision of a vibrant Honolulu on the chopping block.

If Hannemann leaves office, then rail will die yet again, and with it the hopes for a new and improved urban Honolulu. City politics is an "in-the-trenches" kind of job.

As governor, Mufi Hannemann would never have the time, nor political leverage to provide the kind of leadership Honolulu needs to become its own destination rather than an appendage of Waikīkī and the tourist industry.