On a rural expanse of Oahu’s leeward coast, a line of concrete pillars snakes through fields of corn stalks and pumpkins toward downtown Honolulu where distant high rises jut into the sky through a muggy haze.
Honolulu rail — now five decades in the making — is taking shape. And this agricultural parcel, where Aloun Farms has grown produce for two decades, as well as land all along the planned rail line from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center is set to be transformed by a development boom of new homes, shops and parks brought on by mass transit.
With its estimated $5.2 billion price tag, the rail project is the largest public works project in Hawaii’s history.
The city plan to build a rail system connecting the island’s outlying areas to downtown Honolulu has suffered fits and starts since the 1960s. This latest push for rail also faltered — two lawsuits threatened to stop it, and a former Hawaii governor came out of retirement to unsuccessfully run for mayor in 2012 to squash the project.
But since February, when two court rulings cleared the way for rail to move forward, the project has picked up speed.
Residents are getting their first real glimpse of what the rail line will look like as dozens of columns rise along the route.
They’re also getting a dose of the inconvenience of rail construction as work causes traffic disruptions along major roads and highways.
Lawsuits threatened to stop the project but were resolved earlier this year, and work is moving quickly forward.
Meanwhile, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, the agency in charge of building rail, is getting ready to issue some $1.3 billion in major construction contracts that will nearly complete the procurement process for the rail project.
To prepare for the rail line, which is supposed to be fully operational by 2019, city planners are busy coming up with designs to revamp neighborhoods that hug many of the planned 21 rail stations.
In a 17th floor boardroom on Alakea Street in downtown Honolulu, HART spokesman Scott Ishikawa stood next to a huge map of the 21-mile rail line. In the past, HART, equipped with a robust staff of public relations professionals, fought off attacks on the rail project as critics fretted over the project’s cost and potential cost overruns, the disruption of mauka to makai view planes, the disturbance of iwi and rail’s potential to transform Oahu into something that’s, well, not Oahu.
But now, Ishikawa says that most public discussions about rail have turned to operational issues as the project has become more tangible to residents.
Indeed, the bruising fights between pro-rail and anti-rail factions seems to have waned, while a renewed public curiosity has emerged about the details of how the trains will actually work.
At public meetings, specific details about rail are discussed. There will be free wireless Internet on the platforms and on the trains. There will be racks inside the cars for surfboards and bikes. A single-fare system will give riders access to both the bus and the train, though prices have yet to be set, Ishikawa said. And while maps have long depicted the path of the rail line, residents are now seeing the contours of the rail system emerge along Farrington Highway and Old Fort Weaver Road.
Nearly 90 columns have now been erected from East Kapolei to the leeward edge of Waipahu. Meanwhile, workers at a casting yard in Kalaeloa have built more than 200 of the 5,200 concrete segments that will sit atop the columns and guide trains through the elevated rail line for the first leg of the project, stretching from East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium. About a dozen segments are expected to be cast daily and workers will begin mounting them on columns in the next few weeks, said Ishikawa.
The rail line will run alongside Farrington Highway, and then cut down the middle of Kamehameha Avenue as it goes through Pearl City, Aiea and Pearl Harbor. It will then follow the H-1 viaduct past the airport, running along Dillingham Boulevard as it snakes through Kalihi. From there, it will veer onto Nimitz Highway as it goes from Chinatown to downtown Honolulu, before paralleling Halekauwila Street to Ala Moana Center.
To make room for rail construction, lanes have already been shut down on the leeward side. Downtown Honolulu, is also suffering traffic disruptions while workers take soil samples to figure out how deep they can put the rail columns.
This week, there will be lane closures along the H-1 Waiawa Interchange, Farrington Highway in Waipahu and Kamehameha Highway as it runs through Pearl City, Aiea and Aloha Stadium. In Ewa, drivers seeking to turn left onto Old Fort Weaver Road will be detoured. And there will be intermittent lane closures throughout downtown Honolulu and Kakaako.
HART officials have taken to issuing weekly traffic disruption reports to prepare the public for the onslaught of construction.
Nearly 90 columns have already been erected in West Oahu as the 21-mile line takes shape, on track for a 2019 opening.
But HART officials say the benefits will be worth it. Honolulu traffic is ranked among the worst in the nation and traffic congestion is projected to grow worse in coming years — even once rail is operational. The trains are expected to take about 40,000 cars off the road every weekday, potential relief for leeward Oahu residents who can spend more than two hours commuting to work.
Traveling from East Kapolei, the most western stop, to downtown Honolulu is projected to take 38 minutes on rail. From downtown Honolulu to the airport is expected to be a 12-minute ride, and commuters will be dropped off within a short walking distance to terminals. The longest commute, from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center is expected to be 42 minutes.
The city is also developing four park-and-ride stations along the route. The largest, at Pearl Highlands, will have 1,600 stalls. An exclusive H-2 offramp is planned to go straight to the station, easing the commute for central Oahu residents.
Between the hours of 4 a.m. and midnight, the trains are planned to run every five minutes during peak travel times and every 10 minutes during non-rush hours, shuttling up to 800 passengers.
To accommodate rail, HART is acquiring through purchase — or if an agreement with the landowners can’t be reached, eminent domain — dozens of properties along the rail line. Some 200 parcels of land, including about 90 homes and businesses, must be taken over, according to the project’s environmental impact statement.
Ishikawa didn’t have a tally on how many properties have been obtained so far, but said that since the court rulings, HART has been moving ahead in buying properties in the urban Honolulu area, particularly along Dillingham Boulevard, where the road must be widened to accommodate the rail columns.
While the rail line will change the southern Oahu landscape, the expected burst of development along the rail corridor, where 70 percent of the island’s population lives, will likely leave the biggest imprint.
The city is in the midst of putting together transit-oriented development plans for eight neighborhoods along the rail line designed to increase density in areas closest to the stations and hopefully attract hundreds of millions of dollars of private investment.
Kakaako, which will be served by three rail stations, is also undergoing a renaissance as the state seeks to make it a “third city.”
And private companies are already seeking to capitalize on other neighborhoods along the rail line, embarking on ambitious development plans.
A plan, recently approved by Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the Honolulu City Council, dubbed, “Live, Work, Play, Aiea,” includes up to 1,500 residential units in five new high-rises, as well as retail space and a possible hotel. The development is slated to be built around the planned Pearlridge Transit Station.
As for the agricultural fields of Aloun farms, already peppered with rail columns, they’re set to disappear in the coming years as developer D.R. Horton builds a 12,000-home master-planned community, equipped with five schools and retail space. The new community will be served by a rail station bearing the development’s name — Hoopili.
HART rail officials are set to issue $1.3 billion in contracts for the project.