“We have responsibilities that require us to ensure that public funds — regardless of their source — are expended wisely and to safeguard our constituents from tax burdens that otherwise could be avoided through good governance.”

Thus did Honolulu City Council members Duke Bainum and Charles Djou begin a 10-page letter they signed and sent off to the federal Department of Transportation in June 2009. The letter was an appeal to the feds to intervene in the Mayor Mufi Hannemann administration’s perceived “rush” to lock in its Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor (HHCTC) project, designed as an all-elevated, heavy-rail commuter train running from an empty field two miles east of downtown Kapolei to Ala Moana Shopping Center. The letter charged that the project had been adopted by the city with no serious consideration of less costly and less intrusive rail-transit alternatives.

A few days after the letter was sent, Bainum died of a sudden aneurysm, and, a few days after that, the DOT replied to the letter and refused to intervene.

Elevated track near Kapolei built along farm land after over 1 mile of completed yesterday. 3 dec 2014 photograph Cory Lum

The elevated tracks for Honolulu’s rail project shown here cost far more than light rail tracks, which can run at street level, in a viaduct or in a subway.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

I first wrote about Honolulu’s rail-transit planning effort six years ago in a cover story for the Honolulu Weekly called “Railroaded” that detailed Bainum and Djou’s claims, as well as the Outdoor Circle’s conviction that the city’s HHCTC project “will be the most visually disruptive project in the history of Hawaii.”

I quoted Toru Hamayasu, Hannemann’s general manager for the HHCTC project (renamed Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, or HART, in 2011), who cheerfully told me the HHCTC was “very much the same” as a plan first hatched by former Mayor Frank Fasi in 1969. “The alignment, type of vehicles and all that were very, very similar,” Hamayasu said. Hamayasu told me he went to work for Fasi in 1972 on that first plan, when he was fresh out of UH’s engineering school.

So much for innovative transit solutions.

And so, here we are, six years’ into HART: Two miles of the 20-mile viaduct are complete, while estimated cost overruns for the $5 billion project now exceed $900 million or 18 percent by HART’s own estimation. Doing the math, the overage means an additional $700 for every man, woman and child in the state. That’s a massive reallocation of funds from taxpayers to contractors … and that’s just unplanned costs, so far.

The total price for HART is now running at about $4,300 per Hawaii resident, or almost twice the cost-per-Massachusetts-resident for the notorious, 14-year, $14.5 billion Big Dig tunnel project in Boston, a horrendously complex enterprise that radically transformed the old city for the better.

Last week, Civil Beat released a poll showing public opposition to rail at 50 percent for Oahu residents, down from 55 percent last summer, with 43 percent supporting it. The poll also found that 55 percent oppose extending Oahu’s general excise tax (GET) surcharge to pay for it.

What to do?

One idea gaining currency, though not exactly new, is to shorten HART’s route and treat it as the commuter train it is, and then do something else in town.

A few weeks ago, veteran Honolulu Star-Advertiser columnist David Shapiro fulminated against rail and the legislative kabuki going on over extending the GET in his Volcanic Ash column. He described HART as “a project built on bad judgment, bad management and bad faith” and suggested that, with all the flimflammery going on, why don’t we just stop the thing at Aala Park? “A viable option,” he called it.

Shapiro dinged the HART board’s refusal to so much as consider shortening the route and referenced the powerful real-estate, construction and union interests pushing to extend the GET for the duration, as long as it takes, to complete the overhead line and its 21 stations through some of Oahu’s most congested and expensive aina.

“The shorter route is a possible compromise that gives most interests some of what they want and is worth the time to honestly assess benefits and drawbacks,” he wrote.

UH Professor of Urban and Regional Planning Karl Kim submitted his top 10 fixes for HART in an op-ed piece, also in the Star-Advertiser, published last year. One of his imperatives was to “get the technology right” by finally being truthful about the difference between the high-speed commuter rail needed to ferry thousands of daily commuters between Honolulu and west Oahu, and a lower impact, fixed-guideway “light rail” system (i.e., streetcars) needed for the more frequent stops and slower speeds in Honolulu’s urban core.

“Go at-grade downtown,” Kim exhorted. “Instead of a massive elevated system downtown, switch to an at-grade system which will be cheaper and more visually appealing.”

Both Kim’s and Shapiro’s ideas suggest the resuscitation of a 2009 comparative study of Honolulu’s rail options privately commissioned by Kamehameha Schools (KS). I also reported on this study in “Railroaded.”

Redefining the current rail project as the commuter train it always was and ending it somewhere on the west side of town — at Middle Street or Aala Park — is still an option.

To recap, transit consultant Phil Craig argued strenuously against Hannemann’s heavy rail plan because of its cost, its negative visual and economic effects on surrounding urban areas, and the inflexibility of its dated technology. Craig explained that heavy-rail technology uses a live third rail to power the train, which requires that the guideways be “grade separated,” or isolated from human activity; that is, the trains must be either elevated or underground in a subway. As it is now designed, every future extension of HART will demand elevated (or subway) tracks.

Light rail technology (LRT), on the other hand, generally uses overhead catenary cables for a power source and can run on existing streets, in a viaduct, or in a subway. LRT is more flexible and scaleable, and downright cheap: Craig estimated that the cost-per-mile for at-grade double tracks is about $50 million while every mile of elevated track costs $270 million. In our straitened times, LRT has been deployed in at least 20 mid-sized American cities since 1990; among them, Denver, Portland, Dallas, Sacramento and Salt Lake City; European cities have been using streetcar systems since … well, since Honolulu built one back in 1901 that lasted through World War II.

Naturally, once the KS report surfaced, it and Craig were sharply criticized by the city. HHCTC’s hired consultants, New York-based Parsons Brinkerhoff, quickly released a 21-page, point-by-point rebuttal. Councilman Charles Djou, who had seen the report and casually suggested holding a hearing about it, was rebuked within 24 hours by the mayor’s office. A letter to Djou requested that he “reserve comment about such proposals until you have all of the facts.” Hamayasu told a Pacific Business News reporter that he thought the KS report was “stupid.”

KS itself, whose interest in transit is predicated on the large amounts of land it owns along HHCTC’s designated route, said the report was meant for its own consideration and should not be considered as an alternative to the city’s HHCTC plan.

Redefining the current rail project as the commuter train it always was and ending it somewhere on the west side of town — at Middle Street or Aala Park — could still be an option, though there would be hurdles to cross with the Federal Transit Administration to maintain funding. Honolulu itself needs some kind of cheaper, more flexible and more sophisticated transit solution, some kind of step-on-step-off circulator system that will coax city folk out of their cars. Shapiro suggested a bus network. Kim proposed a light rail solution, like a streetcar that loops into the heart of Honolulu on some combination of Kapiolani and Beretania, or King and Queen, or whatever. Later spurs could serve Waikiki, UH-Manoa. Hell, we could reinstate Honolulu’s old streetcars up Nuuanu and Manoa valleys or on the length of Waialae Avenue, up and over Kaimuki to Kahala, Aina Haina, Hawaii Kai even, and retire thousands of city cars.

Defending Honolulu against a truly stupid, truly retrograde, truly misbegotten plan that threatens to bankrupt us all in the process is a noble act.

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