A great deal of ink has been spilled over the March 31 traffic fiasco on the H-1 freeway. While most of the discussion has focused on a postmortem of how things went wrong, the focus on the ZipMobile obscures the fundamental problem: The H-1 is at capacity.

“Carmageddon” provides a clear illustration of the fragility of the cross-island transit corridor. Traffic is already painfully slow on an average day. All it takes is one bad break, be it an accident or something unusual like a ZipMobile malfunction, to transform a lethargic, 20-mile commute into a six-hour nightmare.

What has hardly been mentioned in the mainstream press is that rail is being built precisely to address the need for additional transportation capacity in the already busy and soon to be overwhelmed H-1 commuting corridor. Ten years ago when the latest effort to build a rail system on Oahu began, the traffic handwriting was already on the wall.  Rail was then and is now the best way to address Oahu’s transportation needs.


The Honolulu rail project is clearly part of the solution for traffic congestion.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Rail has the capacity of 10 lanes of freeway and takes up much less space. Rail is expensive, but adding 10 lanes of freeway makes the rail project look like a bargain. And building 10 lanes of new freeway may make it quicker to get from Kapolei to the off-ramp at Punchbowl Street, but the surface streets will not be able to handle the additional cars. Think a big pipe suddenly becoming a small pipe, and you can see the problem.

Understandably, there have been complaints about the traffic congestion caused by the construction of rail. But imagine the traffic chaos that would ensue if we tried to add more lanes to the H-1 which would probably mean double-decking it. The current columns were not built to hold up two travel surfaces, and lane closures would be the norm for years.

There are those who argue that no one will ride rail. Really? When the rail project is complete and the choice becomes sitting in traffic for two hours on an average day with the risk of a six-hour meltdown or riding the rail for 45 minutes, rail’s popularity will soar instantaneously, just as it has in other cities around the world that have good rail systems.

Many cities on the water utilize ferries for commuters. For certain runs, like downtown to Hawaii Kai or Ewa Beach to downtown, ferries make perfect sense and should be added to the transportation mix. The problem with ferries is capacity. Rail can carry many times more passengers.

Some people from areas not immediately adjacent to rail argue that because it does not go through their neighborhoods it will not help them and therefore they will not support it. Consider two points. First, if you drive into areas where rail does go, like downtown, rail will help you because there will be fewer cars on the road.

Second, and this applies primarily to the Windward side, if rail is not completed, the next Hoopili will not be on the Ewa plain, it will be on the Windward side. Why? Because the Windward side is the only location, thanks to the Pali, Likelike and H-3, with the transportation capacity to support further large-scale development.

The difficult reality is that the number of residents on Oahu will continue to grow, which means that transportation planning must account for both current and future transit demands. Rail is a flexible and effective solution to those demands. Yes, it will take time and money to complete, but it is the only viable solution.

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