The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation‘s East Kapolei-to-Kalihi, steel wheel on steel track, automated and elevated rail line fulfills halfway the idee fixe to recreate on Oahu the 30-year old Vancouver SkyTrain light-rail system.

Both indefatigable rail critics Panos Prevedouros and former Gov. Ben Cayetano said they will not object to the completion of a 14-mile, 13-station elevated rail line. Amazingly, given the last 15 years of rail debates, the first phase appears to be a fait accompli.

Trains running on elevated tracks come with a high price, as towers and up-in-the-air transit stations consume concrete like the Great Wall of China. Although news video clips showed the triumphant march of track towers in Oahu’s western suburbs, the ongoing construction costs, along with higher cost projections, hit the HART budget like an EF5 tornado.

HART rapid transit train on display at Kapolei Hale. 20 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A rail car from HART’s rapid transit train on display at Kapolei Hale. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On June 8, HART presented its board six options for review, in response to the Federal Transit Administration’s request that HART provide a “recovery plan” for the underfunded Honolulu mass transit by Aug. 7. Surprisingly, HART’s Option 2a is a six-mile, nine-station “at-grade” route. That is, the elevated track ends at Middle Street and rail cars run along the street through downtown to Ala Moana Center in Honolulu’s congested “urban core.”

In 2009, consultant Philip G. Craig proposed a 20-mile Kapolei-to-Ala Moana Center, half elevated, half at-grade light rail system in his “Light Rail Transit Report to Kamehameha Schools.” Craig’s thesis: “Using the correct technology, Honolulu can achieve a ‘best fit’ for its fixed guideway transit system.” The report advocated elevated rail in Oahu’s western suburbs, then a switch to at-grade rail from Kalihi to Ala Moana Center – identical in concept to HART’s Option 2a.

The report also warned that the “second phase” elevated track would bring unparalleled challenges in construction, transit station development and visual aesthetics.

HART’s Option 2a is an opportunity to imagine a Honolulu “urban core” revival with an at-grade rail line leveraging the following advantages:

  • Lower track construction costs. Unless massive concrete towers are “anchored” securely, the elevated rail line is unsafe; estimating drilling costs in Iwilei is like a construction project on Pluto. At-grade means street widening and track installation for a dedicated “right of way,” not giant excavations.
  • Lower transit station costs. Stations can be built almost anywhere along the route and could change with ridership patterns. The Craig report listed a possible renovation of the historic downtown Oahu Transit building. Renovations or smaller stations mean lower costs.
  • Lower route “extension” costs. With at-grade rail, “spur” lines northward to the University of Hawaii at Manoa and eastward along Waikiki’s Kuhio Avenue to the Honolulu Zoo can be built with less funds.
  • Easy at-grade transit car boarding. Low-floor boarding is “friendly” to the elderly, handicapped, children, strollers, wheelchairs, luggage, surfboards, and bicycles. No climbing the stairs to an elevated station or waiting for an elevator.

In some cities, a driver-operated train travels from elevated fixed-track to underground (subway) to at-grade (street-level). Compared to elevated rail cars (with drivers or automated), drivers operate at-grade train cars, since the cars may run in traffic, except for “dedicated” tracks used only by rail cars. This explains why the driverless Hitachi Rail cars could not continue at the Middle Street station from an elevated line to at-grade tracks.

If the entire Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project elevated plan was completed successfully, end-to-end train automation would have been lauded, but unless the current Hitachi Rail cars can be converted to driver-operated or new cars selected for an at-grade track, automation is a curse of inflexibility.

City By City Transit System Evolution

By the 1950s, the electrified streetcars that once linked Honolulu’s downtown with then-new housing areas in Manoa and Kaimuki disappeared. San Francisco streetcars are known as quaint tourist attractions, but Honolulu’s are gone.

Over the last two decades, cities globally have launched innovative transit systems for moving riders between suburbs and downtown. In terms of transit car size and routes, these projects have blurred how light rail and streetcars are defined.

Although streetcars often run as single railcars, while light rail often runs with trains made up of multiple cars, like the Hitachi Rail 4-car trains, there are now many exceptions. San Francisco’s Muni Metro (nearly twice the length of HART’s 20-mile route) and Salt Lake City TRAX are streetcar/light rail hybrid systems. Tacoma calls its short 1.6-mile Link line “light rail,” and uses the same train model as Portland and Seattle streetcars, while Atlanta’s “streetcar” is called “light rail” in San Diego.

The remains of a passenger car from the old Oahu Railway, which ceased operations in the late 1940s.
The remains of a passenger car from the old Oahu Railway, which ceased operations in 1947. Hawaii Rail Society via Flickr

In terms of rail car size, early 20th century 60-seat Honolulu streetcars were barely 30 feet long. Today’s single Portland streetcar is 66 feet long, compared to a 90-foot long Norfolk, Va., light rail car – yet Toronto has introduced a 99-foot streetcar (with 251 standing and seating passengers or more capacity than one Hitachi Rail car). Passenger capacity alone does not differentiate streetcars from light rail.

As for suburban commuter travel versus “urban core” stops (such as Kakaako), the iconic U.S. “light rail” system — Portland’s MAX  — includes downtown tracks mixed with cars and pedestrians. Portland’s new streetcar routes include several “dedicated” segments separated from streets, more like light rail. Successful transit systems align technology options seamlessly with ridership, not the other way around.

Stepping Outside The Comfort Zone

In its presentation, HART listed disadvantages for Option 2a, including rail power “charging” via an overhead power line; an electrified “third” rail (like along the HART elevated track) in the street would be dangerous to pedestrians. Yet “wireless” power charging innovations have emerged, such as batteries that recharge from an underground “on-off” charger. Instead of just an overhead power line, a list of at-grade transit power charging options should be available for the HART board’s review.

The HART board also should investigate how other cities have developed at-grade transit systems with closely-spaced stations and traffic flow. (An average of 0.6 miles separates Honolulu’s “urban core” stops.) The HART board can gain insights from other cities’ transit best practices, especially Portland, a model for a downtown carless renaissance.

For HART, other than 2a, all other options with the remaining budget either “extend” or “stop” the elevated rail line in various ways; so by listing Option 2a, HART is stepping outside its comfort zone.

Ultimately, Option 2a would mean a mid-route train-to-train rider transfer, plus HART will operate two rail lines with different vendors and rail cars (and a lot more). But Option 2a clearly offers lower construction costs in the urban core, less environmental impact and opportunities for route extensions. The HART board should explore Option 2a “at-grade” possibilities, but time is of the essence: The deadline for the FTA’s “recovery plan” is less than six weeks away.

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