Does Google have the answer to Honolulu’s rail project dilemma?

The city desperately needs an answer. The project is $3 billion short of funds and our state Legislature tried but totally failed during the regular session to find an acceptable solution to raising the funds.

State lawmakers now plan to hold a special session in July or August to try again to get the funding to meet the shortfall. Thus far, no prospective solutions have been announced. Honolulu is at a critical point; some see it as a crisis.

But, as John F. Kennedy pointed out, “In the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, one representing ‘danger’ and the other ‘opportunity.’” From this perspective, the upcoming special session may be an opportunity in disguise. The opportunity is to step back and take a broader look at our options.

The University of Hawaii West Oahu welcomed the use of electric vehicles in 2016. Imagine dozens of them riding the rail guideway instead of rail. Flickr: UHWO

One option we should consider is to find a new strategy — one that looks “beyond the reef” for answers, as Disney’s Moana realized, and do something different.

How about trying the successful strategy hockey’s great, Wayne Gretzky, explained when asked, “What is your secret to success?” He responded, “I skate to where the puck will be…not to where it is…or to where it was.”

Go Where It Will Be

So, how should Honolulu use Gretzky’s strategy?

Not by doggedly pushing ahead to complete Honolulu rail with 19th-century technology; that would be “going to where it was.”

Nor by just building more lanes, roads and infrastructure to accommodate oversized, gas-guzzling cars — 20th-century technology; that would be “going to where it is.”

Instead, Honolulu should go to “where it will be” by utilizing 21st-century technologies. And one way to do that is to ask Google.

No, the suggestion is not to “google for answers.” The suggestion is to ask Google to be the answer

 In other words, Honolulu should ask Google, and/or other private entities such as Tesla, Apple, Uber, France’s EasyMile (shared, driverless transportation), China’s TEB (transit elevated bus), also known as the straddle or straddling bus, and possibly Honolulu’s HECO and Blue Planet Foundation, to be the private partners in a public-private partnership with the state of Hawaii, the City and County of Honolulu and possibly the federal government as the public partners.

The PPP’s purpose would be to convert the Honolulu rail project into a proof-of-concept demonstrator project for self-driving electric vehicles that Google and other private entities have been designing, building and road testing in recent years.

These forward-thinking entities saw the handwriting on the wall over a decade ago: Manually driven gasoline cars don’t work well in cities anymore. For city trips, self-driving electric vehicles are the future.

Thus far, however, road testing of these test vehicles have mostly been on a limited, structured basis, conducted independently, using designated test riders, following scripted routes and schedules.


These orchestrated tests are far from ideal. They do not attract widespread attention or inspire confidence that these self-driving vehicles will work in the real world.

This is where Honolulu and the PPP come in.

The PPP would build a two-level guideway structure along the proposed Honolulu Rail route. The private partners will provide the funding to build it, and the self-driving electric vehicles that would service Honolulu residents by lease or on-call, for all their commuting and other city trips needs. All of the vehicles, except for the straddle bus, would be dual-mode, operating on streets as well as on the guideway.

Electric vehicles charging on the Washington State Capitol campus in 2015 Washington State House Republicans

Once on the guideway, they will cruise in dedicated lanes, nonstop without cross traffic or traffic lights, at 60 mph or more. They will be networked, interconnected with one another and with the entire system, thereby optimizing navigation, minimizing space between vehicles, and initiating instantaneous reactions to changes in circumstances.

The main (upper) level of the guideway will accommodate the following types of vehicles:

Microbuses: These can be operated like Vanpool vehicles with a set-passenger list, or like a collector-vehicle that collects passengers who summons them using an Uber-like calling app. They are picked up at or near their homes, and then transported, oftentimes nonstop, to, or very near to their destinations using the PPP guideway for a non-stop, high-speed leg of the journey.

The vehicles could be similar to EasyMile’s ( microbus, and can service residents throughout West and North Oahu, not just along the narrow, 20-mile corridor that rail would service, and go to many popular destinations beyond Ala Moana (e.g., UH Manoa, Waikiki, etc.).

Micro Dual-mode POVs (Privately Owned Vehicles): Two-seat vehicles to replace driven cars. POVs will be used the same way residents use their cars. They will satisfy drivers’ primary reasons for driving cars, i.e., the flexibility, privacy, personal security and safety, convenience, freedom from schedules and travel-time efficiency that currently only cars can give them, but at half the cost. Being networked, the throughput of guideway traffic would be at least twice that of freeways with ordinary cars.

Micro-Emergency Vehicles: Ambulances, firetrucks, rescue vans and police could get to emergencies in half the time because this system avoids all roadway traffic. When lives are at stake every second matters, so the minutes saved are priceless.

HART rail guideway car photo op Farrington Hwy Waipahu Sugar Mill train wide1. 30 may 2017
Why not run electric vehicles on Honolulu’s rail guideway, rather than rail? Here is the train being tested along Farrington Highway near the Waipahu Sugar Mill Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Transit Elevated Bus: For example, China’s TEB or Straddle Bus. These are huge buses (carrying from 300 and up to 1,200 passengers) that straddle the guideway and ride above the above-described vehicles. These pick up and drop passengers along the guideway route, pretty much like a commuter train would. The Straddle Bus will allow onboard bicycles, electric mopeds and Segways, thereby solving the “first- and last-mile” problem that deter many from using mass-transit.

And, being that the “legs” of this bus are on fixed guideways, the PPP project meets the Federal Transit Administration’s full funding grant agreement requirements. This not only makes it unnecessary to refund the $700 million thus far collected, but may also qualify the project for the remaining $800 million-plus of the $1.55 million grant.

The secondary (lower) deck of the two-level structure would be dedicated to bicycles, electric mopeds and other single-user transport modes that can be ridden protected from the elements, and in a much safer environment than on the roadways. This will further encourage urban travelers to get out of their cars.

The PPP project would be a win-win-win for all involved. It could also serve as a model for how cities should be built, perhaps as the flagship of the Trump administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan. Let’s go for it.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author