To Scott Wilson, a local architect leading a seemingly quixotic push to dramatically alter the Honolulu rail project, the idea is more than a pipe dream.

Wilson’s group, Salvage the Rail, has proposed a different route, and different type of train for much of the city: a street-level light rail running along King Street.

Wilson believes the alternative plan would save billions of taxpayer dollars, attract more riders, and complement existing transportation modes – all without marring the cityscape with an elevated concrete railway running for miles through town.

Scott Wilson, of Salvage The Rail, says North King Street’s width and relatively light traffic make it ideal for a street-level light rail line. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

“This is about getting the most value for your public money,” said Wilson. “We’re getting so little value for billions of dollars.”

Unlikely though it might seem — and officials with the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation say the proposal is full of flaws — the idea is getting attention from some public officials.

“We can’t continue the way we are,” said Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi when asked about the plan. “Let’s stop and analyze this.”

“We have to look at it,” says Honolulu City Councilman Trevor Ozawa, who was the swing vote in a recent measure to issue up to $350 million in bonds to keep the project moving forward through June 2018. “For me – and I’m only one of nine council members – every option is on the table.”

Regardless of whether Kobayashi, Ozawa or anyone else ultimately decides Salvage The Rail’s plan is in the city’s interest, the fact that Wilson’s long-shot proposal is getting more than a passing nod from some officials is a sign of the depth of troubles facing Honolulu’s rail project.

The 20-mile-long rail line faces escalating costs and a $3 billion funding shortfall. Legislators haven’t been willing to put taxpayers on the hook to cover the full gap. And neither have City Council members. Without a long-term revenue source, the project will run out of money in June 2018.

Options for the rail will become clearer later this summer when the Legislature holds a special session Aug. 28-Sept. 1 to consider funding for the project, which is now expected to cost $10 billion to complete.

In the meantime, Wilson is making the rounds with his proposal.

Salvage the Rail has the support of the long-time environmental organization Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, which helped establish Salvage the Rail’s website.  Earlier this month, Salvage the Rail was courting policymakers at the Capitol, where the group held a forum with national light rail experts who praised the alternative plan.

Wilson’s idea calls for using a smaller, ground-level light rail system — at least through the center of Honolulu —  instead of the overhead, heavy rail system now under construction.

The proposal is based on an option HART considered in 2016, when it was mulling ideas on how to reduce costs, said Hart.

Although the Federal Transit Authority had previously told HART that it would lose $1.55 billion in federal money if HART changed the rail plan, the organization nonetheless entertained a half dozen alternative options.

One of them, called “Option 2A” during a HART board meeting in 2016, proposed ending the elevated rail at Middle Street, then continuing with heavy rail at street level. At the time, HART’s deputy executive director asserted that Option 2A could be finished for less money.

Salvage the Rail’s proposal calls for moving the rail line to street level and running it along King and Beretania streets. Salvage the Rail

One of Salvage The Rail’s options calls for sloping the elevated track down to street level near Middle Street and running through town along King Street to Alapi Street, then looping back along Beretania Street.

This would mean using light rail cars for the whole line. HART would have to scrap the heavy cars the city already has paid for, Wilson said.

But he argues the city still would save money.

Another idea calls for two separate lines.  A heavy, elevated train would run from Kapolei to Middle Street, then a smaller, light rail train would follow a King Street-Beretani Street loop.

The street-level light rail is cheaper because it does not require an elevated concrete guideway or massive stations, Wilson said. The line can run along King and Beretania streets, which are wide enough to accommodate it with little change, he says.

The street-level rail stops would be a lot like bus stops, with passengers buying tickets out of  automated kiosks. “The cost of a rail stop is so cheap, they’re almost invisible,” he said.

An artist’s rendering of Salvage the Rail’s proposal shows a light rail line on King Street. Salvage the Rail

HART has previously offered several reasons why a street-level train isn’t as good as the elevated train. In 2011, HART noted the street-level train takes up space on the street, pedestrians would have to cross in front of the train, and a street-level train can’t go as fast as an elevated line on a guideway.

None of that has changed, says HART’s interim executive director, Krishniah N. Murthy.

Street-level rail will take up two to three lanes, Murthy said, requiring HART to buy more property along the line.  The line would also need an overhead electrical system running the length of the track.

In addition, HART would have to produce another environmental impact statement for the new route, an arduous process that could take at least three years.

Finally, Murthy said, there were numerous additional costs that would go with running a different type of train than the heavy, driverless train that HART has already purchased. Operating two different types of trains would require separate maintenance facilities and the expertise to maintain separate train types.

“It’s a domino effect,” he said.

Dillingham Boulevard looking towards Costco near Honolulu Community College. Kapalama area.
Dillingham Boulevard looking toward Costco near Honolulu Community College. The elevated railway would run through this congested area of the city. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Oahu taxpayers are committed to pay billions of dollars in rail taxes over the next 10 years through a half-percent general excise tax on virtually all goods and services sold on the island.

That tax now costs Honolulu taxpayers about $250 million annually, but HART expects that to escalate to more than $400 million annually by the time the tax is scheduled to expire in 2027. Without new taxes, HART is projecting a budget shortfall of about $3 billion short for the $10 billion project.

During the last session, the Legislature considered a bill to raise an extra $3.3 billion by extending the tax expiration date for another 10 years, but that proposal failed. If the Legislature can’t find a solution during the special session, the Honolulu City Council will likely have to increase property taxes.

One problem, Kobayashi says, is that the rail’s construction price keeps increasing. She expressed concern that even an additional $3 billion won’t be enough to finish the project. Plus, she said, there are operating costs.

“It just keeps getting higher,” she said. “We can’t keep going like this.”

Ozawa said the City Council needs to develop options in case the Legislature doesn’t come up with more money.

“I think what’s important is that we look at where we’re at,” Ozawa said.

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, has contracts totaling approximately $4.7 billion, which covers construction from East Kapolei to Middle Street in Kalihi. A big selling point of Salvage the Rail’s plan is that it purports to create a viable option to finish a project for the $2.5 billion that HART has available from taxpayers over the next 10 years.

But Ozawa asks of the street-level rail proposal, “Can we guarantee it will cost $2.5 billion?”

Murthy said such a figure is unlikely.

And Murthy expressed confidence that HART could finish the project for the current $10 billion amount.

HART rail guideway towers along Farrington Highway (eastbound) near Waipahu High School.
Salvage the Rail argues a street level light rail will be less obtrusive than the elevated system. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

To Wilson, the issue is about more than cost. Driving down Dillingham Boulevard near Alakawa Street, near the mass of big box retailers like Costco and Home Depot, Wilson questions how HART is going to manage building the massive elevated concrete structure needed to carry the trains up and down the busy thoroughfare.

He points to shade trees and high voltage power lines abutting the boulevard and wonders how HART will deal with those. In town, he notes, the line will run along Nimitz Highway, further blocking prime waterfront land.

By contrast, a line running along King Street, he says, will make Honolulu a more pleasant place.

“We want to preserve it and make it more liveable. We want more bike lanes, more shade trees, more modes of transportation,” he says. “And this elevated guideway is a step in the wrong direction.”

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