The frenzy surrounding this special session of the Hawaii Legislature gave us a golden opportunity to force the mayor and Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation to bring the Honolulu rail project down to Earth. Instead, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 4 to enable this costly overhead rail to proceed through historic Chinatown, across our downtown waterfront, ending four stories high at Ala Moana.

Although HART’s new recovery plan pretends that costs have decreased, this is a mirage. The so-called savings exist only on paper, after erasing wasteful financing costs.

The big picture is that the rail has doubled in cost over five years. Federal money was supposed to cover one-third of the bill, but now the federal share has shrunk to less than a fifth. To make up the difference, twice as much comes out of your pockets.

That’s why I voted against Senate Bill 4 — it’s just bad policy to keep enabling bad decisions by giving these people more money. To those who claim this project is “too big to fail,” it is like a mismanaged Wall Street bank. I say they have forgotten the “First Law of Holes” — if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Salvage The Rail’s proposed street-level options for Honolulu rail. The author argues that there is still time to change to route of the project as it goes through the heart of the city.

Salvage The Rail

There is one redeeming feature to Senate Bill 4. It directs the State Auditor to consider and weigh alternatives for the section of the rail project between Middle Street and Ala Moana. This is a crucial task for our state government, going forward.

As much as some don’t want to admit it, the state is now a full-fledged partner in Honolulu’s rail boondoggle. Even the neighbor islands now have a stake, since the latest bailout unfairly raised the transient accommodations tax on room and vacation rentals statewide.

Rail now enters its most costly and damaging phase, trampling from Middle Street through historic Chinatown, and all the way to the Ala Moana Center. We must be prepared with responsible alternatives — and a firm “no” — when Honolulu’s mayor comes back for more.

Waiting For The Audit

The fact that the task of examining alternatives lies with Les Kondo, the State Auditor, is encouraging. In his previous job as executive director of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, Mr. Kondo established a reputation for integrity and thoroughness. I expect that the State Auditor will apply careful scrutiny to the rail project, and will prudently weigh more sensible alternatives for rail between Middle Street and Ala Moana — including Option 2A, a street-level rail system.

Without an alternative plan, HART’s elevated heavy-rail system will deface our historic cityscape. Downtown Honolulu is home to architectural gems, like the six-story Stangenwald Building at 119 Merchant Street. Built in 1901, in classical style, it was the first real “skyscraper” in Honolulu.

The rail can and should come down to street level at Middle Street.

Heirlooms like the Stangenwald Building and the Chinatown Historic District give Honolulu’s urban landscape a feeling of authenticity and connection to history that can no longer be bought or built for any price.

Just one block away from these historic treasures, the mayor wants to start building a wall of towering concrete posts. These posts will not only block pedestrians’ views of the harbor, but will also serve as giant billboards for profane graffiti.

A rendering from Salvage the Rail of the train at-grade on Hotel Street.

Salvage The Rail

The elevated track overhead will shroud everything around in perpetual twilight. Meanwhile, each passing train car will emit an earsplitting screech of steel grinding on steel that will echo down Merchant Street and through Chinatown.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The grassroots Salvage The Rail project has shown that using street-level rail past Middle Street would be technically feasible and acceptable to the Federal Transit Administration.

Internationally recognized experts like Vukan Vuchic, an urban transportation engineer from the University of Pennsylvania; Douglas Tilden, FAIA, a 45-year rail station designer; and Gary Andrishak, a 35-year land-use and transit planning expert, all agree: The rail can and should come down to street level at Middle Street.

Let’s Change Course

There is still time to change course. Only 38 percent of the rail project has been built, and the most expensive portion of HART’s budget-busting plan is still yet to come. Construction past Middle Street is guaranteed to encounter iwi kupuna, utility problems and other unforeseen engineering and legal issues that will produce cost overruns. The mayor already knows he will need more money — he told us so during the special session, by asking for a fictitious “stress test” slush fund.

Using street-level rail between Middle Street and Ala Moana would save $3 billion or more and finish four years earlier, but it’s not just about money and time. Whereas elevated rail ruins views and disrupts livability, street-level rail encourages pedestrian-friendly development and enhances quality of life.

Street-level rail would revitalize a walkable urban core, helping small businesses and beautiful public spaces flourish. And a street-level system could be expanded cost-effectively through modular extensions to the University of Hawaii and Waikiki, making it versatile and useful to residents without emptying our wallets.

Let’s wait for the State Auditor’s cost-benefit analysis of alternatives before letting HART dig a deeper hole in our pockets by signing early contracts for an overhead eyesore. Instead of sacrificing our city’s historic ambiance, let’s listen to the experts and bring the rail project down to Earth. It’s never too late to stop going in the wrong direction.

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