We have a massively over-budget, steel-on-steel rail project. Any Las Vegas oddsmaker would probably bet that the current projected cost will balloon even more.

Why steel on steel?

That is 19th-century technology and is obviously very expensive. The planned capacity of the line is low with no express train lane. The number of riders is likely way overrepresented and yet we are willing to give up a generation of good projects for this failing one.

We need money for our unfunded liabilities for retirees — those unfunded liabilities may never be funded if this project proceeds. We have struggling schools and hot schools and failing students. Our health care system is imploding. We have a huge housing and homelessness problem.

The future: Nissan testing driving NASA space technology for use in driverless cars. Flickr: Charly W. Karl

I think we are heading for financial disaster with this project. This project was barely approved by the voters of Honolulu back when the cost was much less. I doubt they would approve of this project if a vote was taken today.

I am proposing that an alternative be considered that is 21st-century technology and could potentially alleviate our state’s economic pain while providing even more jobs.

Going Autonomous

The 21st-century solution to mass transit is going to be autonomous vehicles often known as driverless cars, although they could be driverless truck and buses.

Google (aka Alphabet) and Tesla and many others are working full speed ahead on this but there are still large problems. It is not the driverless vehicles that are the problem; it is interacting with the vehicles that have drivers.

These autonomous cars have to interact with drunk drivers, speeding drivers, texting drivers, older drivers with impaired vision and driving reactions, young inexperienced drivers, road rage, drivers who fall asleep, have seizures or other serious medical problems etc.

The projections are that at some point most cars will be driverless.

It seems a given that even if we abandoned this current project we would have to deal with the shame of these Stonehenge like structures. So, what can we do?

We could abandon the steel-on-steel model and consider autonomous vehicles aka driverless cars. The rail bed minus the tracks could provide a great test bed for driverless vehicles absent the driven cars.

The projections are that at some point most cars will be driverless. In this envisioned future the cars would be owned and controlled by the mass transit utility.

Initially the driverless vehicles would transport passengers along the “rail” route (without the rails), but at some point they could start expanding into the streets some of which could be totally dedicated to these vehicles. These vehicles could be mass produced like a modern Model T very economically. They could of course run on batteries.

Companies such as Google (Alphabet), Tesla and a slew of dot.com and social media billionaires looking for the next big hit could be attracted and possibly pay off the entire cost of the “rail line” while providing potentially a much more flexible, higher volume public transit option.

The tech billionaires already come to Hawaii to play and vacation. Let’s put them and their money to work.  

So Long, Heavy Rail

Mount a bunch of drones on some driverless food trucks and your hot pizza or your morning latte and croissant could be delivered to the balcony of your 24th floor condo.

At some point the trunk line of riderless vehicles could arborize, with branches going on grade to Waikiki, to UH Manoa and beyond. We don’t have ice, snow and cold to deal with which would simplify things.

As these vehicles could be built much lighter than the envisioned steel behemoths, it is possible that two layers of vehicles could be carried by the current towers, with even elevated bike lanes a strong possibility.

Autonomous vehicles that would interact with only other similar vehicles could be built much more simply without all the design costs and bells and whistles of current cars.  Given their perfect tracking and potentially narrow design these vehicles could turn two lane into four lane roads.

So much our land and income goes to giant cars, roads, driveways, garages. Reclaim that space. Transform our society at least along the linear city to a zone of all driverless vehicles.

The incredibly wealthy technology giants that could pull this off could revolutionize tech in our state and put us at the head of the curve and empower our young people. Let us transform this pig’s ear into a silk purse.

Let’s move into the 21st century with a resounding win instead of what is shaping up to be a disastrously expensive albatross loss. Let us transform what could be a riderless monstrosity to a driverless masterpiece.

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About the Author

  • Richard Creagan
    Richard Creagan, M.D., is a state representative from the Big Island. He was board certified and worked in Emergency Medicine in California and on the Big Island at Kona Hospital, where he was vice chief of staff. He left that specialty to retrain as a psychotherapist and received his B.A. in Psychology with Highest Honors from UH Hilo in 2009. He currently serves on the House Committee on Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs and the Public Safety Committee.