Why isn’t the media talking about the danger that sea level rise poses to Hawaii’s most expensive infrastructure project?

The climate change data, sea level rise experts, and the Honolulu mayor’s own July climate change directive all point in one direction: it doesn’t make any sense for Honolulu rail to serve an area that is going to be inundated by sea level rise.

Because the city hasn’t yet awarded the final construction contracts, now is the time to move rail inland to protect it and its transit-oriented development from the effects of sea level rise.

Pearl Kai Pearl Harbor Pearl City industrial aerial HART Rail Kamemeha Hwy Blaisdell Park2.
The rail line as it runs past the Pearl Kai and Pearl Harbor industrial area. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Over the last few weeks, Honolulu’s chief print newspaper has explained how sea level rise will harm our islands. Unfortunately, other than a single passing reference, none of the newspaper’s editorials addressed the folly of building Hawaii’s most expensive public works project in a flood zone.

One article reported on a new study from University of Hawaii and the Department of Land and Natural Resources. The study found that sea level rise may be double previous projections and that low-lying areas like those from Ewa to Waikiki will be vulnerable even several miles inland.

Another article says that steps need to be taken to “ensure that … infrastructure is designed, sited constructed and maintained to withstand predictable threats, including flooding.”

But in the past weeks, there was only one mention of rail. An article said that the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation has been “pro-active” about raising station areas and critical infrastructure to avoid future flooding damage.

Catastrophic Flooding Forecast

The section of rail going through Honolulu’s urban core is in one of the areas most threatened by sea level rise. Catastrophic flooding events may begin as early as 2030, just four years after rail’s anticipated completion date, and end of century flooding will overwhelm the entire urban rail-route, driving out business, housing, and creating a nightmare for the city and state.

Instead of seeing the folly of building a mass-transit system that will drop people in the flood zone, HART’s solution is to rely on rail’s elevated system, stating that the giant concrete pillars and expensive raised platforms will be out of flooding’s reach. But what about the surrounding area?

Few developers will take the risk of building in an area that will soon be underwater.

The city’s reliance on TOD to generate enough property taxes to fund rail’s maintenance and operations costs and to alleviate Oahu’s lack of affordable housing needs vibrant development. This development is essential to fund rail’s operations costs, but few developers will take the risk of building in an area that will soon be underwater.

With all that we know from the various sea-level rise reports, why would we want to inspire massive development in areas that will be continually flooded as early as thirty years from now?

Moving rail inland will save the route itself and encourage new residential and commercial development on dry land. A more inland route will spur new affordable housing for everyday families instead of luxury waterfront condos. The new route will avoid budget-breaking sea level rise mitigation costs and provide time to reevaluate the voters’ original desire of a rail route to University of Hawaii Manoa.

TOD will create a healthy tax base for the city to pay for rail without extending the general excise tax surcharge indefinitely or raising property taxes. The city and state are going to have a hard-enough time paying for other mitigation efforts for existing infrastructure and development around the state.

Let’s not complicate the issue any further by delaying our response to sea level rise by building rail into the worst of the flood zone. Civil Beat has cast some light on the soon underwater rail route and its accompanying TOD — but let’s speak louder together and demand that a long-term investment in our future will long outlast catastrophic sea level rise.

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