Cover Story


Cover image for Dec 21, 2011

It’s been a rollercoaster few weeks for Honolulu’s proposed 20-mile, Kapolei-to-Ala Moana elevated railway. First, a skittish City Council asked the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART) to delay signing of a $1.4 billion contract with rail car company Ansaldo Honolulu JV due to concerns about its solvency. Days later, after the CEO of Ansaldo’s parent company flew in from Italy, HART did sign. Next came the first hearing in federal court of a lawsuit demanding complete consideration of alternatives to raised heavy rail. What if, besides just light rail, more buses or doing nothing and saving the $5 billion, the solution to an El roaring through the heart of the city lies right beneath our feet?

Adding to the general funhouse atmosphere, The Outdoor Circle, a grassroots environmental organization best known for stopping the proliferation of billboards in Hawaii, joined a growing list of prominent rail critics and came out against the city’s plan.

“We believe the city is vulnerable in the area of mitigating the effects of the visual aspects of the rail project,” said Bob Loy, The Outdoor Circle’s director of environmental programs. “Basically, elevated rail is unmitigable.”

And it is this fact–that there isn’t a whole lot one can do to hide or beautify 20 miles of elevated track running through a narrow, mostly developed corridor of Oahu–that has taken center stage in the argument over the city’s proposed transit line.

We’ve all seen them. Artists’ renditions, pro and con, of the city’s proposed elevated rail line. The city’s version: futuristic stations, sleek trains–promising riders a stress-free commute, as they sail into town above the congested streets. Opponents, on the other hand, recently published a full-page ad in the Honolulu Star Advertiser featuring a simulation of a massive, five-story-high, concrete-pillared structure blocking the view of the harbor and sky at the corner of Nimitz Highway and Bishop Street downtown.

And it does seem that, of all the effects of building rail on Oahu, it is this section of the proposed line, which will pass elevated through the heart of the city, that has given even some rail supporters pause. The Honolulu chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which created the downtown rendition used by the rail opponents, has advocated for a light-rail line running at street level through town to avoid the undeniable aesthetic shock delivered by the city’s concept.

But there is one alternative that virtually no one on either side of the debate is currently talking about, and that is the possibility of putting the section of the line running through downtown and the capitol district underground. That’s right, a subway.

This is the third serious attempt by the city to build a steel-on-steel, elevated rail transit system. In 1976, in 1992 and, most recently, in 2007, engineering, feasibility and cost analysis studies for rapid transit were both completed by consultants hired by the city. All three studies entertain the idea of running the railway underground from just ‘ewa of Chinatown, with the train emerging on the Diamond Head side of Honolulu’s Capitol/Historic district. Three underground stations, including one at Fort Street Mall, would serve the 1.3 mile-long tunnel section.

The 1976 study is fascinating in its detail. Considering a slightly longer tunnel with a different alignment than later versions, the engineering consultants explained that the Hotel Street section of the subway would be “cut and cover,” while the subterranean line under Aala Park could be a drilled tunnel. Sewer lines and storm drains would have to be realigned, the foundation of some buildings reinforced–but no major problems, such as groundwater incursion, were anticipated in the construction.

Later studies found a route mostly following King Street more geologically favorable. This plan would have the subway begin in Iwilei and resurface on Kapiolani Boulevard near Ward Avenue.

Panos Prevedouros, a University of Hawaii professor of civil engineering and a vocal critic of any kind of rail, considered the subway idea from an engineering standpoint, and commented: “The tunnels themselves…may not be the biggest problem. Creating subterranean stations with multiple accesses to them–elevators, escalators and stairs–can be much more problematic. With enough funds, a reliable solution can be engineered, but in a cost effectiveness analysis, tunnels may not fare well.”

Prevedouros supports, but is not part, of the current suit being brought before a federal judge by UH law professor Randy Roth, long-time rail opponent Cliff Slater, former Gov. Ben Cayetano, and former judge and Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) trustee Walter Heen. The crux of the suit, which seeks the completion of a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS), is the plaintiffs’ claim that the city never seriously considered viable alternatives to elevated heavy rail.

Prevedouros draws a parallel between Honolulu’s dilemma and what happened in his home country of Greece. “Elevated rail was considered in the 1980s in Athens, but despite the lower cost, the public was strongly against an aesthetically obtrusive, blighting and noisy elevated rail system. The final decision was for a fully underground system–despite Athens’ hard rock underground and the high probability of finding antiquities. The system was completed in the 1990s.”

Of course, Honolulu has its own “antiquities”–na iwi, the bones of the island’s first inhabitants, buried beneath the city’s streets. Kakaako, which stretches east of downtown and astride the proposed rail line, has yielded scores of skeletal remains in the past 20 years as it has been dug up for high-rise development. Several major construction projects (Walmart on Keeaumoku Street, the Ward Village Shops on Auahi Street) have been delayed–but not stopped–as bones were discovered, disinterred and relocated, as required under state law.

The city is understandably concerned with what they will find when they dig holes 50 to 150 feet deep (depending on soil conditions) to create footings for the six-foot diameter concrete columns which will support the elevated rail-bed. They have applied for and been granted a noise variance permit in order to conduct an “archaeological inventory survey” in Kakaako and elsewhere along the route.

The permit application includes a map showing the exact locations of the future footprints for the columns. Crews have already begun to dig up the streets at these spots in search of remains. As Scott Ishikawa, spokesperson for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) stated, “The idea is to have flexibility regarding the placement of the columns.”

And this, among other concerns, is where the city has a problem with the subway idea. The current spacing of the columns through downtown is expected to be approximately 125 feet apart. If you think digging a few hundred holes in anticipation of finding and avoiding iwi is a hassle, consider boring a tunnel (or excavating a trench) through the earth.

The city’s objection to going underground does not end there. Relocating utilities, the additional excavation (and subsequent disruption of surrounding properties) required for creating access to subterranean stations are additional factors they claim make the project simply too expensive to consider.

No engineer has ever argued (in 1976, 1992 or 2007) that a subway through downtown Honolulu would not cost more money than other alternatives. The question is: Just how much more?

The 2007 engineering study found that if a 1.3-mile-long tunnel were to be included in the estimate for the 4.48-mile section of mostly elevated rail line running from Iwilei Street to Waimanu Street (near the corner of Piikoi), the cost would be $1.9 billion. A similar length of track (4.6 miles), running elevated-only along the currently planned Nimitz-Halekauwila Street route, is priced at $1.34 billion. This puts the cost overrun for the tunnel to be approximately $560 million, or roughly 10.5 percent of the current $5.3 billion price tag for the entire system.

Some adjustments in these cost figures are appropriate–the subway option estimate is in 2007 dollars. But cost adjustments (trending in a steadily upward direction) have dogged this project from day one.

It is worth noting that in 1992 the idea of a subway running underneath downtown was not just one of many alternatives considered by the City Council–it was their first choice. When the geological engineers gave cost estimates for the Hotel Street tunnel that caused the Council to blanch, the Council had them do test borings on King Street. The results came back cheaper–but still not cheap enough. The Council went with an elevated line through town, although the effort was later derailed by a 5-4 no-vote on the entire project.

Even in 2007, the city’s engineering consultants, when referring to the underground routes, stated, “Tunnels were considered because they would have less long-term environmental impacts and/or better transit operations, as compared to an elevated or at-grade guideway.” This shows, Ishikawa said, that “the city did look at tunnel options for downtown…to try and avoid cultural and historic buildings in the area.”

The concept of a subway through downtown Honolulu seems, to put it mildly, far-fetched. Most experts interviewed for this story, or reached via e-mail didn’t endorse the idea or think that the city would ever agree to build an underground line through what is arguably the most iconic and beloved part of town.

But there was one thing everyone contacted for this story did have in common–they did not dismiss it as a bad idea. Cayetano, when speaking about his anti-rail group [], stated in an e-mail, “We are aware of the underground studies, and we have no problem with the city studying underground alternatives.” Cayetano himself favors an expanded bus system (BRT), advocated by the Harris administration, which he says was never considered by Mufi Hannemann when he became mayor. “Unfortunately for [Hannemann], federal law requires that all ‘reasonably viable’ alternatives be studied and included in the Alternatives Analysis. In other words, it was not up to Mufi to decide what the law required…”

Peter Vincent, chair of the transit task force for the Honolulu chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), said, “We take no position on [the subway]. But it certainly would keep the speed and ridership [of the train] up, and answer most of the environmental questions raised concerning that section of elevated rail.”

Vincent has repeatedly stated that the AIA is “pro-rail.” They just want a different kind of train–light rail, powered by an overhead electrical source, with the flexibility to be elevated and to run at ground level, as needed. But a position such as theirs has gradually become less tenable, as the city has rejected all other forms of transit in favor of the elevated heavy-rail line.

It seems that organizations such as The Outdoor Circle, or private citizens with misgivings about specific details of the heavy-rail concept increasingly can no longer say, “I’m pro-rail, except for…” The city has effectively driven everyone with doubts concerning their plan into the anti-rail camp.

This puts the subway idea right back where it belongs– among the mass-transit alternatives currently not being considered by the city. After all, they insist, $560 million to go underground is a lot of money.

Undoubtedly true. But as another architect, who wished to remain anonymous, put it, “Just because it’s expensive, doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do.”

Q&A with City Councilperson Ann Kobayashi

What’s your main gripe with elevated rail?

We have such a beautiful city. When you stand on any corner downtown you want to see the sky. When you look down any street, the view plane will be interrupted by the elevated line.

Other reasons?

Cities are currently not choosing this heavy rail approach, if they are building a new system. It’s noisy, it’s ugly. Some cities are tearing them down. A 20-mile-long train line, with 21 stations? Just how fast do you think this thing is going to be?

How about the way it’s being implemented?

The city spent $35,000 on a groundbreaking in Kapolei for the rail project. But this was held before we had a go-ahead for construction. We still don’t have the okay to begin. They did it because they want people to think the project is underway, and it’s too late to change things now.

Why not put it underground through the city center?

I was told it was not possible–that it was too close to the harbor. But Tokyo’s system is right next to the water…

Why did voters approve the rail project in 2008, albeit by a narrow margin?

The Hannemann Administration spent $5 million on lobbying for the steel-on-steel rail. I opposed this. I would like to see another (Oahu-wide) vote on rail. I know a woman who saved for 16 years and finally was able to buy into a new condo in Kakaako. She found out that the elevated line will go right by her lanai–and the trains will run between 4am and midnight every day of the week. I think people are more cautious, more hesitant about the idea now. —