On Sept. 25, at the end of the rollout for TOD, the downtown Transit-Oriented Development plan, city planners asked, “What do you think of our plan if there is no Rail?”

What if…the Rail is never built?

Maybe the effect was unintended, but the question lit up the plan brightly. There is almost nothing about the downtown TOD plan that is unique to the Honolulu rail project. It is an idealized but unbudgeted plan for making downtown more livable to residents.

Some of its elements have been run up or tried previously. For example, the TOD draft plan suggests: Tear down the Hawaiian Electric power plant and build twin towers. Redevelop the Honolulu waterfront. Cut new streets through Iwilei. Redevelop Mayor Wright Housing. “Reposition” some of the big-box retail around Costco. Clean up Aala Park. Build another footbridge across Nuuanu Stream.

Not even the footbridge is in a City budget and certainly not in HART’s rail budget. So as a means of making rail “cost-effective,” as TOD often has been described, downtown TOD emerged as a net drain on the public treasury–an unbudgeted set of nice thoughts, the price of which no one has even guessed.

TOD Administrator Terry Ware said as much, starting with the fact that urban in-fill costs more than suburban subdividing, and since the surrounding property owners won’t pay the bill, the public will have to.

Much of the plan is a map for rezoning in a quarter-mile radius of the proposed Iwilei, Chinatown and Bishop Street stations. The map is for more residential housing, more retail, a little more commercial and office space.

Specifics rely to a surprising extent on earlier investments that by and large have not succeeded. One is for further developing the Aloha Tower area, which would be throwing good money after bad. Another is a mixed-use development at Iwilei, which Dole Corporation attempted with modest and faltering results at Cannery Square. And repeated descriptions of mauka/makai walking corridors brought to mind the sobering precedent of Fort Street Mall.

“Enhance Downtown’s Waterfront Orientation” was presented as a “guiding principle.” Enhanced mauka/makai views were suggested, despite the way that the rail route down Nimitz Highway cuts off the urban district from the waterfront.

Asked why retreads of Aloha Tower and Cannery Square played such a prominent role in his plan, Ware said the plan is not his but [ours.It] is our job to keep working on it. He said it might take generations, but it will be worth it. And that is why, he said, even if the Rail is stopped, “We are still going to move forward in the planning efforts.”