Historic Dillingham Transit Building to be damaged by rail construction?
Image: Joana Gonzalez

On May 12, Time magazine identified “The 20 Best and Worst Cities for Public Transit.” Thanks to TheBus, Honolulu is No. 1 in the nation on the “best” list.

Mayor Jeremy Harris wanted to expand and enhance TheBus by adding Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). But Mayor Mufi Hannemann pushed BRT aside in favor of elevated heavy rail, notwithstanding his own experts’ conclusion that BRT would reduce future traffic congestion morethan, and at roughly one-fifth the cost of, rail. Currently, 6 percent of residents take the bus. According to the Environmental Impact Statement for the rail project, by the year 2030 the combined percentage that would commute by bus and/or train would be only 7.4 percent.

Now Mayor Peter Carlisle wants to set aside $244 million for rail that had previously been earmarked for new buses. He also has begun to reduce island-wide bus service, with further plans to eliminate express bus service along the rail route.

Bus commuters to downtown, UH-Manoa campus or Waikiki would instead take a bus to the nearest train station. Many would then have to transfer to another bus at the end of the rail line.

Thanks to zipper and high-occupancy lanes, express buses currently maintain an average speed well in excess of 30 miles per hour, and there is a seat for just about everyone. By contrast, the average speed by rail would never exceed 27 miles per hour, and most rush-hour commuters would have to stand the whole way. Today, if a person tries to board a bus without paying, or is disruptive, a trained driver knows what to do. Rail passengers would be on their own.

Rail construction would be a nightmare for commuters and taxpayers. It speaks volumes that the city has begun building the first two segments in vacant fields. As construction moves towards downtown, the challenges–land-acquisition, engineering, and snared traffic–will grow exponentially.

Consider what the corner of Bishop Street and Nimitz Highway would look like under construction. Vertical piles would be pounded to whatever depth is needed for adequate support, and diagonal supports inserted as needed, hopefully without damaging adjacent properties such as the historic Dillingham Transportation Building.

Other challenges: No one knows the exact locations of all the utility and pipe lines in older parts of the city where rail is planned. Nor is anyone certain of the legal and social implications of finding iwi kupuna in the lines’ direct path . Rail promoters talk vaguely about making adjustments to the route, as though a “zig-zag” alignment were an option.

Honolulu should have an affordable transit system that is fast, comfortable and safe. Rail fails on each of these counts. That’s why no other city of comparable size is even considering, much less building, such a system. But under Mayors Hannemann, Caldwell and Carlisle, the city did not seriously consider any of the innovative ways other cities are improving public transportation and reducing traffic congestion.

The local money that would be spent on rail–at least $5 billion, according to independent studies–would be better spent enhancing our best-in-the-nation bus system and upgrading the city’s crumbling infrastructure, particularly its sewers, water-supply system and roads. Virtually all of the jobs associated with these needs would go to local workers, whereas most of the jobs associated with rail would be off-island or imported. More importantly, these local jobs would be creating value for all the people of Oahu.

The authors are co-plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit seeking to stop the rail.