Should the whole of the island look this way?
Image: Mike Hichney

The big issue is urban sprawl

In the past few weeks, the Sierra Club’s rail position has gained incredible, and somewhat perplexing, attention from both the media and advocates on both sides of the rail issue.

So what is the Club’s position? Who are we endorsing? The Sierra Club, and its members and supporters, have consistently advocated for smart growth on Oahu. We are one of the interveners in the battle to stop the development project called Ho`opili, which would gobble up some of the best remaining farmland on the Ewa plain.

And yet the Sierra Club does not oppose all development. A “no growth” position is not realistic. We cannot build fences around the state and legally stop people from moving here. We cannot stop people from having children and we want them to be able to live here. We have one of the highest homelessness problems in the country. We have to be realistic about having enough homes for the future.

But we are firmly committed to a future where development is concentrated in the urban core, and we mass transit as a critical component of that. As a state, we should be promoting modern, livable, walkable cities. Portland did this in the 1970s, when it built a mass transit system in conjunction with a strict, regulated urban growth boundary that encouraged infill and limited outward expansion beyond the city’s borders.

But the current leading mayoral candidates don’t seem to hold this view. Cayetano deserves much praise for his willingness to step out and oppose the Ho`opili and Koa Ridge development projects. He understands the short-term gain from building more sprawling suburbs is not worth the long-term impacts on Honolulu’s traffic problems and food security. He’s committed to investing in our city’s infrastructure

And yet we’re troubled by the lack of detail in his mass transit alternative. To truly work, BRT would require dedicated lanes and dozens of buses running for every train equivalent. This would likely mean a double-decker highway to Kapolei. TWe’re not aware of any major city with Honolulu’s level of traffic congestion that has successfully relied on a BRT system.

Both Caldwell and Carlisle deserve praise for supporting mass transit and advocating for livable, walkable communities. But neither candidate, to our knowledge, has publicly committed to realistic steps that would keep the country, country. These candidates can and should commit to concentrating all major new housing projects in the existing urban core. Places like Moiliili and Kalihi are prime for revitalization. Let’s see bike lanes, mass transit, outdoor restaurants, and affordable housing. Let’s see a public statement supporting this type of growth, while opposing more suburban sprawl at Laie, Koa Ridge, and Ho`opili.

For the time being, the Sierra Club is not endorsing a Honolulu mayoral candidate. Instead, we will push for a more sensible dialogue and try to cool some of the heated rhetoric. We’ll push the candidates to commit to keeping the country, country. And we’re willing to work with everyone to make this vision a reality.

–Rick Barboza is Vice-Chair of the Sierra Club, Hawaii Chapter; Anthony Aalto is Chair of the Sierra Club, Oahu Group.