Mauka to Makai

Mauka to Makai
A water main breaks almost daily, wasting up to 200,000 gallons of our precious drinking water supply.
Image: The Nature Conservancy

The Big Fix: Water, Sewers, Roads

Can taxpayers afford to pay for Rail on top of all this? Do we want to?

Mauka to Makai / In 2009, at the time of the vote for Rail, did we have, other than the claims of the supporters and of those opposed, enough knowledge to make an informed decision? Recent newspaper articles and letters to the editor show the public having an imperfect understanding, not only about the Rail project, but about other projects equally large in scope and economic burden: repairing and upgrading our sewage collection, water distribution, and road systems.

The full cost of the 20-mile Honolulu Rail system is estimated to be $5.26 billion. But the dollar amount most frequently mentioned, of late, is the $1.55 billion federal portion dangled before us like a carrot, distracting our attention from the $3.7 billion portion that we, the public, will provide through the 0.5 percent surcharge to the excise tax. Will that be enough? In January, Mayor Carlisle and FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff met and discussed the possibility of needing to extend or increase that 0.5 percent tax hike, apparently deciding to wait.

Meanwhile, Porter & Associates, FTA’s consultant, reports that, with Rail, transit costs will rise to 19 percent of city tax revenues, necessitating spending cuts for other operations.

We have been told that building the Rail system will take nine years. Not much has been said about the fact that it will be built over a totally decrepit infrastructure. Mayor Carlisle assures us that no money is being taken from infrastructure repair projects to pay for Rail. Does he mention the magnitude of the work, or where that money is coming from?

In 2006, the bursting of a 42-inch diameter sewage force main line pumped 50 million gallons of raw sewage into the Ala Wai Canal. That failure, along with numerous previous infractions, resulted in a lawsuit filed by the EPA, joined by the Department of Justice and several local environmental organizations. After several years of wrangling between the parties a binding consent decree was reached in August of 2010 requiring mandatory corrective measures to our sewage system, the cost of which is estimated at $5.4 billion. That cost is on top of our $3.7 billion portion of the Rail cost.

The consent decree requires the inspection repair and upgrading of 640 miles of sewer lines, including the possibility of totally replacing 150 miles of gravity sewers. It also requires the upgrade of the Honouliuli and Sand Island sewage treatment plants so that their discharge meets the standards of the Clean Water Act.

Federal funds are not to be expected for this work; the entire $5.4 billion will come from the sewer charge portion of the Board of Water Supply billing (soon to be monthly), for which six rate hikes have already taken effect. It has been reported that another six years of increases will come, starting in 2012. Indeed, more increases could come in subsequent years since the consent decree requires rates be raised as often as needed to meet the cost of the mandated corrective measures. It is estimated that 78 percent of that cost will be borne by residential customers, versus 22 percent by commercial, industrial and institutional customers.

Our water distribution system is also aging and neglected. There are 2,000 miles of water distribution piping throughout Oahu, major portions of which are 40-100 years old. A water main breaks almost daily. We lose enormous quantities of our precious water supply from those breaks. Depending upon the pipe’s size and pressure, and the time it takes to shut off the flow, a break could easily dump as much as 200,000 gallons of water, to which must be added the cost of repair, traffic diversion, lost time and property damage.

We also have an aging road system, pockmarked by thousands of potholes and cracks, old and new. Oahu has approximately 53 miles of freeway, plus 1,400 miles of streets and highways. Our road system is among the worst in the 50 states, repeatedly, in recent years, ranked third from the bottom. Older roads, including the first mile of the Lunalilo Freeway, were built to accommodate traffic at a time when there were fewer than 400,000 registered vehicles on the roads, driving at 45mph max. Now there are 2.2 million registered vehicles in the State, with heavier wheel loads, driving at higher speeds. In 2007, there were 80,000 potholes; current reports say that we average 6,000 potholes per month. The Road Maintenance Division has increased its efforts in filling potholes, to wit: A dump truck loaded with hot asphalt, and a team of workers with shovels, brooms and picks, fill a 3/4- to 1-inch thick layer of asphalt into the hole, to be compacted by a roller vehicle. Fast-forward a year, and it will reappear like acne. Our road problems persist because repair costs exceed current maintenance disbursements.

When the Rail system was voted on, was all of this information available or made readily available to the public so that the voters in their evaluation might have considered or weighed priorities? Should we be thinking now about priorities?

Of the costs listed here, only the burden of Rail is not mandated. Rail could be dropped, and we would still have a substantial economic burden with residential sewage charges reaching perhaps $200 per month, plus the other costs of maintaining our water distribution and road systems. With the complexity of all of these conditions and the size of the economic burdens that exist even without the Rail, is the haste to build the Rail in these circumstances warranted? If all this were more clearly understood, we might have voted differently.

Norman MacRitchie is a mechanical engineer with 40 years experience in private practice.