Controversy Over Oahu’s Rail Project Continues

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BY EDDIE KIM – One of the most contentious issues among Oahu residents is the city’s plan to construct a 20-mile, elevated steel on steel rail project from Kapolei to Honolulu.

In an attempt to address growing doubt about the project spurred in part by a recent lawsuit filed by several prominent Hawaii residents, Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle released the results of a city-commissioned poll that showed that a majority of Oahu residents still supported the city’s $5.3 billion dollar rail transit project.  The poll, which cost taxpayers $24,000, came nearly three years after Oahu residents narrowly voted to support the project in the 2008 election.


Carlisle insisted that the results of the poll – which showed unanimous majority support within the island’s nine council districts – justified the state’s plans to move forward with the rail project.

“In terms of widespread support, what I think the most significant chart to look at is the one of with the council districts – it’s clear,” said Carlisle.  “Plus, this was voted on.  And now, this [poll] basically supports what the vote said.  There’s a bunch of people who have said that things have changed and it’s not true.”

The poll was taken over an 11-day period, from May 9 to May 20, and was administered by QMark Research, a local organization with expertise in marketing, group focus studies and polls.  Carlisle adamantly made clear that this particular poll was “superior” to various others, most notably those administered with online votes.

“If the authority’s going to engage the public, it shouldn’t be from a perspective of something that’s been suggested that isn’t accurate,” Carlisle stated. “A lot of the things that we get from these unscientific polls have nothing to do with the way polling should work.”

Councilman Breene Harimoto, who also serves as the City Council Transportation and Transit Planning Committee Chairman, joined the mayor in his press conference. “I think it [the poll] validates the Council’s strong support.  A lot of us were getting concerned about the increasingly loud anti-rail voices, and I think this validates that people are still supporting us,” Harimoto said.  “I personally support the project. Do I have concerns?  Of course.  If you ask me, ‘Do I like everything that’s happening?’  No.  But that’s the dialogue, the advocating we have for those who have concerns.”

When asked for his personal reasons for supporting the project, including examination of studies or other forms of research, Harimoto clarified that he “wasn’t an expert” – even as the head of the City Council’s Transportation and Transit Planning Committee.

“No.  No, I do not have any…studies or anything but, really, what I always promote is that rail is not only a means to transport people from point A to point B.  It’s really a vision of the future,” he said.

“This gives us an opportunity to re-invent Honolulu, and I think that’s what I always promote.  It’s the opportunities for transit oriented development, to re-invigorate underutilized areas or aging areas, re-invent them into modern communities…to me, the vision of the future is about how we’re going to get there, and I think rail plays a large part of that.”

When challenged on the cost and results of the poll, Carlisle flashed a tight smile.  “It’s democracy,” he said.  “You leave things to the ‘experts’, then you don’t live in a democracy.”


Examining The Poll


The poll, which involved 902 people, around 100 from each council district, was conducted via telephone interviews.

The poll addressed respondents with the following statement:

“The City and County of Honolulu is moving forward with the development of a 20-mile, elevated rail transit line that will connect West Oahu with Honolulu International Airport, downtown Honolulu and Ala Moana Center.”

They were then asked if they “strongly support”, “somewhat support”, “somewhat oppose” or “strongly oppose” the information given in the statement.  The first part of the poll indicated that 57 percent of those surveyed showed general support (a combined percentage of those who strongly and somewhat support the statement).

Interestingly, some themes were discovered in the polling process.  According to the poll, support for rail transit on Oahu is significantly higher among younger residents, with 70 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 34 supporting the project versus only 48 percent with those 65 or older.

In addition, the study showed that support for the project is higher in more affluent sections of the community, with 47 percent of those representing households earning $100,000 or more indicating that rail is “badly needed and long overdue”, as contrasted with only 30 percent of those from households earning $50,000 or less feeling the same way.  This is contrary to the prevailing trend of lower-income individuals using mass transit much more than those with higher incomes.

More predictably, 70 percent of all supporters stated that their primarily justification is that something needs to be done to address the traffic problem on Oahu.  This reason has been one of the city’s strongest emphasized points in their campaigns to garner support for the project, and the poll showed that many residents believe that rail will, in fact, improve traffic congestion.

Speaking to experts independent of the government, however, paints a different picture.


Will Rail Help Traffic?


“The facts are that it won’t help in the way people imagine,” says Cliff Slater, a national transportation expert and prominent local opponent of rail.  “There’s a letter to me from [the City of Honolulu’s Transportation Services Director] Wayne Yoshioka  that says that ‘Yes, you’re right, traffic in the future, with rail, will be worse than it is today, but less than it would be without rail.’  Nevertheless, the basic issue is that in the future, with rail in place, traffic will be worse than it is today.

“They’re saying that with $5 billion spent, we won’t have a real improvement in traffic congestion,” stated Slater.

Panos Prevedouros, a professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, subcommittee chair of the Transportation Research Board and former two-time mayoral candidate, offered some details into the city’s claims.

“Let’s take the optimistic growth scenario that the city is painting and look at the current commute of about 60 minutes that would be affected by rail, from Kapolei to Downtown.  What the city has claimed is that in the future, this commute will become about 80 minutes without rail, and 75 minutes with rail,” Prevedouros said.

“On average, what the city’s stats have said is that Oahu-wide traffic will improve by one percent [with rail].  However, dealing with the numbers in the just rail corridor (the route of traffic alongside the rail’s path), it is possible that with the expected usage of rail, the traffic improvements in the “corridor” could be around 5 to 10 percent off of that 80 minutes,” he continued.  “Still, that’s not exactly what people are expecting when the city says that rail will fix traffic congestion problems.”

Prevedouros says that there is nothing particularly negative about rail projects in general that he opposes.  He argues, though, that there are better options when it comes to the city’s desire to fix traffic congestion from the west side of the island.

Both he and Slater maintain that High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes would be the best alternative.  This solution would involve building elevated roadways that would divert traffic and charge a fee for access or require a certain number of passengers.  Slater states that it could “cost less than a billion dollars, probably” while Prevedouros says it would bring a “huge improvement” to congestion.

HOT Lane
Courtesy of Urban Review

“We have a numerical analysis that shows that rail will improve traffic travel times by close to 5 percent, while High Occupancy Toll Lanes will do about 33 percent.  So that would be a significantly better travel time than it is today,” Prevedouros said.  “For accuracy, we used the exact numbers from the Draft Environment Impact Statement – in other words, we replicated the city’s own traffic and growth scenarios and didn’t bring in our own assumptions.”

Councilman Harimoto, however, contends that these figures still may not be a realistic picture of the future with rail.

“I have a hard time believing that rail will only make a 5 or 10 percent difference [in traffic].  As far as the alternatives [like High Occupancy Toll lanes] – again, I’m no expert – but I have a hard time seeing 40, 50 years from now, all these cars driving into downtown,” Harimoto said.  “To me, you don’t need to be a scientist or an engineer to understand that.  It would cause gridlock in downtown.   Yeah, you might be able to move the car faster into town, but once you got there, it would be gridlock!”

Proponents of HOT lanes, though, say that the lanes could efficiently incorporate rapid transit in the form of buses, and that the money for the rail project could be used to streamline existing transit systems and develop more infrastructure without investing “all-in” on a singular project.

Today, the relevance of arguing for alternatives to rail is undoubtedly frustrating.  The government’s dedication to rail has all but eliminated such discussion – or at least discussion that might make a change.  Both Prevedouros and Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi say that it feels as if ostensibly worthy alternatives were never fully part of the transit-development process.

“I mean, it feels like somebody kept wanting rail,” Kobayashi said.  “There are alternatives.  It’s this technology I’m opposed to.  Why are we bringing rail to our island when there are things like large, high-speed buses where you don’t need track?  Okay, I’m in favor of developing infrastructure, and all the stations and all that, but why rail?”

The question of “why rail?” has apparently been one without a clear answer, with quagmires of back and forth debate having occurred endlessly, everywhere – throughout the 2008 Mayoral election season (in fact, it seemed to be the only relevant issue in that timeframe), on the streets, on Internet forums.

The economics of it all only make the question even harder to answer.


Is Rail Good Economics?


The cost of the rail project has risen consistently since the project’s inception.  A little over three years ago, the cost was projected at $3.7 billion.  Today?  It stands at a staggering $5.3 billion, with an additional $1.7 billion in cost overruns that a state-commissioned study found to be a likely possibility last year.

The city has always argued for the benefits of implementing this project in spite of the cost, including potential for development, added jobs (a claimed 17,000) and economic stimulus.  And Oahu residents seem to agree, with the poll indicating that 58 percent believe rail is “a good investment” for Honolulu, and that 70 percent agree that rail will have a “positive impact on jobs and the economy”.

The University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization (UHERO) released a report in February of this year, which concluded that rail development would help spur a pick-up in industry, most notably in construction.  According to the report, around 5,000 to 5,500 construction jobs would be created at the peak of 2013-14 time frame.

The report also noted that “not all of the estimated construction expenditures will result in increased economic activity and jobs in Hawaii” due to the necessity of importing building materials and workforces.

But as with everything else on this topic, nothing is as clear as it seems.  James Roumasset, a professor of Economics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, says that the city has failed to show the full economic scenario to residents.

“Rail will create some jobs and crowd out others, through the implied tax burden on some and increased market congestion during construction,” Roumasset wrote in an email.

“The real question is whether rail will grow or shrink the economy.  A reliable indicator of whether a project will grow or shrink an economy is whether it can pass a benefit-cost test,” he said.

Roumasset conducted a prima facie study that found that even with optimistic assumptions, the likelihood of benefits outweighing costs with the rail is highly uncertain.

“Once you add in more realistic assumptions – that the project faces major delays, that rail will still be associated with a worsening of traffic congestion even after completion, that cheaper and more effective congestion-reduction measures are available, and that the federal government is likely to supply less than half of the expected funds, the present value of benefits appear to be well less than the costs,” he stated.

Supporters of rail claim that it’s not so easy to decry the economics of rail in such a simple way, however.

“How much “benefit” is provided by parks, libraries, public schools, police and fire protection services, street repair and other public services that form the fabric of a community?” writes Michael Schneider of InfraConsult, the city’s consultation service for the rail project.  “To think of public transport as a capital investment seeking a financial return may again be an interesting academic exercise, but the actual, long-term community benefits of governmental investment in public works are measured in a variety of ways in addition to simply financial return on invested capital.”

Budget problems have been and still are problems for Hawaii, calling into question any significant economic decision made.  Even Karl Kim, a professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, has criticized the project – surprising, considering he was long considered by many as staunchly pro-rail.

“How is it,” Kim wrote in September 2010, “that we can be furloughing teachers, cutting welfare benefits, and downsizing vital community programs while still spending billions on fixed rail transit, financed largely by a regressive excise tax?”


Much Ado About TODs


TOD: Transit Oriented Development.

The term is one that has been tossed around with relative ease, with various city officials including councilmembers and the governor advocating the importance of TODs to the future of Oahu.

Transit Oriented Development refers to a mixed-use, residential/commercial area that is designed to maximize access to and encourage use of public transport.  According to Councilman Harimoto, the city has ambitions of creating TODs as a vision of the future – and more than anything else, rail will allow them to follow through on these ambitions.

Pearl District TOD, Portland - Courtesy of LA Streets

“It’s only a conceptual plan at this point…it’s something that the city is definitely committed to, as far as I know, and it’s something I’m very excited about,” Harimoto said.

“The idea of TOD is not that the city is going to redevelop these areas – that’s by far a misconception,” he continued.  “My vision is that the city would put together the policies and let private developers over time do the developments.  Part of the TOD policies of the city should be to guide the developers and to perhaps provide incentives for the developments to occur over time, perhaps in the form of tax incentives or credits.”

It’s clear why TODs have appeal to officials, as the theory channels forward-thinking urban planning concepts and progressive transportation ideas, in hopes of mitigating environmental impact and promoting green living.

Certain TODs have enjoyed great success, such as the various metro districts of urban Arlington, VA and in communities like Fruitvale in Oakland.  Federal government agencies, such as the EPA, have encouraged TOD as well, handing out awards for “smart growth”.

However, critics of Honolulu’s rail plans, such as Panos Prevedouros, claim that the city’s ambitions are rooted more in concept than in practical possibility.

“It is, in fact, extremely wasteful to create suburbs and create urban sprawl.  ‘Smart growth’ – which involves TODs – really just means denser cities that are more mindful of our environment.  This is all good in theory,” says Prevedouros.  “But in Honolulu, they’ve totally screwed it up already.  The city’s predecessors are the ones who created ‘the Second City’ in West Oahu by transforming agricultural land into quarter-acre lots.  They are the ones who created sprawling suburbia around the island.  You can’t take this and add an elevated rail system and pretend that solves the problems.”

“It’s too late, and they’re using the argument of TODs to simply support rail.  All you need to do is look on Google Earth at what they’ve done in creating Ewa Beach, Kapolei, Mililani…it’s just huge, sprawling suburbia.  And now they’re coming back and talking about high-density apartments and TODs?  It’s totally disingenuous.  In fact, they’re liars.  They use that green, smart-growth argument and then turn around and copy-paste the same mistakes that have been made in the last thirty years.”

“Well, you can twist anything any way you want to…” responded Harimoto, when told what Prevedouros said.  “…But I do think Mr. Prevedouros is partially correct – there are some areas that are not appropriate or substantial enough for TOD – but by and large, I think that there are plenty of areas here that are ripe for TOD.”

“I think there are several, such as the stop in Aiea, by Pearlridge Shopping Center.  That’s an area that’s ripe for TOD because it’s an urban area, but it’s still very underdeveloped.  The mauka side has lots of old, two- and three-story apartment buildings that could use redevelopment, and on the makai side that’s severely underutilized.”

Many opponents and supporters of rail and TOD seem to agree that Oahu has had made mistakes in development, creating spread-out neighborhoods that require long commutes to a single hub on the island.

What they disagree on, however, is whether anything can be done – and should be done – about it now.


The Issue of Transparency


“It’s no secret that I have concerns about rail.  I’m a huge supporter, and I believe in the concept and its benefits, but it’s no secret that I have concerns about some of the decisions that were made and how they were made, the lack of public engagement – that’s a fact,” says Councilman Harimoto.

One of the greatest criticisms of the rail project has been about the city’s transparency.

“The city has spent millions – $5 million just lobbying for people to vote ‘Yes’ and I’ve always said that the city shouldn’t use money to lobby, they should use it to educate!” said Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, her voice rising with a subtle edge. “Why did they just give the positives of having rail?  They never gave the other side of the story, like how much it would cost – and in fact, they gave the wrong figure of the cost in the past.  And they use city money for this.”

Kobayashi said that the adamant attitude of the city in moving forward was not limited to campaigning.  She discussed a meeting where someone had “brought up an alternative to rail”.

“The mayor told them if ‘If you’re going to say that, have your own meeting’,” she said.  “They didn’t want any alternatives being discussed at this city meeting.  You know, I just don’t understand whythere’s so much money involved.”

In addition, in 2008 the city received criticism for releasing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement – a study that examined possible environmental and societal effects of the rail project – only two days before the general election, in which a city charter amendment on rail was to be voted on.  Kobayashi suggested then that it had been done to withhold information from early voters.

It isn’t just opponents of rail that have used sharp, often controversial rhetoric.  The government has also challenged opponents’ integrity and factual accuracy, with Transportation Director Wayne Yoshioka accusing Cliff Slater of lying and a recent YouTube video posted by implicating Slater and Prevedouros of being involved with local taxi, limo and highway lobbyists.

The heated exchanges don’t seem to have tamed as of yet.

“There’s no way to talk with anyone sensibly,” Prevedouros says.


The Dilemma


“Rail transit, unfortunately, is headed down the same track as H-3 and the Superferry,” Karl Kim wrote back in September. “We can expect lawsuits, challenges, delays and wasted time and energy because not enough attention was paid to the assessment and disclosure of significant impacts.”

Kim’s premonition has come true, of course.  Cliff Slater and the supporters of have filed a lawsuit against the Federal Government and City officials, backed by the talented environmental lawyer Nicholas Yost, based out of San Francisco.  Because of the lawsuit, it is unknown when the project will fully begin construction.

“I tell people that it’s like I’ve walked into the middle of a movie.  I can’t rewind the movie and make changes, you know?  While I have large concerns, people need to understand that there are large consequences of turning back the clock on this, trying to revisit these issues over and over again,” says Harimoto, quietly.  “The way I look at it, my council’s tough decision is do we move ahead with what we have?  Or do we do nothing?”

“If we’re going to revisit some of these already-made decisions, the risk, to me, is very clear: we would need to start from square one again, with another Environmental Impact Statement; we lose our place in line for the federal funding; [the federal government] will never ever believe us again, because this will be our third failed attempt.  Is that a risk we’re willing to take to forgo the transportation needs of the west side?  My answer is no.  So it’s not an easy decision.  Yeah, we’re not comfortable with the cost, and we’re not comfortable with heavy rail, we’re not comfortable with the elevated system, we’re not comfortable with this…but are we willing to do nothing?”

Is that really a justification for going through with it, though, to say “It’s already started, can’t stop now”?

“Yeah, I think – it’s a dilemma that I think…” Harimoto exhales a gentle scoff. “I don’t know what the answer is, to be honest.”





  1. Rail…are you serious, this Island is to small to support a monster like steel on steel elevated rail! Anyone who cares or understands that the rail will not affect traffic, because of rail stops will be out of the way locations that will help no one.
    Why would I drive or catch some kind of transportation to the train station, just think If I have to do that I might as well drive to my destination. City and County does not care where the money will come from, but I can tell you this…you and I will be paying for it in a big way. You'd better make plans to move to Vegas, because you will not be able to afford your house and property! Enough said…go figure!

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