A civil debate about Honolulu Rail

For the most part, I have stayed away from the debate about Honolulu Rail. I have a strong opinion about it, of course, but I don’t have any real solutions. Nothing will satisfy both pro-rail and anti-rail supporters.

But along with heated arguments about federal funding, changing rail routes, fluctuating costs, contract awards, and budget oversight controversies, legal action is being taken and threatened. These lawsuits rely on Hawaii taxpayers on both sides of the argument.

There is no compromise. Honolulu Rail will be built or not, and probably half of the public will be unhappy, no matter the outcome. So I wanted to take a moment to highlight four points that I think we can all agree upon.

#1 There is a lot of traffic on Oahu. But West Oahu especially needs traffic solutions today. We’ve tried staggered work/school hours, improved on-ramps/off-ramps, improved bus service, a second city with its own university, contra-flows, and zipper lanes. The only thing we haven’t tried is limiting the number of cars on the road – but we’re getting there with big increases in vehicle registration fees.

#2 A majority of Honolulu voters approved rail. People may complain about the wording of the bill (sometimes lawyers need English professors), but everyone knows what was being voted on. In the end, it’s not whether you’re pro-rail – it’s whether you will ride it. Which leads to my next point…

#3 It will cost more than we expect. True, the rail budget includes a contingency “cushion” that seems adequate, but every transportation public works project has gone over-budget. H-3 was budgeted at $250 million and ended up costing $1.3 billion (approximately $80 million per mile). The facts are: rail construction has not begun; materials and probably a lot of specialized labor will come from outside of Hawaii; we don’t know and can’t know whether ‘iwi (Hawaiian remains) will be found; there are current legal challenges; and we don’t know how much federal funding the project will receive.

#4 Rail will change Honolulu. It will affect our skyline, which is relatively low outside of downtown Honolulu and Waikiki. It will shift residential communities into urban clusters around rail stations (transit-oriented development), creating pedestrian neighborhoods and reducing the need for cars within the community. It will impact any homes or offices at train level, in terms of noise, privacy, view, pedestrian traffic, and available street parking. It will require higher taxes to maintain (the 0.5% surcharge is set to expire in 2022). Are these changes that you are comfortable with?

If we can agree on these points, can we have a civil debate about Honolulu Rail? Where do we go from here? What new information or compromises could change your mind about rail?

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