Off the track alternatives for Honolulu rail

Rail Transit Alternatives

In the State of the City Address on March 2, 2015, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell advanced three options for the future of rail transit on Oahu. “We have three choices, in my mind. The first choice is to extend the excise tax for some number of years,” Mayor Caldwell stated. The second choice is raising real property taxes. “The third choice, the one I just don’t want to accept, but it is an alternative. Stop. Don’t build any more. Tear down what you build.”

Whether you support rail transit or not, I think we can agree on one thing: there are more than just two choices for rail – building it or tearing it down. By highlighting only these extreme options, we are limiting our choices about transportation and community. I think we have more choices.

For example, we could stop rail transit and use the 0.5% rail surcharge until it expires in 2022 to build something different.

* Build an elevated toll highway. Commuters could buy a monthly pass to drive on the highway, paid for at toll booths or through an electronic pass tied to their license plate number. We could build intermittent shoulder lanes for drivers to pull-over if they have car trouble.

* Build an elevated bicycle lane or pedestrian walkway. We could install railings and overhead lights for pedestrian safety. There could be comfort stations with restrooms (or portable toilets) and drinking fountains at some of the pillars. The elevated walkway could also be used for 5k or 10k runs and night runs (it would be cooler and runners could wear fluorescent colors) – a scenic route that wouldn’t cause traffic disruptions.

* Build a monorail or PeopleMover. I’m impressed with Pearlridge Center’s monorail and Disneyland’s PeopleMover (now closed) – they are (or were) quiet, comfortable, and on-time. For its distance, the Pearlridge monorail is not inexpensive – currently it’s $1 for a one-way ride, but children under 8 are free – unless you compare it to an arcade game or a carnival ride.

We could also re-purpose the existing support columns in new ways, from the ordinary to the fantastic. And the columns don’t need to have just one purpose; we could group columns in different series.

* Create art towers. We could invite artists from around Hawaii, or around the world, to submit art ideas for the columns. We could invite schoolchildren from the community to design and paint murals on the lower half of the columns. We could even create niches in the columns, add plexiglass covers, and display sculptures and other artwork. Each art tower could be surrounded by a small landscaped area.

* Grow vertical gardens. We could grow plants that have climbing vines along the columns, or insert planters up the walls of the columns to add more greenery to the urban highway. There could be rain catchments on the tops of the columns.

* Construct in-between spaces. We could use the space between the columns in many different ways (whatever space is not needed for traffic flow) – to construct storage rentals, use as parking stalls, grow community gardens, or even build affordable housing units with container-style floorplans.

* Build a “Hawaii Skyline” ride. We could partner with a business to create an “urban lift” that takes riders on a trip across Hawaii’s ’Ewa Plain and Pearl Harbor. The trip could include historical narration and music.

* Build climbing towers. We could use the columns as rock-climbing walls, with different difficulty levels; rappelling walls, where people could learn how to ascend or descend steep inclines; or even free-climbing walls, with safety lines attached at the top of the column.

* Create an urban zip line. We could partner with a nonprofit or business to create a series of zip lines along the rail route, geared toward urban thrill-seekers.

Honolulu’s rail transit choices are not merely between raising taxes or tearing things down. What would you do with a brand-new elevated guideway and over 100 concrete support columns?

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