A Flexible Light Rail Alternative

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - May 24, 2006
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I am reminded daily of our traffic woes whether I’m driving or not. I have only to look from my lanai in Aiea Heights straight down the stretch of H-1 that runs mauka from the airport then turns ewa again at Aloha Stadium where it painfully merges with ewa traffic off Moanalua Freeway. In the evening, it is a solid river of headlights.

Yes, there are traffic problems in several parts of Oahu, but the real disaster clearly is the Ewa Corridor. The “Second City” concept at Kapolei, which was supposed to reduce traffic, hasn’t kept up with the rapid and ongoing housing development there, which has increased traffic.

As we consider solutions to our traffic nightmare, our city officials tend to extol the virtues of light rail as if it were the foregone panacea. The only problem is - which they try to keep under the radar - light rail won’t reduce traffic!

Light rail for the city of Honolulu might be a nice symbol of “progress and sophistication,” but it won’t reduce traffic! Light rail may provide construction jobs for several years, but it won’t reduce traffic. Light rail may be a nice “feel-good” project for our city officials, but it won’t reduce traffic. We can condemn acres and acres of private land for rail right of way and station complexes, but it won’t reduce traffic.

We can tax ourselves an extra 12.5 percent GET and spend more than $4 billion (not counting cost overruns) and years of construction disruption, and then extend the GET increase forever for debt service, maintenance and operations, but it won’t reduce traffic. Every long-term study of major cities with light rail indicates it won’t reduce traffic, and in some cases it increased traffic congestion. Got it?

Light rail won’t reduce traffic! So what will reduce traffic? Well, there are many short-term fixes, from better synchronized traffic lights to more one-way streets in the pattern of King and Beretania, or Pensacola and Piikoi. Kamehameha Highway and Moanalua Road through Aiea and Pearl City come to mind. Or perhaps contraflowing the entire H-1 freeway between the stadium and H-2 exit with Kamehameha Highway and Moanalua for contraflow routes.

We need creativity!

The most obvious long-term alternative to light rail which will reduce traffic is elevated, contraflow, high-occupancy toll lanes (HOT lanes). Such an elevated two- or three-lane highway would carry buses and vans, and autos with three persons toll-free. Autos with two or one person would be charged a commensurate toll. Tolls would be recorded automatically, electronically; no stopping. Just pay your toll bill at the end of the month. An elevated contraflow highway could use much of the same roadway as H-1, thus eliminating the need for expensive and litigious condemnations for right of way and stations, and reducing construction costs in many other ways.

And speaking of costs, generous estimates for an elevated contraflow come in at a mere $900 million, less than one-fourth the projected cost of $4.1 billion for light rail. And instead of harnessing our kids with debt in perpetuity, the city could raise bonds for the $900 million and pay them off in 25 years.

But perhaps the most significant advantage of the elevated roadway is operational and utilization flexibility. For example, express buses could be designated for specific destinations: Kapolei to UH-Manoa, nonstop. Buses could be taken in and out of service depending on the load. As technology evolves, equipment could be easily upgraded. Buses and autos powered by natural gas or hybrid engines are on the horizon. Electronic guide strips in the center of lanes and automatic acceleration and braking could make for “hands off” commuting in autos.

But flexibility for you and me - the users - is the real boon.

Transportation needs vary immensely from person to person on Oahu, but most of us need to drive several times a week, dropping off kids at school, shopping and appointments during the day or after work, or getting to work places not serviced by TheBus. Many people will use express buses, but sometimes personal needs will make it worthwhile to pay a higher toll to drive. But if we choose not to pay the toll, there will be less traffic on the regular roadway. It will give us many more choices that light rail simply can’t.

Write or call Mayor Hannemann, your City Council representative and your state representative. All the supposed virtues of light rail are shibai. We must demand a system that will reduce traffic.

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