Rail Debate Lacks Leeward Voices

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - July 16, 2008
| Del.icio.us

The debate over Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s plan to build a $4-billion, 20-mile-long rail transit system from Kapolei to Ala Moana Center has gotten nasty - and more than a little confusing.

The mayor has taken out newspaper advertisements accusing his opponents of being financed by outside agitators, and of spreading lies and distortions that serve the interests of “ultra-conservative groups who support the automobile, bus, highway construction, urban sprawl development and petroleum industries.”

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, an opponent of a train, has accused the mayor of the “height of hypocrisy” in casting “aspersions on the reputations of opponents of the rail system. Whatever the conflicts of interests of rail opponents, they pale when compared to the inherent and financially juicy conflicts of the city’s rail consultants who are doing the rail project’s planning, design, alternative analysis and environmental impact statements.”

Gov. Linda Lingle has urged both sides to lower the debate’s noise level while indicating that she will sign a petition that would put the issue on the ballot in November. She accused Hannemann of “implying things that are simply not true. It is important to the public to be rational and calm and objective about it.”

And Panos Prevedouros, a University of Hawaii engineering professor and longtime critic of the city’s plans, has announced that he will run against Hannemann for mayor this fall because the “people really do need to have a choice and Oahu needs change.” The change he has in mind, of course, is toward anything but a transit system that utilizes rail and costs $4 billion.

So what’s to be made of all this? Unlike proponents and opponents of the system, I’m not sure.

As a resident of Leeward Oahu, I know that the traffic in my part of town seems to grow worse by the hour and lanes added in recent years haven’t made a lick of difference. My part of town has taken the brunt of housing development so that all the rest of the Island may breathe. But we have paid an enormous price in commuting time.

Second, I know that what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has called America’s “addiction” to foreign oil has to end. It has skewed our policies in both the Middle East and Latin America. That addiction has at least contributed to our launching a war in Iraq that is now in its sixth year and that has cost us sufficient treasure to build a rail transit system around Oahu dozens and dozens and dozens of times.

Third, I know that the rising cost of gasoline will drive us all to purchase much smaller cars - it’s happening already - and to use that costly train.

Fourth, call me stupid, as rail’s opponents claim the rail’s proponents have, but I don’t feel myself adequate to make complex technical and financial decisions about transit systems - and I don’t think that a ballot question is the place for the technologically challenged like myself to take a shot in dark and reject the choice of an overwhelming number of other cities across the country. By democratic election, we select people to do that work.

That said, I appreciate the concern expressed by the opponents of rail. It is going to cost a huge amount of money. Its construction will inconvenience us all for years to come. And, frankly, a slowing economy in Hawaii - precipitated by those same high gas prices - may in and of itself result in less traffic: fewer tourists on the road, fewer jobs, a population in decline - all of which would lead to a faster commute.

I sincerely don’t know. I would feel more comfortable, however, if the voices opposed to building rail came from my part of town. I remember one morning in 1978 riding to the Capitol from Pearl City with a Leeward legislator who would one day chair the Senate’s Transportation Committee.

Traffic crawled along the H-1 Freeway that morning, and that state senator said: “Look at this. If Governor Ariyoshi had to drive to work in this every day, he’d support mass transit.”

His name was Ben Cayetano, and he’s written that his investigation of mass transit resulted in his changing his mind about rail - that his research convinced him that it was unsuitable for Hawaii.

Perhaps it is. As I said, I don’t know. But Ben now lives in East Honolulu; the two councilmembers who’ve consistently opposed mass transit, Charles Djou and Barbara Marshall, live in East Honolulu and Kailua, respectively; longtime opponent Cliff Slater resides in town, as does Panos. And we all know where Lingle lives. I respect them all, but I sure wish just one of them lived in Kapolei or Ewa Beach or Waianae.

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