A Predictable Resistance To Rail

Larry Price
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Wednesday - May 25, 2005
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We are at a familiar time in Oahu’s history.

Our governmental leaders are asking the public to accept a new concept on transportation. The word is Oahu will slide into the Pacific Ocean if something is not done to relieve the traffic congestion in the very new future.

The proposed solution is a rail system. It would not be unique to Oahu; rather it would be like another system that is already in use in some other city. If the city being copied had a successful rail system with a similar population, that would be wonderful. Alas, it doesn’t work for us. We are unique, different, a city with no dense corridors and a public that doesn’t even cherish its award-winning transit system — it wins awards, but can’t break even.

Other proposed public projects have suffered the same indignation: the H-1, H-2 and H-3. You can add the Wilson Tunnel and Waimanalo Landfill. They have all faced a frustrated public that almost always seems to be cynical about large public projects. The resistance is, more often than not, stiff.

If something is built and it doesn’t meet public expectations, then it is neglected, maintenance funds are withheld and eventually the project falls in disrepair and must be torn down because it becomes an unattractive hazard. The Waikiki Natatorium is a classic example.

It has happened so often on Oahu, the resistance is predictable. The steps have been repeated so often they should be well-etched in every government leader’s mind: First, the new idea is treated as pure nonsense and not worth considering. Second, there comes a time when a multitude of contradictory objections are raised, such as it’s too elaborate, or the same old suggestion using new terminology: It is just simply wrong for Hawaii.

Finally the project is built in spite of the objections — the structure is constructed and does what it was supposed to, like Aloha Stadium or the Convention Center. A point is reached when everyone starts to claim to have always agreed with the concept. This usually marks the last step before acceptance by the general public.

This conditioned reflex to change is expensive, but maybe a blessing because every situation must be determined at a given time. If the time is not right, the public will not accept the project. It is possible that we are ready for a rail transit system, but a transit system is not ready for Hawaii.

Experts on transit say the island of Oahu cannot sustain a fixed rail system and it is not economically feasible. Other experts say a rail system is perfect for transporting the public from the Leeward Coast to the University of Hawaii-Manoa. The experts are contradicting each other. Whom is the public to believe? It probably doesn’t matter what they say, because everyone who drives during the rush hour traffic can’t stand the bumper-to-bumper driving to and from work. Anything would be better than what we have now, even if the price is staggering. The government leaders have to do something, even if it’s wrong.

What we should have learned by now is that this is how great public work projects in Hawaii happen. We should not be surprised.

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