The Oʻahu Transportation Debate

I rarely go to public meetings these days, but I managed to make it to the discussion “What are your Ideas for Improving Oʻahu Transportation?” at R&D in Kakaʻako, sponsored by The Hawaiʻi Independent. The crowd was UH heavy, which by itself made it not representative of the general public. This non-representation, in my view, is one of the primary obstacles to constructive debate in Hawaiʻi and elsewhere. Mainly the debate takes place through elections, specifically the mayoral election, which Ikaika Hussey pointed out was “a proxy for the debate over  transportation on Oʻahu.”

I was in a group that focused on The Bus, and we happened to have a planning official from The Bus in the group. But he became a sort of lightning rod for those who were frustrated with its performance since the Harris administration. He ended up defending himself from those who decried the cuts to bus routes – the restoring of which Caldwell has said is one of his top priorities. But those “cuts,” it was explained, were merely the result of more realistic estimations of how long routes would take to complete. There were budget cuts at the State and City levels, as we all know (Lingle’s school furlough days being the most visible result), but somehow in the minds of critics The Bus was not to be affected.

My main critique was that the discussion centered on busses being too full and passing people by, when the real problem is not too many people on The Bus, but too few. Cayetano had the political muscle to resurrect mayor Harrisʻs unpopular idea of Bus Rapid Transit, but even at one-fifth the cost of rail, it remains outside of the average person’s frame of reference – it was described as a “political football.” And that was the main problem with Saturday’s discussion – like nearly every discussion today, people were not really able to see outside of their own frames of reference.

Another overlooked issue was the stigma attached to riding The Bus. It is seen as the transit option of the very young, the very old and the poor (and the first two are basically synonyms of the last). Anyone who can afford to avoid riding The Bus does so. This is one thing Harris didn’t seem to get – he didn’t ride The Bus. But besides rail, BRT is the only viable option for addressing our transit woes, if it’s paired with a PR campaign to attract mainstream riders. Some have argued for more lanes, but 25% of all land area with the average city is already taken up by roads – this drives up real estate prices and the cost of living. To argue that there should be more roads is like saying that the one million cars we have on this island is too few.

I brought up the discontinuity of bike lanes as an issue, but biking (in general, and specifically on the paths) is so unpopular that even my friends who are serious cyclists donʻt use the bike paths. They have kiawe trees growing on the side in Aiea/Pearl City which puncture tires, and homeless encampments in the trees. But the worst part is you can get to Middle Street just fine from as far as Waipahu, and then you canʻt get into town – the bike lane on Nimitz evaporates and the Bike route takes you onto perilous streets (traffic-wise) in Kalihi, which is also far out of the way. Further, once you get to work, there are no shower facilities at most work places. Those who bicycle do so at their own risk and are essentially marginalized by society because of how little thought and resources are put into their safety.

Much has been said about rail, but it seems that it is primarily a job-creation project and little thought has been put into how to get people out of their cars. According to Donovan Dela Cruz, 130,000 people will have to ride rail daily to make it cost-effective – one tenth of the total population of the state. This is unlikely since it only serves the Southwest side of Oʻahu. Procedural hurdles will also likely spring up due to Mufi Hanneman’s unprecedented decision to build from an empty field in Kapolei/Hoʻopili toward Honolulu. They’re apparently taking “rail based development” extremely seriously. The approval of Hoʻopili and Koa Ridge were probably forgone conclusions with the inertia of rail, while open space, which has no voice or interest group, will soon be non-existent on this island as a consequence. [My views on rail and other local issues can be seen in my article “The State of Hawaiʻi – Part 1“].

In breaking news (as I write) we hear that Federal funding has been approved for the rail project. Hawaiʻi News Now reports:

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) says it will sign a full funding grant agreement with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to provide $1,550,000,000 for the rail project.

By law, the FTA is required to notify Congress 30 days before it signs a full funding grant agreement.  Immediately after signing the agreement, the HART will receive $200 million in New Starts funding from FY2012.

photo courtesy of Hawaiʻi News Now

So rail seems to have survived the attacks of the Cayetano/Prevedouros camp and even Hawaiian burial activists. As Caldwell pointed out on election night, the obstacles left by the court are the minor ones only.

Because of our inability or refusal to think outside of our own realities, we are not taking alternatives to auto transportation seriously. The result is that most of us drive and just put up with the traffic that lowers our quality of life and that of the environment.

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