Honolulu, the "sheltered bay" or "place of shelter" in Hawaiian, is home to an estimated 550,000 people in the Hawaiian capital city area located along the southeast coast of the island of Oahu and more than 900,000 people in the municipality that encompasses all of the island.
From this large concentration of people have come traffic problems that are exacerbated by Honolulu’s limited amount of space.
"Honolulu is a linear city, one side is mountains, the other, ocean," explains Toru Hamayasu, project manager for Honolulu Transit. "The corridor is not even two miles wide in some places and roughly 20-plus miles long, but about 70% of travel that occurs on the island is in this corridor."
On top of the heavy travel along the corridor, the city of Honolulu has as many registered vehicles as it does people, according to Mayor Mufi Hannemann. All of these factors, combined with a host of past failures to create a better mass transit system over the last 40 years and an expected population growth of 30% by 2030, has forced Honolulu to make improving public transit a top priority.
"I heard our governor give her State of the State address and she was saying that she was looking forward to working with the new mayor of Honolulu on a mass transit solution for Oahu," explains Hannemann. "That’s what started this whole thing. We just kept pushing on and every step along the way found support and people that were willing to try it again."
Hannemann is referring to Honolulu’s latest attempt to solve traffic conditions that have gotten increasingly worse.
"It used to be that if you lived on the west side of Oahu, which is west of the airport, that you had traffic gridlock only during rush hour times five days a week. That was probably 15 years ago," explains Hannemann. "Today you have traffic gridlock seven days a week at all times of the day, and when traffic breaks down going to the west side of Oahu it affects every part of the island."
To address these problems, Honolulu officials, with the help of Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB), performed an alternatives analysis report that studied four options: no build, transportation system management, managed lane and fixed guideway.
"Essentially, we tried to prepare all of the information that would go into the alternatives analysis report that would help the city council make their choice," says Mark Scheibe, project manager for PB.
PB also helped the city in their public involvement efforts, such as holding town hall and community update meetings, which attempted to inform the public while giving them a platform to provide input.
Showing the importance of the project to both the city and county, Scheibe explains that Mayor Hannemann attended nearly every one of these public meetings. "He felt that his presence at these meetings would encourage more people to come out and offer their opinions," he says. "This is clearly a project that he’s very interested in."
Mayor Hannemann delivered the findings of the alternatives analysis to the Honolulu City Council in October 2006. The study concluded that a fixed-guideway system provided the best cost/benefit ratio and would subsequently be the best option for alleviating the growing traffic congestion.
The following December, the City Council determined that its locally preferred alternative would be an elevated fixed-guideway system that will run from West Kapolei to Manoa, with a spur to Waikiki.
It is not known if the system will be light rail, monorail, maglev, rubber tire or some other type of technology, but as Hamayasu describes, "whatever the final decision is, it will definitely resemble a train."
At this point, officials believe the system will be a two-track line with roughly 28 stations along the route. Trains are expected to run from 4 a.m. to midnight, with trains coming through every three to 10 minutes.
Been there, done that
Having completed the alternatives analysis and locally preferred alternative phases in less than a year, everything is falling in line for Honolulu. However, because of the past failures, the city is definitely not taking anything for granted.
"Various local government leaders at different points in time in Honolulu history have tried to bring about a transit system," says Hannemann. "This is pursuing a desire that has been there for nearly 40 years."
The city’s most well-known failure was in 1992, when Honolulu was in the same phase of a $1.8 billion heavy-rail transit project as they are currently.
Then, the City Council committee voted 5 to 4 to kill a half-percentage point excise tax increase to help finance the project, which had already been awarded $618 million in federal transit funds.
Still reeling from 1992’s defeat, Honolulu was again on the verge of implementing a public transit solution — this time bus rapid transit — in 2002, but the project was halted in 2005 when Hannemann took office, because he felt that it "wasn’t what we should do."
To ensure that everything is in place before soliciting federal funds this time, Honolulu’s City Council adopted an ordinance in August 2005 to levy the same half-percent general excise tax (GEC) that was proposed in 1992. Depending on who is giving the estimate, the tax, which was imposed beginning in January of this year, will generate between $150 million to $200 million each year and a total of $2.6 billion to $3.6 billion over the lifetime of the project — about 16 years.
Last February the minimum operable segment of the project, which will run from East Kapolei at the planned University of Hawaii-West Oahu campus, was chosen. The approximate completion date for this portion is 2012. When complete, the entire line will directly serve Leeward Community College, Pearlridge Center, Salt Lake, downtown Honolulu and other locations in between.
"The beauty of our strategy is that we don’t have to wait for federal funds to actually build. We will have by 2009 accumulated over $300 million from the GEC tax," says Hannemann. "That’s the beauty of our proposal and I think that’s our competitive edge over other jurisdictions is that we’re starting to collect the tax of dedicated funds that could only be used for the construction of transit and the operation of transit."
In addition to the monies generated from the GEC tax and the FTA, Hannemann is also heavily pushing transit-oriented development modeled after cities in Colorado, Texas and Oregon.
Running through the first couple of stages in record time has given Honolulu and Mayor Hannemann the confidence to predict an aggressive 2009 groundbreaking. However, the project did hit a minor snag over the ultimate route for the fixed-guideway system.
One route suggested running the system through the airport and Pearl Harbor, which would help local businesses. The other route suggests running through the high-density residential area known as Salt Lake. Both maintain the entire proposed transit corridor.
"We recommended to the city council that they go along the airport route," explains Hannemann. "At the end of the day I need five of nine votes to affirm that recommendation, but I had only four votes. In the spirit of compromise and in compliance with the FTA, I opted to go along with five people who chose Salt Lake."
Both routes will also be studied during the environmental impact study, which officials hope to have completed within a year.
"We’re looking at an alignment that’s already been studied in considerable depth. There aren’t that many surprises out there, so we’re able to take advantage of the previous work that’s been done," says Scheibe about the hopes of turning around the EIS quickly.
With the aforementioned traffic woes and predicted surge in population, Hannemann is quick to point out that the guideway is not the silver bullet that will end the area’s woes.
In fact, the project is just part of a multitiered, multimodal approach at easing traffic congestion along the corridor.
"We’re going to launch a ferry service this summer. My plans are to break ground for rail in 2009 and we’re building bus transit centers, three of which were launched in the first two years of my administration," says Hannemann about his plans.
While several of these solutions have been tried before, Hannemann believes that this time around the kinks have been worked out, such as improving plans that would allow the ferry service to work in tandem with bus services. This change would enable customers to take a ferry ride from the west side of the island to downtown Honolulu, where they can then catch a bus for the rest of their trip.
Hannemann is also updating Honolulu’s bicycle master plan, which would expand bike lanes, and is looking into providing incentives for people to live and work in the same area, so residents don’t have to depend on downtown Honolulu for employment.
As for the aggressive time schedule that will see them complete the environmental impact study and preliminary engineering processes in time to break ground in 2009, Hannemann believes that it could be essential to generate more interest and support in the area.
"Once we put it in the ground and people see it, touch it, feel it and eventually ride it, the momentum will build to the point where people will be very anxious to build it out," he says. "It’s an aggressive schedule, but it’s doable."