What happened to the light rail alternative to Honolulu’s transit plan?

Thanks to RLB for returning to the issue of the city’s examination of alternatives in a comment a couple of days ago. He wrote, in part:

I don’t pretend to understand the ins & outs of the Environmental Impact Statement planning and implementation, but I don’t see how your statements are supported by publicly available documents.

For example, in the City’s Alternatives Analysis, Chapter 2 has a section called “Alternatives Considered.” It says:

“The alternatives considered during screening included a No Build Alternative, a Transportation System Management Alternative, and a number of ‘build’ alternatives.Transit technologies that were examined included conventional bus, guided bus, LIGHT RAIL TRANSIT [emphasis mine], personal rapid transit, people mover, monorail, magnetic levitation, rapid rail,”

I appreciate the reference back to source documents, and I think RLB is right in saying that it is hard to understand how the light rail alternative could not have been evaluated. So let’s take a closer look.

Light rail, being the dominant form of new or planned urban rail transit systems over the past twenty years, was necessarily the most obvious alternative technology.

Beginning in the fall of 2005, the city did the preliminary screening of alternatives that RLB refers to, and published the “Alternatives Screening Memo” in October 2006. Several different alternatives were rated. Light rail was called “a strongly recommended technology“.

Recommendation – Light Rail is a strongly recommended technology for alternatives with limited portions of mixed traffic and predominately exclusive right-of-way, although the transition between the two types of service will pose technical challenges (power collection and visual impact). This technology is also recommended for analysis for alternatives with exclusive right-of-way.”

The alternatives screening memo concluded by recommending that light rail should be included among several technologies to be further considered.

But when the Alternatives Screening Report followed just a month later, several technologies had been dropped after further consideration, and just four alternatives were included in the analysis.

No Build

Transportation System Management

Managed Lane

Fixed Guideway

Light rail was not neither rejected nor included for any additional analysis. It was essentially ignored, although it could have been assumed to be included in the “fixed guideway” option.

This is suggested by a list of issues that remained “unresolved” after the Alternatives Analysis had been completed, which included: “Selection of transit technology for the Fixed Guideway Alternative (if selected)”.

Supporting this view was the city’s official response to those who commented on specific types of transit technologies during the screening analysis:

“Vehicle and system technologies will not be selected prior to the draft Environmental Impact Statement. Comments about issues related to vehicle and system technologies will be considered when specifications are developed.”

In December 2006, the Honolulu City Council adopted a “locally preferred alternative” by passing Bill 79 (2006).

In Part III of the bill, the council reserved the right to select the technology to be used, clearly indicating that the choice of a particular fixed-guideway technology was still in the future.

The council reserves the right to select the technology of the fixed guideway system for the locally preferred alternative.

AIA testified in favor of Bill 79.

AIA supports the fixed-guideway alternative…We strongly support the implementationof this system.

And, at the beginning of 2007, when Honolulu architects began pressing for a dialog on design issues, including alternatives to an all-elevated system, the city rejected their requests, saying it was too early for such discussions.

According to PBN (2/23/2007):

oru Hamayasu, chief planner for the city and county’s Department of Transportation Services, said it’s too early in the process for architects to get involved. The city’s consultant, New York-based Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc., has its own architects working on the project.

“We are sensitive to design details and we certainly would welcome the help from the AIA in the next phase when we get into design elements,” Hamayasu said. “I understand AIA’s desire to get involved early, but right now it’s really, really early.”

This view was reiterated in the legal notice published in the Federal Register announcing the city’s intent to do an EIS for its rail project (3/15/2007).

In a section on “Alternatives”, the legal notice stated:

The draft EIS would consider five distinct transit technologies: Light rail transit, rapid rail transit, rubber-tired guided vehicles, a magnetic levitation system, and a monorail system.

It went on to describe alternative alignments that would be considered. It is interesting to note that both were described as including elevated as well as at-grade sections.

The legal notice then specifically provided:

At this time, comments should focus on the scope of the NEPA review and should not state a preference for a particular alternative. The best opportunity for that type of input will be after teh release of the draft EIS. [page 12255]

The subsequent NEPA Scoping Report, published in May 2007, appeared to confirm that light rail was still an option.

Comments were received in favor of monorail, light rail, and rapid rail…No information was received that would eliminate one or more of the transit technologies currently under consideration.”

But later in 2007, more than a year before the draft EIS would be published, AIA protested to Mayor Hannemann that a “request for information” sent to rail manufacturers contained specifications that would preclude any at-grade option.

In a December 28, 2007 letter from AIA Honolulu President Peter Vincent to Mayor Hannemann, it was pointed out that the specifications were imposed by the city and were not at the suggestion of the city’s consultants.

According to comments made by the City’s transportation consultants, the decision to design an elevated system was mandated by the City and was not the result of the recommendations of industry experts.

This letter drew a heated response from the mayor, essentially telling AIA that it was too late to discuss technology choices, contrary to repeated public reassurances, legal notices, and explicit instructions over the prior two years.

Mayor Hannemann dismissed the AIA’s concerns as “11th hour opposition”.

Publication of the draft EIS and its presentation of the impacts of various alternatives, which was supposed to be the starting point for discussion of particular technologies, was still more than ten months away.

And when the draft EIS was issued, light rail was not one of the alternatives considered. It simply disappeared, without comment.

RLB is right. It’s hard to see how this could have happened, given all of those references including light rail among the alternatives to be studied. But light rail, the most widely used urban transit technology and the most obvious alternative, was ultimately ignored and dismissed without comment or explanation.

18 responses to “What happened to the light rail alternative to Honolulu’s transit plan?

  1. That wraps it up nicely, Ian–thank you for doing this work. The rail plan can be debated, but the issue of whether alternatives were actually considered is “case closed.”

  2. I remember a Technology Selection panel that came from transit professionals all over the world. One guy was even a maglev expert. The City Council agreed to support their recommendation, which was “steel wheel on steel rail.” This was around the time Ann Kobayashi was campaigning for mayor running on her fast bus plan. I think it was back in Feb 2008. I do remember the sunshine law hearings and opportunities for public input for this. Did AIA participate in that public forum?

    • The point here is that “steel-wheel-on-steel-rail” is a category that clearly would include light rail transit as well as the light metro apparently insisted on by the city.

      • But it is a different technology. These are apples and oranges. It’s like putting bike wheels on a 4×4.

        The technology panel considered the entire range of transit options available in modern history… including light rail, which is a different technology according to rail transit professionals. Light rail simply can’t carry enough people to move Oahu.

        Using light rail for Oahu is like putting bike tires on a 4×4. Sure, you could put bike wheels on a 4×4. They won’t last long, won’t do the job the vehicle was designed to do… and you’re gonna end up really sad that your vehicle is not giving you the performance you wanted.

        Regardless, there was a very open opportunity for comment and input on the selection of this singular issue. I don’t remember if AIA was there or not, but I was.

        • ohiaforest3400

          So, Mark, what you’re saying is that, by choosingsteel-wheel-on-steel-rail technology, the City Council was rejecting light rail? That would be the first time I’ve heard that interpretation. And, if so, why was the Draft EIS supposed to address, among others, light rail?

        • Quote: “Light rail simply can’t carry enough people to move Oahu.”

          This statement is wrong. The fact is light rail can move as many people as a light metro or more. Any streetcar/LRT system, provided it has an ‘up’ and ‘down’ line can move over 20,000 persons per hour per direction. Modern trams can carry as many as 350 customers (Budapest’s 54 metre (160 foot) long ‘Caterpillar’ trams.

          With modern modular trams, they can be built to almost any length.

          There is a myth that trams/streetcars, all in the LRT family, can’t carry heavy passenger loads, which in fact they can.

          What I have read about the project, light rail could easily handle the expected traffic on the route.

          SkyTrain and LRT are different technologies because SkyTrain uses Linear induction motors or LIMS, which require a reaction rail and is not compatible with other systems. Light-metro and LRT differ only by being grade separated and/or being fully automated or driverless.

          Other than cost a whole lot more to build than LRT, light-metro has proven to be more expensive to build and gives good reason why this transit mode is hard to sell.

          In Vancouver it was forbidden to plan for LRT for the newly built RAV/Canada Line, despite an available, disused former rapid transit route the bisected the West side of the City!

          It is laughable that LRT won’t last long, in fact there are many LRT/streetcar vehicles built prior to the 60’s still in revenue operation in several European cities. So well built that these trams have been refurbished and sold second hand to other cities!

  3. Excellent reporting – thank you very much.

  4. What I see and hear is that the “notices” said comments weren’t welcome at the time but would be later in the process. That opportunity for comment never was given to anyone out of the loop because the “City” decided to have its way, selecting their “choice”.

    I noticed this months ago, what surprises me is that O’ahu citizens didn’t protest the closed selection.

  5. The only way to sell a SkyTrain proprietary metro is to isolate and eliminate any competition from LRT. It is by this method that seven SkyTrain light-metro systems have been built since the late 70’s

    When LRT is in the picture, SkyTrain fades very fast.

  6. Excellent insight of the time line concerning how the decisions were made. I marvel at your sleuthing and writing skills. Thanks for the theater.
    I first read your blog in the summer of 2006 and you had a link to The Oil Drum which offers a considerable amount of info pertaining to fossil fuel/resource depletion. Of course I now believe Peak Oil is here. So Mufi & Co choose the most expensive choice be built at a time funding will be a major issue and an alternative to the Auto will be Necessary. Its like an elevated train in a tunnel. The real choice will be the one the Community accepts. Good Luck

    I’m in North Seattle , Wa area where the FAA and other groups are demanding/advocading for the County Airport, that Boeing uses, be reclassifed to allow commercial traffic. Over last twenty years the once rural area surrounding the airport is now all residental. Too bad says the FAA by deciding an EA is enough instead of an EIS to make such a choice. The commuity organization is “SOC Mukilteo”.
    Worth the read as they were able to obtain emails of the FAA and the contractor that did the EA. Communities working hard to have good choices for all. Dean Little

  7. Mike Middlesworth

    None of this argument about technology matters.

    The trains aren’t going to be convenient for a lot of people, and won’t get them out of their cars.

    I remember the discussions of nearly 40 years ago about the problem of getting people down from the ridges to to the trains. Has that been solved?

    In one sense it has, since they’re not going to run the trains past the university.

    And, has anyone yet discussed fares? How much will it cost to get from Kapolei to town?

  8. They have already calculated that this type of analysis can be easily squashed out and they won’t respond to it directly.

    Their pattern is to attack the person raising the questions. I am thankful we have people in our community like Mr. Lind that have the credibility to withstand the attack.

    And more important than whether we have an elevated train or not — is whether we have leaders that encourage the development of an intellectual community, rather than leaders that try to squash it out.

  9. @ Mike Middlesworth

    I think you are on the right track. Important questions that no one seems to want to answer.

    Are you just giving current bus riders a faster, yet less convenient trip?

    Is the rapid transit route replacing a current bus route?

    Is there any cost savings associated with the new rapid transit route?

    Will the new rapid transit route attract customers?

    What will the fare structure for the new rapid transit line be?

    Will the fares be separate or will they be apportioned from current fares.

    A historical note.

    Some years ago a ALM SkyTrain Line was to be built in Bangkok, but the project came to financial grief. Siemens, then built an elevated metro system also called Skytrain (it seems all elevated transit systems are called SkyTrain, Air train, Skybus, etc.) on a design, build and operate basis. The expensive fare structure deterred ridership and the elevated metro became somewhat of a financial Albatross.

  10. What is sad is that if LRT is chosen instead of elevated rail at this point, is that the whole process will have to start over again. Between the cost of redoing all the design, public consultation and environmental assessment and cost escalation in the two to three extra years it will take to complete the project, little money would be saved.

    Even worse, is that rail could be cancelled altogether and instead, more highways would be built. There is a time for debate but at some point you have to move on and just complete the system.

    By the way, worldwide, there are more metros (12) under construction than LRTs (9).

    It is only in sprawling American cities without the density to support metros, where LRT is more popular. Honolulu, from what I hear, has the density to support a light metro.

  11. Density doesn’t equate into ridership. The one question I don’t see being answered is:

    For the investment of LRT or metro, will the new transit justify the investment?

    Here is an answer that many won’t like.

    LRT being cheaper to build than a metro, may prove to be the better investment in the long term as maintenance costs on the elevated structure (Vancouver’s Expo Line has had well over $200 million in upgrades) and the complicated signaling system.

    If traffic flows on the new elevated metro are in the 300,000+ customers a day range (400,000 would be better), then a light metro option could be justified.

    With LRT, the chance for extensions would be easier for for future expansion.

    Richard fiddles with the truth:

    There are 32 LRT/tram under construction. In Europe, the term LRT is not used, rather the term ‘tram’ may refer to LRT or a streetcar.

    As well 24 LRT/tram systems are being planned versus only 7 metros.

    Europe light-railway refers to a minor or narrow gauge railway, which may or may not have the characteristics of a classic LRT.

    Streetcars and trams are LRT.

    There are over 450 LRT/tram systems in operation around the world, versus about 160 metro systems, of which about 30 can be described as a light-metro and only 7 (soon to be 6) are from the SkyTrain family of light-metros.

    The following may ease the confusion.


    • The numbers are directly from the Light Rail Transit Association. I did not “fiddle” with anything.

      Be sure you double check anything from railforthevalley. It is often not the most reliable source.

      For instance, in the post http://railforthevalley.wordpress.com/2009/10/21/dublins-luas-lrt-a-streetcar-without-subsidy-a-template-for-the-broadway-lrt/
      the claim was made that the subsidy for the system was a fraction of that of SkyTrain when in fact, the subsidy per km is similar. The post also confuses operating subsidies with debt financing. Fortunately, this error is explained in the comment section.

      • American transit projects tend to be funded by long term (40 to 50 year) bond issues, which include the total project cost including debt servicing, unlike Vancouver’s SkyTrain which debt servicing number are kept hidden from the public.

        The taxpayer doesn’t know the full cost of the SkyTrain metro system, nor does the taxpayer know how much of that subsidy is going towards operating costs on the SkyTrain system.

        It was due to this Canadian SkyTrain financing, that the proposed Seattle monorail project came to grief; they tried to hide the total cost of the project, a la Vancouver. Seattle’s taxpayers smelled a rat and voted accordingly.

        Also please note: The Vancouver or regional taxpayer have never been allowed to vote on a SkyTrain project, with all three metro lines forced on the taxpayer.

        Rail for the Valley doesn’t confuse operating subsidies with debt financing, we just can’t get the correct numbers; TransLink doesn’t even know how many customers use SkyTrain, as its ridership numbers are guesstimates.

        If ridership numbers are guesstimates so are revenue calculations. There are no turnstiles on the metro and 80%of SkyTrain’s customers first take a bus to the metro. Revenue calculation is an alchemists delight, which TransLink will not explain.

        It is no coincidence the the British Columbia auditor General has been forbidden by the government (by denying funding) to audit the SkyTrain metro system and the last independent audit in 1993, found a host of ‘deficiencies”!

        As it stands, SkyTrain is heavily subsidized by the taxpayer, by over $230 million annually.

  12. This is the best summary of the process I have seen. Great work Ian!

    If they do not include light rail in the final EIS you can be assured that the Kamehameha will win in court and force them to study it later.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.