I was sorry to see Lee Cataluna’s glib column this morning disparaging the possibility of incorporating the at-grade option in order to complete Honolulu’s rail system, which is currently collapsing under the weight of dramatic cost overruns, inept planning and management, and vicious politics, which have combined to create world-leading per-mile costs.
A coalition has emerged to promote an at-grade option which promises lower costs and an improved rider experience at street level. We should be jumping at this option, not finding excuses to not even explore it further.
It doesn’t sound to me like Cataluna took the time to read any of the extensive documentation provided to support the at-grade alternative (see the Salvage the Rail report here).
Here’s the best Cataluna can do to deride this alternative proposal.
But that utopian photo rendering is not what downtown Honolulu streets look like. Where are the bicycles whizzing through intersections with impunity? Where are the guys on high-pitched, foul-smelling mopeds weaving in and out of traffic? Where are the people with their eyes glued to their phones and their ears plugged with earbuds leisurely moseying across the crosswalk while the red hand blinks to no effect? Where are the drivers yapping on their phones? The crush of late and frazzled commuters? The grandmas with huge dark glasses slowly pulling their wheeled shopping baskets along the roadside? The city streets are already full up, maxed out and crazy with vehicles, pedestrians and troublemakers without a train plowing through all that chaos. Will all those users suddenly be off the pavement and on the train?
The fact is that virtually all cities in the U.S. and internationally that have built rail systems in the past three decades have relied on the kind of light rail technology that allows trains to run on the ground, through shopping areas and downtown malls. They have all dealt with these common traffic issues. Planners have had to develop techniques for minimizing the issues Cataluna seems to feel are unsolvable.
It seems to me that officials have a responsibility to carefully assess this alternative now, before the opportunity passes. If there’s a chance that it can salvage a reasonable rail system out of the current financial train wreck, even if Hawaii drivers experience a bit of stress along the way, it’s not something to reject out of hand as Cataluna would have us do.
Right now, there are several possible scenarios. We could proceed with business as usual, and will probably end up spending $12 billion or more to complete the train as originally planned.
On the other hand, it’s always possible that Honolulu will be forced to throw in the towel, admit financial defeat, and spend the next ten years paying to demolish the parts of the system already built.
Or we’ll limp along, find a way to control the budget by stripping out all frills and extras, cutting stations and amenities, ending up what will still be the world’s costliest urban rail system, but with fewer stops, fewer riders, and perpetual ongoing deficits.
None of those are pretty pictures.
Given those alternatives, I would think reasonable people would want to spend some time to understand how other cities across the globe have made at-grade rail systems work.
Cataluna’s clever localisms don’t do anything to further that understanding.