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Really, Honolulu, How Did We End Up With Elevated Rail?

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  There were a few key junctures in the long, convoluted story of Honolulu’s rail project.  Getting the point five percent general excise tax increase was one, and the decision to go with an elevated system is another.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa is taking an average citizen’s look at the project and had a chance to talk with two key players involved in the project’s beginnings.


(Reporter's Note:  The majority of this interview is taken from the third recording session I had with former Mayor Mufi Hannemann in the Fall of 2016.  For this session, he brought in Toru Hamayasu, former Chief Planner, Transportation Planning Division, Department of Transportation Services.  Hamayasu’s career in City transportation began in the Frank Fasi administration in 1972, he has  worked under five  mayors in various capacities.  Originally, Mr. Hamayasu came only as a resource person, but later agreed to recording on content and procedural issues.  Whether you agree with it or not, this is a civil discussion of what happened according to two key participants.  I invite you to read thetranscript of the entire conversation.

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Muliufi "Mufi" Hannemann was Mayor of Honolulu from 2005 to 2010.

  “When we started the project it wasn’t easy, Noe,”

Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann was elected in 2004.

“To get the state to agree to raise the GET.  They hadn’t done it in over forty years, and we did it in one legislative session.  Here’s how it happened.  I’m sitting at my first state of the state address as the Mayor of Honolulu…. ”

Hannemann describes then-Governor Lingle asserting she was eager to working with the new Mayor on a mass transit project.  Hannemann, then  took on convincing the legislature and federal transportation officials to buy in.  At the time, Toru Hamayasu was Honolulu’s Chief of Transportation Planning

“One of the very first meetings Mufi and I had, I wanted to make sure there was public support for the project.  I’m a bureaucrat.  I’m not going to go out there and try to sell something just because the Mayor said, sell this.  It had to be a public wish, demand for this then it makes sense for us to start doing it.  I’ know in 1990 we had 75% support for rail.  I can’t remember what it was but a similar poll was taken and there was definite support for a system. then It made sense for us to start doing it.”

Hamayasu says he was convinced by a poll at the time.

Hamayasu:  “When you look at the textbook, it’s pretty simple. There is a transition. The bus system can do only so much and then you need a higher capacity system. That transition was the way we got to be in 1995.  After that, simply looking at the capacity requirements, high capacity system is obvious. Now, when you say high capacity system, you can do that with a bus, too, but at a substantial cost to the street capacity. At some point, you have to have exclusive right of way for the buses. That’s what the BRT was. In the beginning, people thought buses were good, cheaper, no big deal to take one lane. But once we started to implement them in some places, people didn’t like that. Kakaako and Downtown are good examples. Suppose we take another lane and ban the cars from going in there? People didn’t see that would be required for a BRT.”

N: What was wrong with the bus alternative at that point?

Hamayasu: Nothing wrong with the bus alternative, that’s why we carried it as an alternative in the AA. Going back to why are we doing the rail in the first place? Because it’s cheaper to operate than the comparable bus system to provide the same capacity . The bus obviously requires bus drivers. We have a formula. For each bus we add we have to hire 2 bus drivers and ¾ mechanic. So labor cost is 60-80% of the operating cost. Any attempt to reduce that is a smart thing to do.

N: You know, I was really compelled by that at first, but then I began to run across numbers, especially about an elevated guideway system, with the security guards and the maintenance of corridors and structures, really the costs of all that are quite huge as well. I was kind of dissuaded that the two persons were as much of a problem as they are often made to be. You’ve got to hire security guards, maintenance people for these stations and they’ve got to be maintained 24 hours as well.

Hamayasu: Well, there’s a lot of analysis done on that, half of it done by people who don’t like rail. Some are based on the National Transportation Data book (NTD). One study showed that out of 26 systems in the US, 22 show that the rail cost is cheaper than the bus, per passenger. This was a mixture of rail systems from heavy rail to light rail, any kind of rail system.


N: Any kind of rail system? You know what, I have seen numbers that are not like that at all. Numbers are so hard to compare, it seems.



Hamayasu: Right, that’s why I’m saying that out of 26 systems, 22 show the cost of rail is less.

What was the first decision, that we could not go at grade?  That was one of the givens?

Hamayasu: Right, because of impact to the streets and lessening the traffic capacity and the difficulty in construction, trenching work. And it cannot be automated, so it compromises the operating costs. You cannot run at-grade downtown without substantial negative impact to the surface traffic. How many streets do we have? Ala Moana, King St., Beretania, Vineyard, Dillingham that’s it. Essentially, you have to take 4 lanes out of one of those streets, not two.


N: So, the first decision was that we could not go at-grade and that got us to elevated.


Hamayasu:  Elevated or tunnel, exclusive right of way.


N: And  you’re sure that at-grade would have just cost us more in terms of land acquisition, construction costs…?


Hamayasu: Like trenching through downtown where there would be tons of Hawaiian burials. A column, a six-foot hole every hundred feet… Hawaiians didn’t bury deep, so if we find them, we can shift the columns or even split them. So that’s why this technology makes sense in terms of lessening the impact to the burials. I’m convinced of that. Nobody likes the visual thing, right? But, what are the choices? We can do tunnel. It actually has a tunnel alignment.

N: So, the thinking was, if we’re going to have it elevated, we could have whatever technology we chose for power? And we did get the most expensive one. Everywhere I read, this particular technology is 4 times as expensive as any other rail technology.


Hamayasu:  Not because of the third power line. I don’t know what documents you’re looking at.


N: 4 times more expensive than the average light rail cost.


Hamayasu:  Oh, that could be attributed to many things. In Hawaii, everything costs double.


N: But in any jurisdiction, it costs 4 times as much.


Hamayasu: I don’t know if that’s comparing oranges to oranges. And, there are a lot of systems that don’t include the kind of costs we have to go through. A lot of cities had the advantage of available right of way. We were frustrated by why it cost so much, but that’s not because of the technology, it’s because we’re constructing through a dense corridor. If you look at the isolated section of the Washington Metro through downtown, how they had to dig it, or even the Boston system, I’m pretty sure they’re not cheap. And I think the New York D-line is costing almost $1 billion a mile. It’s an expensive project because of the kind of things we have to do, not because of what we bought.


Hannemann:  As much as people may find it hard to believe, this wasn’t done for political reasons. It is a difficult thing to do. It’s the last thing I should have done if I was being political; too risky, too difficult, and you’re going to have people dislike you. A trophy legacy was the last thing on my mind. It was, this is the missing piece in our quality of life. Everybody who comes here says the same thing about our traffic. And every time you look at this, from in office or out of office, it always came down to rail. And the question was, should it go elevated or at grade? I’m convinced, having all the experts at my disposal when I was the mayor, and even now as people talk to me about it and I continue to be very interested in the project, this is the only way to go. And we have a commitment we have made to the federal government to go with a certain system that they endorsed. If they had problems going with an elevated system, if they preferred the system proposed by the architects, they would have said to us, we like this.



Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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