Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hawaii's arteries are congested with no relief in sight

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Hawaii boasts both tremendous natural beauty and a wealth of choice spots from which to admire it: Waikiki Beach from the top of Diamond Head, the rugged Koolau cliffs from Pali Lookout and volcanic-sand beaches on the big island of Hawaii.

Drivers in Honolulu, however, have to put up with a far more prosaic view: brake lights.

In 2011, according to one study, Honolulu's drivers spent an average of 58 hours stuck in traffic, longer than those in any other American city.

Slightly more than 953,000 of the nearly 1.4 million people who live in the state of Hawaii live in Honolulu County and most of them get around by car. The island of Oahu, where Honolulu sits, has extensive bus services, but the gridlock affects bus passengers as well as drivers.

Small wonder Oahu's voters passed a referendum in 2008 authorizing the establishment of a railway system, something a former mayor of Honolulu first proposed more than 40 years ago and has proceeded with more fits than starts ever since.

A ceremonial groundbreaking took place in February 2011, and the 21-station, 32-kilometre, $5.3-billion railway line is forecast to be completed in 2019... if all goes well.

All is not going well. In August a federal district court will hear a complaint brought by a coalition of politicians, environmental groups and business people against the city of Honolulu and the Federal Transit Administration, which has promised $1.55 billion in federal funds for the rail network.

The complaint alleges the project violates federal environmental and historic preservation statutes, and seeks an injunction stopping the city from moving forward with it.

Support is waning among Oahu's voters. In 2008 the referendum passed by 53 per cent to 47 per cent. A poll taken this spring, however, showed 55 per cent of the island's voters now oppose the planned line.

That might not matter if the project were moving irrevocably forward, but the upcoming mayoral election is shaping up to be yet another referendum on rail. Both incumbent Peter Carlisle and challenger Kirk Caldwell support rail, the former enthusiastically, the latter with a few reservations.

But another challenger, former two-term Democratic governor Ben Cayetano, has promised to kill the proposed railway line if elected. He is leading in the polls.

He contends the elevated, steel-wheels-on-steel-tracks system is too expensive for the city's small tax base and instead supports building either a street-level light-rail line or a bus-rapid-transit network, in which buses would run in dedicated lanes on surface streets.

He also contends the concrete pillars and track would deface the city centre, and rail would not ease the island's traffic congestion.

On that last claim, Cayetano has help from an unlikely source: the city's environmental impact statement on the project.

Supporters cite the EIS's claim that, if completed, the rail network will result in 48,000 fewer car trips each day by 2030. That looks feeble, though, given the number of daily car trips is forecast to increase by more than 500,000 because of population growth.

Congestion, in other words, will probably worsen -- with or without the new trains.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 16, 2012 A11

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