Thursday, January 28, 2010

Continuing To Dissect AIA Myths on Rail Transit

Yesterday’s post started the dissection of the architects’ myths about the Honolulu rail project that they disseminated 10 days ago, but we’re wondering whether “myth” is the right word. The architects are trying to stop Honolulu's progress in building a fast, frequent and safe elevated rail system by promulgating these so-called myths. With such big stakes, a word like “falsehood” seems to fit the intent better.

But we’ll stick with “myth” as we examine four more AIA statements they made about their at-grade rail scheme in the January 18th State Capitol “hearing.”

More AIA Myths Meet the Truth

• Myth 5—A combination at-grade/elevated rail system can carry as many riders as an elevated rail system.
The Truth: Not even close to true. At-grade trains can be no longer than the shortest city block to ensure they don't block cross streets, and in Honolulu, the shortest blocks are in Chinatown. At-grade trains therefore can have only two vehicles attached together. Elevated trains can be twice as long because they’re completely free of surface considerations. In addition, because they have drivers at the controls, at-grade trains must have greater separation between them than automated elevated trains. Shorter and less frequent trains means much lower carrying capacity.

• Myth 6—At-grade rail can be built with a track bed 2 feet deep or less and 8 to 10 feet wide.
The Truth: No. To construct an at-grade train route would require digging a trench for a two-lane track bed approximately 30 feet wide and up to 5 feet deep continuously along the route. This would require additional right-of-way acquisitions and relocating most or all underground utilities – water, sewer, storm drain, electrical, gas, telecommunications, etc.

• Myth 7—A hybrid system that combines at-grade and elevated rail can be built in six years.
The Truth: This is highly debatable, since at-grade rail construction isn’t necessarily faster than elevated. At-grade requires more utility relocations and results in more traffic disruptions and can lengthen construction times. For example, a 4.9-mile at-grade section in the Rainier Valley segment of Seattle’s light rail line that opened last year took about five years to complete – more than a year per mile.

• Myth 8—Building portions of Honolulu’s system at-grade won’t require significant additional right-of-way acquisitions.
The Truth: No. Building at-grade rail correctly is not small-scale construction. Street corners must be widened, driveways relocated and many streets widened to compensate for the loss of traffic lanes. Right-of-way acquisitions would be required from businesses and homes next to the route, creating a much greater impact on the community than elevated rail.

We’ll wrap up our list of at-grade transit Myths vs. The Truth in tomorrow’s post.


Dave said...

my understanding is that many architects are not in agreement the the AIA stand? i woudl like to hear from them. Frankly i dont see why one thinks a public facilty needs to look good. The freeway does not look good but it functions. a STP does not look good but it functions.

PRT Strategies said...

Re. Myth #5. A train can't realistically be any longer than the longest station (unless you expect riders to move from one car to another to exit, an impractical, time consuming situation). Certainly, stations of city blocks in length won't be acceptable -- the illustrations of them that have already been published are unnerving enough.

For a better idea for elevated transit in Honolulu, everyone's welcome at

In addition to standalone stations, PRT portals can be built into structures to provide direct access to office buildings, educational institutions, big box stores, shopping centers, hotels and apartment/condo complexes. These sorts of public/private partnerships could go a long way toward helping fund the complete system.

Doug Carlson said...

Re Dave's comment: That's a good point. We learn to live with things that may not be attractive but serve the public good -- overhead freeways near the airport and electrical transmission lines, for example. 300-foot-tall buildings may be attractive to some, but they effectively wall off the ocean for others.

Re PRT's comment: I know you favor a different kind of transportation system, but we're talking about the one that's most likely to be built here. At-grade trains would be half as long as elevated trains, so Myth #5 is just that -- an untruth told by advocates of an at-grade system.

Thanks for continuing to read this blog.