Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Strip Away Charges of Playing Politics and Ask: ‘Whose Rail Transit Vision Is Best for Honolulu?’

Do architects know transit better than career transit planners? That’s what the average Honolulu citizen needs to ask now that the local chapter of the AIA has entered the rail debate.

One of the architects told yesterday’s hearing in the Capitol Auditorium that they, too, are trained in planning – apparently to put the audience at ease about their transit suggestions. The message was, “We know what we’re doing. Trust us.”

But it’s simply unbelievable to think their training approximates in scope and depth the training and experience of career transit planners and engineers who’ve spent decades working in their profession instead of a few months the architects have been thinking about transit.

The architects spent most of their time yesterday explaining why at-grade transit would be perfectly fine for Honolulu, but let’s cut to the chase: The heart of their arguments is their belief that an overhead rail guideway would be aesthetically bad for our city.

I can respect that. They correctly assert that the elevated structure will be visible and will have impacts on view planes, especially when seen up close. The Draft EIS says so, too. The most critical location from the architects’ perspective is in downtown Honolulu, where the elevated guideway will pass over the highway at the foot of Bishop Street and create a new view obstruction where none exists today. But we must ask ourselves this:
Is concern over aesthetics enough reason to build a transit system that would fail?

From where I sit, that’s what an at-grade train would be – a failure. It might not interfere with mauka-makai views, but an at-grade train would fail to attract riders who desperately need an alternative to sitting in traffic congestion in their daily commutes -- the principal reason to build Honolulu rail.

This blog repeatedly has stated the reasons why at-grade rail would fail, but here's a quick review:
It wouldn’t be fast transit. Its trains literally would creep through Chinatown and other congested neighborhoods to minimize the hazard of operating only feet away from pedestrians. As planned, the elevated rail system would travel end-to-end in 42 minutes. At-grade transit would take much longer.
It wouldn’t be as frequent as elevated transit. With humans at the controls, at-grade trains would have greater distance and time between between them – as much as 6 minutes or more, compared to 3 minutes or even less between elevated and automatically controlled trains.
It wouldn’t be as reliable, since at-grade transit vehicles inevitably are delayed in the mix of traffic with cars, trucks, buses and pedestrians.
It wouldn’t be as safe as elevated transit. Phoenix and Houston are just two examples of at-grade systems that have attracted negative attention for their accident rate. Phoenix’s new system has averaged a crash a week in its first year of operation.

The local architects want Honolulu citizens to set all that aside for the sake of preserving view planes. So we citizens are left to ask, is it worth building a failure to protect the view of Honolulu Harbor?
Forget about job creation for the moment. Jobs certainly will be created in building the project, but that’s not the primary reason to build it.
Either build rail to provide an attractive, fast, frequent, reliable and safe alternative to travel through town while entirely avoiding traffic congestion, or don’t build it at all and spare us the expense of a failed transit system. That's the issue squarely before Honolulu citizens.

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