Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Rail Basics: ‘Fast & Frequent’ Rules Out At-Grade

Just how much attention the proverbial “average Oahu citizen” directs at the Honolulu rail project presumably depends on how much attention it’s receiving at any given time in the media.

Our anecdotal sampling at trade fairs, new-product shows and environmental conferences – like today’s Hawaii Build and Buy Green Expo at the convention center – is that most people who attend them are mystified about why it’s taking so long. “Just build it” is the common thread among attendees convinced that rail will make positive contributions to environmental, sustainability and quality-of-life issues.

But that sampling is no more valid than dipping into the comments sections below the Star-Advertiser’s online stories and editorials. They’re the hang-out of rail’s opponents who seize on every related story as an opportunity to condemn the project on those same grounds.

What’s the average Oahu citizen to think? Scientific polling in the Fall of 2009 found a strong majority supportive of the project. We’re speculating that an updated survey would show similar support, and if that were the case, it would effectively counter the repeated assertions by anti-railers that “nobody wants this train.”

Googling for Info

Citizens who want answers to their questions about the project often search the web, and our SiteMeter visit tracker records those searches when they lead to this blog. Search terms like “elevated vs at-grade” show up now and then.

We’ve often written about this fundamental issue – whether Honolulu rail needs to be elevated to distance it from surface traffic and cross streets or whether it could be built on the ground with less impact on view planes. There’s no disputing the fact of those impacts – the FEIS acknowledges them – so the issue boils down to whether the impacts are justified.

Rail supporters believe they are justified for numerous reasons. For rail to do its principal job of providing fast and frequent transportation through the urban corridor, the system simply cannot be built at-grade.

Surface transit must operate at much slower speeds than elevated rail. Dozens of intersections and the proximity of pedestrian and vehicle traffic along the route mandate slower speeds. For example, one local group supported an at-grade route along Hotel Street and others streets that loop around Honolulu’s civic center encompassing the State Capitol and Honolulu Hale. It’s inconceivable to imagine trains traveling 55 miles per hour or above – the intended elevated speeds – along those streets with all the pedestrians and vehicles in that crowded district.

More Drawbacks

At-grade trains also require drivers at the controls, unlike fully automated grade-separated rail. The time interval between trains must be greater when trains are manually operated, so the interval likely would be at least twice what Honolulu’s system anticipates during rush hour – trains arriving at stations only 3 minutes apart.

Compared to Honolulu’s elevated system, at-grade rail would be less attractive to potential riders by offering slower and less frequent service. Would such a system have less visual impact? Almost certainly, although that impact is virtually non-existent at a distance due to the proliferation of construction within blocks of its route reaching up to 300 feet and beyond.

Honolulu rail will be faster, more frequent and safer when elevated than if it were built at ground level to preserve the ambiance along local streets. A surface system would not meet the mobility needs of Oahu commuters, who face increasingly congested streets and highways. Such a system might have less visual impact, but it would fail to meet the project’s goals.

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