Monday, February 21, 2011

Honolulu Rail Prepares for its Groundbreaking as Opponents Continue Efforts To Block the Project

A perspective gained from nearly 38 years of residency doesn’t make us a kama`aina even by our own definition of the Hawaiian word – someone who was born here or grew up in the islands influenced and shaped by Hawaii’s unique culture and values.

But the years have afforded an opportunity to observe the effort to build something bigger and more important than simply an alternative to highway travel.

Community visionaries and planners have been involved in a multi-generational process to make living on Oahu a better experience.

Even the greenest malahini, or newcomer, absorbs something fundamental about Oahu after just a few days on the island: You can’t find your way around without acknowledging the geography.

East, west, north and south mean virtually nothing here. Directions are given in relation to landmarks. You’re told to go mauka, toward the mountains, or makai, toward the sea.

Along Oahu’s southern shore, you go ewa as you head toward the district at the western end of the island, and if you go east, depending where you are you’re facing the extinct craters of Diamond Head near Waikiki or Koko Head at Oahu’s southeastern tip. Their names become the directions.

Geography’s Unyielding Limits

There’s no getting around the geography, which not only helps with directions but determines where communities can be built to accommodate Oahu’s ever-increasing population.

Most mainlanders can probably find “wide open spaces” not too far from where they live. The same isn’t true on Oahu; some neighborhoods along the southern shore are nestled between a ridge and the ocean that’s only a quarter mile or less away.

Urban Honolulu is just that – urban, which comes as a shock to visitors who aren’t prepared for the high-rise city Honolulu has become. Most of its neighborhoods have a crowded feel to them, even as they penetrate into the valleys and push up steep ridgelines.

The closest thing to open space is the ewa plain, and for decades it’s been designated in the City and County’s General Plan as Oahu’s “Second City.” New communities have been built there to accommodate population growth, and thousands of families now live in homes where sugar cane once grew.

Mobility’s Loss

There’s only one island in the chain that’s growing – the Big Island of Hawaii, which adds a few acres now and then when a sustained lava flow reaches the sea from the world’s longest volcanic eruption.

What does grow on Oahu is the frustration of residents whose commuting options between home and downtown Honolulu (the economic heart of Hawaii) are limited to that relatively narrow strip of land between the mountains and the sea.

Highway studies have documented that some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion is found in that corridor. It’s been bad for decades and can only become worse on an island that has no room to build more highways.

The City and County of Honolulu has attempted several times to create a commuting alternative to street and highway travel between the ewa plain and downtown, only to be thwarted for one reason or another. Civil Beat, the online news service, has a summary of those efforts today.

Grade-separated transit is the only practical option to restore mobility to Oahu’s residents along the southern corridor. When dirt is turned at tomorrow’s groundbreaking, the decades-long effort to create that option will have attained its furthest advance.

Some of the same people who successfully blocked efforts to build elevated rail in decades past will be at tomorrow’s ceremonial groundbreaking. Their picketing will attract media attention, and their interviews will have reasons why the project shouldn't be built.

Among the consumers of that media and the interviews will be kama`aina whose quality of life has been eroded by traffic congestion over the decades.

Many of them will observe the groundbreaking through a cultural “lens” that’s become a part of their being. They’ll know on this milestone day whether rail will benefit this generation and generations far into the future.

We’re confident the great majority of kama`aina and malahini alike will accept and come to see rail as the best way to travel ewa - diamond head in either direction.

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