Change rail route for UH, flooding

In recent months, both Gov. David Ige and Mayor Kirk Caldwell have acknowledged the need for the rail project to extend to the University of Hawaii-Manoa, recognizing that the UH-Manoa campus is a major commuter destination that contributes to current traffic congestion.

Last month, in the article entitled “Swamped” (Star-Advertiser, Oct. 2), we learned that future sea level rise (SLR) will severely impact low-lying portions of central Honolulu from Waikiki to the airport, with “flooding at high tide on a daily basis within only two or three decades.” These flooded areas include the final five miles of the current rail route, meaning that seven of the proposed rail stations, from Middle Street to Ala Moana Center, will experience daily flooding as early as 2040, 14 years after planned completion (2026).

With rail construction to Middle Street still three years away (2021), and with no clear plan for construction of the final five miles of the current project, now is the time to change the route after Middle Street to both reach UH-Manoa more efficiently and to plan for future sea level rise. Elevated rail in the urban core is a long-term investment with a lifespan of 50-100 years. It is both short-sighted and wasteful to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure in areas that will be experiencing daily floods within 20 years.

Even if the trains and guideway are above flood levels, riders will not be able to reach the stations, preferring to use cars or buses rather that trudge through flooded streets. In the next 20 years, SLR will force businesses and residents in low-lying areas to move inland. Rail ridership will plummet as the current route will no longer serve dense residential and business districts.

Regardless of SLR, the current rail route is a waste of public monies because after exiting downtown, it traverses neighborhoods which are neither commuter destinations (Ala Moana Center) nor neighborhoods with potential commuters (Kakaako). Kakaako residents, being in the center of the city, don’t need rail since they can easily walk or take surface transportation to any nearby destination. With elevated rail costs in the urban core running at approximately $600-650 million per mile, the most cost-effective route to UH-Manoa is a straight line from downtown along the King/Beretania (streets) corridor.

Polls show that the majority of Oahu residents want to finish the rail project. Shifting the route to higher ground on North King and Beretania streets would not only avoid construction problems in the downtown and Kakaako areas, but would open up the largely undeveloped King/Beretania corridor to potential transit-oriented development.

Increased property values and property taxes along a new transit corridor through the center of the city could easily generate the additional funding needed to extend the rail line to UH. Shifting the rail route and extending it to the UH/Moiliili area would transform elevated rail into an intra-urban transit system that would appeal to a wider range of potential commuters living in central Honolulu.

If we’re going to spend billions on a rail system, let’s build one that serves more of our city’s residents.


Architects Scott R. Wilson, Peter Vincent and Terry Tusher have chaired and/or been members of the AIA Honolulu Regional & Urban Design Committee and AIA Transit Task Force; fellow member/architect Robert Crone co-signed this piece.


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