Honolulu's morning rush hour traffic. Photo by Ken Tam

Comment: What will rail and HOT lanes do for Honolulu?

in Rail

In the following commentary on traffic congestion, Pano Prevedouros, University of Hawaii civil engineering professor and former candidate for Honolulu mayor, describes potential traffic alternatives and its impact on high profile events, tourism, and energy in the islands.

What would rail do for future major conventions like the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Asia Development Bank?

Nothing! Remember that the rail dead-ends at Ala Moana Center. Rail is promoted in order to create many temporary jobs. It won’t be well used because the bulk of its ridership comes from deleted bus lines. Rail cannot even go next to the Hawaii Convention Center for security reasons. If there is a rail line next to Honolulu Community College, then security-sensitive events cannot take place there, which defeats the purpose of HCC.

What if we had high occupancy and toll lanes (HOT) Lanes instead of rail?

HOT lanes (the toll applies to low occupancy vehicles) would be about 11 miles long, between the H-1/H-2 freeway merge and Iwilei with exits at Aloha Stadium, Honolulu International Airport, Kalihi, and Downtown.

Tampa built elevated reversible toll lanes (town-bound in the morning, out-of-town bound in the afternoon) in six years for less than $350 Million; it opened in 2007. Tampa’s reversible express lanes (REL) solved a big part of its congestion problem for the same cost that Honolulu is spending on rail design and promotion.

With HOT Lanes, during major events such as APEC, we would have problem-free travel between the H-1/H-2 freeway merge and Downtown regardless of H-1 freeway closures. There would be no visible blight because HOT lanes run mostly next to H-1 freeway and terminate one half mile before the waterfront.

As a bonus, HOT lanes have no part in the destruction of Aloun Farms and the prime agricultural land that is planned to become an approximately 13,000 residential Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in the Ewa plains.

What will rail do for Oahu during a hurricane?

Rail will shut down. It’s standard procedure. After hurricane Ike on September 13, 2008, Houston highways recovered in two-to-three days. It took its rail transit two weeks to operate fully.

During a hurricane or other major storm, HOT lanes can be converted to be a resilient backbone for emergency and special services only. HOT ;anes will be elevated for 11 miles so they won’t flood or get clogged by debris. They can be designed with resiliency in mind so light poles and signs won’t collapse and block the roadway. They will aid in quick response and recovery for Oahu.

What will rail do for Waikiki and tourism and the UH Manoa campus?

Nothing. Rail dead ends at Ala Moana Center. Over one billion dollars will be needed to backtrack to Kapiolani Boulevard to get to Waikiki. Rail will permanently blight the Honolulu Convention Center and the spine of Waikiki: With the elevated rail and stations, sun will barely reach Kuhio Avenue.

Rail to the UH Manoa campus is another $1 billion waste without justification. UH Manoa is in full session only 150 days a year. The rest of the time, it’s in summer session, final exam weeks, breaks, holidays, and weekends. How does one justify $1 billion for such partial usage?

In contrast, a substantial portion of traffic from the H-1 freeway will divert onto the HOT Lanes (similar to the relief of Likelike Highway by the opening of the H-3 freeway). This will result in less congested travel to Waikiki and UH. With HOT lanes, traffic on the H-1 freeway will be as if UH is in recess permanently.

What will rail do in terms of climate change?

It will promote global warming. The Final EIS for the rail shows that the project will save 396 million British thermal units (BTU) of energy each day, or 144,540 million BTU per year, based on the City’s rosy forecasts of ridership. On the other hand, the rail’s guideway and station construction will require 7,480,000 million BTU to be constructed. Dividing 7,480,000 by 144,540 gives 51.75, or about 52 years. That’s how many years it will take to make up the construction energy loss by the assumed energy savings. But in 52 years, rail will need multiple component replacements, repairs, and refurbishments. So it is an energy black hole. In 2025, rail will be absurdly un-green compared to third generation plug-in hybrid vehicles.

In contrast, HOT lanes reduce congestion and fuel consumption. HOT lanes can promote green technologies by having a reduced or zero toll for electric vehicles. Their pavement can be retrofitted with conduit for contactless battery recharging for hybrid buses and electric mini-buses. HOT Lanes are in large part transit and high-occupancy vehicle facilities. Some call them “virtually exclusive busways” because they are built to serve express buses and vanpools, and the excess capacity is then sold to lower occupancy vehicles through a toll charge.

Former-Mayor Mufi Hannemann used some retired directors of transportation to convey the message that “we can’t build any more roads on Oahu.” Nothing is further from the truth. The proposed HOT lanes will be about 33 lane miles in total size including their shoulder lane. In the last 10 years, over 100 brand new lane miles of highways were built on Oahu, such as the Kalanianaole Highway widening, Fort Weaver Road widening, North-South Road, and two large freeway interchanges and new streets in Kapolei.

HOT lanes, with their intelligent management center, automatic reversibility to serve morning and evening traffic, and accommodation for hi-tech cars and buses would be a prime technological demonstrator for traffic-clogged cities in Asia. In contrast, nobody from Asia would visit Honolulu to learn from its archaic and noisy steel-on-steel elevated rail.

What do HOT lanes cost?

Costs are a “moving target” because they are affected by final design, energy cost, and materials pricing. In approximate 2010 terms, the HOT lanes should cost under $2 billion, while the rail will cost over $5 billion.

Significantly, the HOT lanes can be done in large part with private investment funds leaving the taxpayer with a less than $1 Billion tax liability. In contrast, all of the rail’s $5 billion cost is taxpayer funded. Most HOT lanes in the United States were built as public-private partnerships with shared investor-taxpayer risk.

Rail’s construction cost will be followed by huge taxpayer financed subsidies, which if operation, maintenance and equipment replacement costs are totaled would be over $250 million per year (forever). In contrast, the operating costs of the HOT lanes are relatively minimal, similar to those for the H-3 freeway.

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