As the City Council prepared to take up a new proposal for a rail transit system in Honolulu, a group of city and state lawmakers yesterday called for an immediate halt to current work on a bus rapid transit system.
The Council's Transportation Committee is scheduled to hear for the first time today a resolution calling on city and state officials to develop a new fixed-rail plan for O'ahu.
A favorable first vote on the resolution could send a signal to a governor's task force investigating transit alternatives that the City Council prefers a light-rail option over the planned bus rapid transit system for commuters from Kapolei and other growing Leeward areas.
Mayor Jeremy Harris said, however, that the city would continue with the first phase of the BRT running from Iwilei to Waikiki through Kaka'ako.
"To do anything else would be irresponsible," he said in a pointed response to three City Council members and others who yesterday introduced a resolution calling for an end to the BRT.
The Council members charged that proceeding with the BRT plan while the governor's task force is investigating other alternatives would be a waste of money.
"I'd rather take some extra time now to make sure that we really do come up with a plan that solves our traffic problems," said Council Budget Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi, who introduced the resolution along with councilmen Rod Tam and Charles Djou.
Harris said Honolulu residents have been waiting 35 years for a new mass transit system and that he would not block progress on the BRT's first phase.
"Every time we try to do something some politicians come along at the last minute and try to stop it. Where's it going to end?" Harris said. "It's time we took some action. Is it going to solve all our problems? No. But it is something we can do right now."
Critics of the plan, including several state lawmakers from urban Honolulu and representatives of the private transportation industry, yesterday charged that BRT would take away existing traffic lanes for exclusive bus use and result in more congestion.
"The BRT is an inherently flawed plan and wrong for Honolulu," said Rep. Galen Fox, R-23rd (Waikiki, Ala Moana, Kaka'ako). "There's no way to create a dedicated lane for buses without compounding traffic problems."
Harris said critics didn't understand what would happen in the BRT's initial operating segment.
While subsequent in-town BRT lines call for such lane-taking, there are no plans or money to proceed with those phases at this time, Harris said. The first line, running through Kaka'ako, does not require taking any existing traffic lanes for exclusive bus use, he said.
Allowing the first line to proceed would set a bad precedent, Djou said. "Once the camel gets the nose in the tent, there's no stopping him," he said.
City officials say they expect to receive "any day now" a record of decision from the Federal Transit Administration authorizing the city to proceed with the first line.
With $31 million in city money and $20 million more in federal money in place, the city could begin bidding for BRT contracts as early as next month, said Cheryl Soon, director of the city's Transportation Services Department. The first line, using hybrid electric buses, could be operational by 2005, she said.
The debate over BRT came as the council prepared to hear testimony about the new fixed-rail proposal, which most likely would serve Leeward O'ahu commuters coming into town.
The proposal, while leaving open the details of where and how the fixed-rail system would be built, suggests that the above-ground rail line might be financed without federal money and a Honolulu increase in the state excise tax.
Similar fixed-rail plans have been proposed and rejected twice before, once in 1992 when a proposal to raise the excise tax to pay for the project was killed on a 5-4 council vote. The BRT plan, which would be extended to Kapolei by 2010, was developed as a lower-cost transit alternative after that council vote.
"The resolution is an attempt to test the waters of light rail that grew out of discussions with the governor's task force," said Nestor Garcia, head of the council's Transportation Committee, which will hold a hearing on the resolution at 1 p.m. today.
"The work plan would allow us to make an informed decision without repeating some of the mistakes that were made in the past," Garcia said.
The governor's task force, which has been reviewing all transportation options including fixed-rail, bus rapid transit and doubled-decked highways, hopes to recommend a preferred course of action by the start of the next legislative session in January.
Developing a new fixed-rail plan would take years, but not necessarily be incompatible with the current BRT plans for the urban corridor running to Kapolei, Soon said.
The buses running on dedicated lanes could be used until a fixed-rail alternative is in place or even end up running side-by-side with fixed rail, she said. Proceeding with BRT would also give the city a fallback transit system if plans for fixed-rail falter again, Harris suggested.
"I'm glad the City Council is ready to take a look at rail, but still have grave concerns about the political will to see it all the way through," Soon said. "We don't want to go down that path again and just end up with a bag of magic beans."
The City Council resolution, introduced by Chairman Gary Okino, asks for a study to be completed by October 2004 to determine whether development of a fixed-rail transit system, integrated with complementary feeder buses, is the best way to help commuters.
"What's the point of another study if we're never going to be able to do anything?" Soon said. "We need to end the second-guessing and show the public and federal government that we're finally filling to see a project through."
Instead of waiting another year for a study, Soon suggested that the Legislature this session set up a dedicated fund that could be set aside for mass transit projects.
"That would show a true commitment to transit," she said.
Sen. Gordon Trimble, a member of the governor's task force and one of those calling for a halt to BRT work, said the state and city should exhaust all other less-expensive traffic options before considering a new mass transit program.
"The bus just isn't the preferred method of transportation in America today," he said.
Among the options are more use of ferries, contraflow lanes, new highway projects and development of a two-lane reversible highway "flyover" for Nimitz Highway, said Trimble, R-12th (Waikiki, Ala Moana, Downtown).
Blah blah blah just build that damn thing!