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Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor
Type Rapid transit
Locale Honolulu, Hawaii
Termini Kapolei
Ala Moana Center
Stations 21
Opened 2012 (planned)
Owner City and County of Honolulu
Line length 20 mi (32 km)

The Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project (HHCTC) is the official name for the plan to construct an elevated rapid transit line serving the City and County of Honolulu on the island of Oahu. Plans for a mass transit line to connect Honolulu's urban center with outlying areas began in the 1960s,[1] but funding was not approved until 2005.[2] The controversy over the rail line was the dominant issue for local politics leading into the 2008 Honolulu elections,[3] and culminated in a city charter amendment which left the final decision to the citizens of Oahu.[4] The amendment passed with 53% of voters in favor.[5]

The project, as planned, will construct an elevated rapid transit line from the edge of Kapolei, near the proposed site of the University of Hawaii-West Oahu campus, to Ala Moana Center. The line will pass through communities along southern Oahu, via Honolulu International Airport and downtown Honolulu. The plan also includes extensions west through Kapolei, and a link through Salt Lake. In addition, there will be extensions east to the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus and Waikiki.[6] The line will use 200 ft (61 m) trains carrying about 300 passengers each, similar in size to light rail systems elsewhere in the United States (such as the MAX in Portland, Oregon and the Gold Line in Los Angeles) as opposed to larger trains typically found on rapid transit systems like as the New York City Subway.[7]


Previous projects

For more than 40 years, Honolulu politicians have attempted to construct a rail transit line. As early as 1966, then-mayor, Neal S. Blaisdell, suggested a rail line as a solution to alleviate traffic problems in Honolulu, stating: "Taken in the mass, the automobile is a noxious mechanism whose destiny in workaday urban use is to frustrate man and make dead certain that he approaches his daily occupation unhappy and inefficient." [1]

Frank Fasi was elected to office in 1968, and started planning studies for a rail project,[8] named Honolulu Area Rapid Transit (HART), in 1977.[9] After Fasi lost the 1980 reelection to Eileen Anderson, President Ronald Reagan cut off funding for upcoming mass transit projects, which led Anderson to cancel HART in 1981.[10][11][12] Fasi was reelected in 1984, and restarted the HART project two years later,[13] but the second effort was stopped in a 1992 vote by the Honolulu City Council against the necessary tax increase.[2][14]

Fasi resigned in 1994 to run for governor, with Jeremy Harris winning the special election to replace him. Harris unsuccessfully pursued a bus rapid transit project as an interim solution until he left office in 2004.[15] His successor, Mufi Hannemann, began the Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project (HHCTC), the island's fourth attempt to build a mass transit system operating in a dedicated right-of-way.



General Excise Tax increase

Honolulu mayor Mufi Hannemann

Shortly after winning the 2004 election, Hannemann announced that construction of a rail line was an administration priority.[16] The following May, the Hawaii State Legislature passed a bill to allow counties a one-half percent increase in the Hawaii General Excise Tax (GET), from 4% to 4.5%, to fund transportation projects. According to the bill, increased revenue would be delivered to counties implementing the raised tax to fund general public transportation infrastructure throughout Hawaii, and to pay for mass transit in the case of the City and County of Honolulu.[17][18] Money collected from the initial 4% GET would remain state revenue.

Governor Linda Lingle initially threatened to veto the bill, believing that money destined for county governments should be collected by the individual counties.[19][20] After compromising with legislative leaders and Mayor Hannemann, however, she allowed the bill to become law. On July 12, 2005, the bill was enacted as Act 247 of the Session Laws of Hawaii 2005, without the Governor's signature.[18][19][20][21] A month later, the Honolulu City Council authorized the one-half percent GET increase,[22] and Hannemann signed the measure into law on August 24.[23] Act 247 required Honolulu to use the funds only for the construction and operation of a mass transit system, and barred its use for public roads and other existing transit systems, such as TheBus. Since no other county authorized the excise tax increase before the deadline of December 31, 2005, the Hawaii GET remains at 4% for Hawaii's three other counties.[18] The increase went into effect on January 1, 2007, and is due to expire on December 31, 2022.[18]

The Legislature considered a bill in the 2009 legislative session that would have redirected income from the half-percent increase back to the state to offset a $1.8 billion projected shortfall in the following three fiscal years.[24][25][26][27] The bill was opposed by Mayor Hannemann and other city leaders who believed that redirecting the money would jeopardize federal funding for the project,[28] and was eventually dropped after U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye indicated to the Legislature that he shared the city's concerns.[29][30]


The City and County of Honolulu Department of Transportation Services released the first formal study related to the HHCTC on November 1, 2006, the Alternatives Analysis Report. The report compared the cost and benefits of a "fixed guideway system," along with three alternatives. The first expanded the existing bus system to match population growth. A second option called for a further expansion to the bus system, with improvements to existing roads. The third alternative proposed a two-lane flyover above the H-1 freeway between Pearl City and Honolulu International Airport, continuing over Nimitz Highway, and into downtown Honolulu. The report recommended construction of the fixed guideway, and is considered the city's official justification for building a rail line.[31][32]

A second planning document, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), studied possible natural and social impacts of the construction and operation of the HHCTC. The DEIS was completed and cleared for public release by the Federal Transit Administration on October 29, 2008. After minor changes were made to comply with state law, the document was distributed via the city's official project website four days later. The DEIS indicated that impacts of the rail project would include land acquisition from private owners on the route, displacement of residents and businesses, aesthetic concerns related to the elevated guideway, and noise from passing trains.[33]

The city was criticized for timing the release only two days before the 2008 general election. City Councilmember Ann Kobayashi, running as a mayoral candidate against incumbent Hannemann, suggested that the city deliberately withheld key information to early voters who had already cast their ballots for the mayoral candidates, and a city charter amendment related to the project.[34][35] The anti-rail advocacy group Stop Rail Now criticized the report for not discussing bus rapid transit and toll lanes, options studied earlier by the city in its Alternatives Analysis.[36][37]

On May 19, 2009, the city released the 623 letters that were received as public comment on the DEIS, following a request for them from City Councilmember Gary Okino. The city is currently in the process of responding to the comments, as part of creating a Final Environmental Impact Statement.[38][39]

A privately-performed alternative study was authorized by landowner Kamehameha Schools and conducted by New Jersey transportation consultant Philip Craig. This study recommended that a portion of the line be moved to Hotel and Queen Streets, inland of the currently planned alignment along Nimitz Highway and Halekauwila Street, and proposes building about 10 miles of the initial 20-mile rail line at ground level, from East Kapolei to Waipahu and from Middle Street to Ala Moana Center. The city's response to the Kameheameha Schools report found that it was biased and designed to support a predetermined outcome. According to the city, the Kamehameha Schools report also overstated the supposed cost savings of ground level rail while underestimating its traffic impacts. The city's response said that an all-elevated train would be safer and have a greater maximum passenger capacity than a ground-level train. According to the city, an at-grade train would also create greater traffic problems and increase commuting times.[40] City Councilmember Charles Djou has supported a public City Council hearing on the study, but Managing Director Kirk Caldwell responded that such a hearing would not generate any new arguments for or against an elevated line, writing, "The arguments in the (Kamehameha Schools)-commissioned report rehash issues that have been discussed in public forums and in Honolulu City Council hearings." Kamehameha Schools owns approximately 229 acres (93 ha) of land near the proposed rail line, and has voiced its worries regarding the elevated line's impact on land values and view planes; the study was commissioned since Kamehameha Schools felt that an at-grade line was not given sufficient attention in the Alternatives Analysis and the subsequent DEIS, although the city has countered that Kamehameha Schools could have responded to either study during their respective public comment periods.[41]

Impact on the 2008 Honolulu elections

The importance of the Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project in the 2008 mayoral election led one observer to describe the vote as a "referendum on rail transit".[3] Two challengers emerged as rivals to incumbent Mufi Hannemann: City Councilmember Ann Kobayashi, and University of Hawaii professor Panos Prevedouros. Kobayashi supported a "rubber-tired" mass transit system, as opposed to the conventional steel-wheel-on-steel-rail system chosen by the Hannemann administration. Prevedouros, on the other hand, opposed any mass transit project, favoring construction of a reversible tollway over the H-1, similar to the Managed Lane option studied in the Alternatives Analysis, and reworking existing road systems to ease congestion.[42] No candidate won a majority of votes in the September 20 primary, forcing a runoff between Hannemann and Kobayashi;[43] Hannemann successfully retained his post with 58% of the vote in the November general election.[44]

On April 22, 2008, the Stop Rail Now advocacy group announced their intent to file a petition with the city to place a question on the 2008 ballot to create an ordinance that read: "Honolulu mass transit shall not include trains or rail."[45] Stop Rail Now attempted to submit the petition with 49,041 signatures to City Clerk Denise De Costa on August 5, but was initially denied after De Costa claimed the city charter did not allow the petition to be submitted less than 180 days before a general election, as the wording of the petition called for a special election.[46][47] Stop Rail Now filed a lawsuit to force the city to accept the petition, and the courts ruled in Stop Rail Now's favor on August 14.[48] Stop Rail Now's petition ultimately failed after De Costa deemed 35,056 of the signatures valid on September 4, well short of the 44,525 required.[49][50]

In response to the possibility that Stop Rail Now's petition would fail, the City Council voted on August 21 to place a proposed amendment to the city charter on the ballot, asking voters to decide the fate of the project.[51] Mayor Hannemann signed the proposal the following day.[52] The City Council's proposed amendment was not intended to have a direct legal effect on the city's ability to continue the project, but was meant as a means for Oahu residents to express their opinions on its construction.[4] The charter amendment was approved with 53% of votes cast in favor and 47% against. The majority of voters in Leeward and Central Oahu, the areas expected to benefit from the project, generally voted in favor of the amendment, while the majority of those living outside the project's scope in Windward Oahu and East Honolulu voted against it.[5]

Burial issues

In October 2009, The Oahu Island Burial Council decided not to join other parties — including the National Parks Service and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation - in signing a rail pact that was outlined by Hannemann that involved a portion of the rail line that will run through Kakaako via Halekauwila Street, whose ground breaking ceremony is scheduled for December 2009. The burial council decision is largely symbolic and isn't expected to stop or delay the rail project. Hannemann wrote to the burial council on October 13, 2009, urging the group to concur with the agreement, which took place on October 20, 2009. The city worked with the council for months to address concerns about the project's potential impact on traditional Hawaiian burials, which are generally unmarked graves. However, burial council members said they should have been consulted and an archaeological inventory survey should have been conducted before selection of a route through Kakaako. The current route will almost certainly encounter buried human remains, which could delay the project and drive up costs. The pact however won't affect the construction of the line. In an effort to alleviate the burial council's concerns, the city agreed to conduct an archaeological inventory survey two years earlier than planned. Such a survey is currently being conducted at the ewa side of the route, which is scheduled to be built first and includes tests at about 80 sites. So far, no burials have been found.

The board, which was appointed by the Governor, is concerned about several locations along the route. They also suggests an alternative line along King or Beretania streets, which would avoid subsurface sandy deposits likely to contain burials. They also conducted a study of their own at the 80 locations along the proposed Ewa line. An archaeological survey for the Middle Street to Ala Moana Center segment will be conducted for 2010.

In a statement from council member Kehau Abad after she told transit officials about their opposition to the pact, "When it comes to the issue that we're concerned with, you picked one of the worst possible alignments." Abad went on to say "What we're concerned about is the public is going to turn around and point to us as the cause of those increases in costs (and) as the cause of delays," she said. "Beyond just us, they're going to turn to the whole Hawaiian community and say it's those Hawaiians who are increasing the costs of this project for everyone. It is the Hawaiians who are holding up progress. We're going to get blamed for something that we knew well in advance would have been coming, but nobody asked us." The City's current plan is to conduct an archaeological survey for the area next year. That will be before a final design is completed for that portion of the project. According to the project manager, if there are substantial finds the require redesign, there will be time to explore the options. Additionally, the city would consider moving train guideway footings and altering utility relocation plans to avoid traditional Hawaiian burials. [53]


During a "State of the Rail" address on October 29, 2009, Mayor Hannemann told the audience that he is willing to delay the start of construction of the line from December 2009 to January 2010. In the speech he gave to invited guests in at The Mission Memorial Auditorium, Hannemann told the audience "I'm announcing today that I'm willing to push back our groundbreaking schedule for at least another month to allow the appropriate federal, state and community organizations to cross the t's and dot the i's." Prior to making the speech, there was opening of a video of Hannemann riding a virtual representation of a train. "This is not a virtual dream folks," Hannemann said. "This is our reality." In the speech, Hannemann also said, "I have said the longer we delay, the more we're going to pay. But I believe we must be prudent at this critical juncture because thorough preparation will contribute to our ultimate success." The speech was taped and aired on three local television stations at a cost of $10,000.

As of January 2010, the timeline as to when -- and if -- the project will be built has started to run into more roadblocks. At issue is Governor Lingle's plan to conduct a thorough review of the project before deciding if she will accept the environmental impact statement (which is key to the project going forward), and a holdup on a intergovernmental agreement on how to mitigate the rail project's impact on historical sites. Another factor is when construction will actually start, which had already missed its December 2009 target and is likely to miss the January 2010 goal, with City officials looking towards February 2010 as a startup even though others are beginning to worry that this project might be delayed even further.[54]

To make more matters even more complicated, The state of Hawaii is expected to hold public hearings on the environmental impacts of Honolulu's planned rail project, which would give the public an opportunity to testify on whether the city's plans to mitigate the environmental impacts of the project are adequate and likely to provide a platform for those opposed to the train as well as groups advocating alternatives such as street-level rail or elevated, managed highway lanes. The decision to hold public hearings could further delay the project, and even City Transportation Director Wayne Yoshioka is disappointed, saying that such hearings were unnecessary because the city held public hearings after it released the project's draft environmental impact statement in 2009.[55]

On January 8, 2010, Governor Lingle suggested that Honolulu should consider adjustments to its planned $5.3 billion elevated commuter rail line — including building a portion of it at street level — to save money and avoid putting more burden on taxpayers in a down economy, saying that "If a project like this fails financially, and 80 percent of the people are here on O'ahu, the state is going to be impacted, and the state is going to have to step in at that point to protect the credit rating of the state and of the city. Because otherwise it would be very difficult for anyone from Hawai'i to be selling bonds." Lingle has also set up a public forum in which The Hawai'i chapter of the American Institute of Architects will provide a presentation on alternative rail plans on January 18, 2010 in the state Capitol auditorium. Lingle notes that giving the AIA a chance to offer their suggestions on building a rail line that would save $2 billion by building 10 of the 20 miles of the line at street level would save taxpayer dollars. This move has sparked criticism from Hannemann, who responded in a written statement, "It's amazing that, in the absence of any state project that would create the thousands of jobs that the rail transit project will, that the governor of this state continues to throw up roadblocks, especially since she championed elevated rail during her first year in office." [56] Unfortunately, there are several companies that will be involved with the project who do not support the AIA's recommondations, saying that the elevated plan is way better and any changes would derail the project altogether.[57]

There was also a attempt by Stop Rail Now to get a anti-rail ordinance measure on the ballot again after appealing a Circuit Court's 2008 decision that prevented the nonprofit group from placing the ordinance on the November 2008 general election ballot, which would have added to more delays. But on December 30, 2009, The Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals sided with the Circuit Court, thus upholding the latter's ruling and allowing the project to proceed.[58]


The proposed rail line has thirty-six stations and runs from Kapolei to Ala Moana Shopping Center in Honolulu, where it will split into spurs leading to the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus and Waikiki. The line will fork near Aloha Stadium into two routes, one passing Honolulu International Airport, and the other moving through Salt Lake, before reuniting at Middle Street in Kalihi. The city currently plans to build the section of the line between eastern Kapolei and Ala Moana Shopping Center, excluding the portion passing Salt Lake, with a total of twenty-one stations along the route.[6] The city council initially decided to build the Salt Lake route before the airport route, the result of a compromise with City Councilmember Romy Cachola, whose constituents include Salt Lake residents.[59][60] After the city charter amendment on rail transit passed, the City Council reconsidered the decision, and decided to re-route the rail line to pass by Pearl Harbor and the airport.[61][62] The line will be served by 200 ft (61 m) long trains, each with a capacity of 300 passengers. The trains will operate with up to twenty departures per hour.[7]

The line is scheduled to open in five phases between 2012 and 2018:[63][64]

  • 2012: West Loch – Pearl Highlands
  • 2013: East Kapolei – West Loch
  • 2016: Pearl Highlands – Aloha Stadium
  • 2017: Aloha Stadium – Middle Street
  • 2019: Middle Street – Ala Moana Center

The rail line, as currently planned, will be built starting from suburban areas in Kapolei and Ewa, and progressing towards the urban center in Honolulu. This is because the first phase includes a baseyard for trains, and a planning decision by the city to delay the major infrastructure impacts associated with construction in the urban center to later phases of the project.[65] Future extensions are planned to eventually service the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and Waikiki, as well as Kalaeloa.[64]

On October 21, 2009, the city announced Kiewit Pacific Co. had won the $483 million contract to build the first two stages of the line, bidding $90 million under the expected price. The stations will be tendered separately. Construction is scheduled to begin in December 2009, pending approval of the environmental impact statement by the state and federal governments and approval of funding from the Federal Transit Administration. Bids for the next section from Pearl Highlands and Aloha Stadium are expected in November 2009.[64][66]

Planned Stations

On September 29, 2009, Oahu Transit Services and the City & County of Honolulu announced plans to build a intermodal transit center that will be located at TheBus' facilities at Middle Street. The $8.2 million dollar project, called The Middle Street Intermodal Center, whose location will take up a large portion of the Middle Street-Kamehameha Highway intersection, is scheduled to open in October 2010. The newly expanded facility will incorporate TheBus, HandiVan, bicycles, cars, walking and the future light rail line, that, once completed in 2017 (after the line expands from the Aloha Stadium portion to the Middle Street station stop during its fourth phase), will include a bridge and walkway for passengers who want to make connections to the rail line from the transit center. In addition, the center will also have a 1000-car parking facility, an enclosed transit layover bay for waiting passengers, an electronic information billboard, a customer service center, two restroom buildings, a utility building and security office.[67]


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