Hawaii’s Train to the Future

The path to a walkable, livable urban future is filled with hurdles.  Take, for instance, the public transit battle being waged in Hawaii. Tourists to Hawaii are often transported deftly […]

The path to a walkable, livable urban future is filled with hurdles.  Take, for instance, the public transit battle being waged in Hawaii. Tourists to Hawaii are often transported deftly from Honolulu airport to Waikiki beach. The residents of Oahu, however, experience a very different side of the island. In addition to the beauty, wealth, and booming tourist industry, there is the reality of most native Hawaiians:  high unemployment, a significant lack of affordable housing, and some of the worst traffic in the nation.

Since 2008, when residents first voted in support of developing a 20-mile rail project, Hawaiians made clear that they wanted to determine their own future well-being.  The 21-stop, $5.26 billion dollar rail project is the largest public works endeavor in the history of the state. The development of the rail-transit system is not only a way to reduce commute times, it is an affordable, convenient, and sustainable form of public transit.  Residents are clear that they no longer want to sit in traffic. They are also clear that the future can be different. Unlike alternatives such as an elevated busy-way or bus rapid transit, the rail transit system will remove 40,000 cars off the roads.  Residents don’t want to add a busy-way and come back to this issue in another 20 years. The vote for public rail transit was a vote for the future. 

Further, such a public rail system will help to connect living-wage jobs with affordable housing while creating new jobs through transit infrastructure and transportation.  It is economic development that can improve the quality of life for a wide range of people.  A recent report released by Gamaliel Foundation, “Community Organizing as Job Creator: An Investment that Works for All,” documents the significant returns on investment that funds for public transportation and infrastructure bring.  For every dollar invested in transit and infrastructure, the GDP increases by $1.44 and $1.31 respectively in the following year.  Investing in rail transit is meeting a future-oriented community need while providing viable jobs for those in need now.

One of the driving forces behind the effective voice of the public has been Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE), a local faith-based grassroots organization that works toward social, economic, and community justice.  FACE has helped to organize the local community to promote their future-oriented vision.  As much as residents want to reduce their commute times, they also need jobs, transit villages and a long-term solution.  By helping to build relationships amongst key stakeholders, FACE is working to bring about lasting policy change and a new future for Hawaii.  Advocates and organizers such as Pacific Resource Partnership (PRP), a cooperative between contractors and the Hawaii Carpenters Union, have also been integral to the long campaign for rail. 

These alliances and the organization amongst residents and workers helped advocates to overcome significant opposition.  Construction was underway and hundreds of millions of dollars were spent when former Gov. Ben Cayetano, ran his recent mayoral campaign on stopping the rail project. Despite a close contest, Mayor-elect Kirk Caldwell defeated him, standing in full support of the rail project.  This was not the first battle testing the will of residents, however.  A federal lawsuit attempting to stop the Honolulu transit project was brought by opponents, including Cayetano.  They argued that additional environmental assessments should be run and that the project was a waste of taxpayer money. FACE, PRP, and other groups filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit and bring testimony on Hawaiians' desires to proceed with the plan. 

Despite a variety of hurdles since the first vote in 2008, the effort is now, amazingly, underway.  Just days ago, on November 29th, Honolulu City Council Committee made a resolution to accept a Full Funding Grant Agreement with the Federal Transit Administration. With the signature of Mayor Peter Carlisle, Oahu will receive $1.55 billion in funding to move forward with the rail-transit system. There is clear public support to fund this project and develop a rail transit system but more work will need to be done by FACE, PRP and other advocates to bring this project to full fruition. 

Opponents argued that Oahu traffic problems should be solved with buses and busy-ways: a Band-Aid solution. Residents and organizers, however, pushed for a more comprehensive response and a more sustainable future. Hawaiians' tenacity when faced with huge issues which require thoughtful solutions was proven last year in their incredible anti-foreclosure law, reported on earlier in Rooflines.  

The future Hawaiians want requires thoughtful planning and organized efforts.  The residents of Hawaii and FACE took a giant step forward last week. If they keep their eyes on the prize through 2017 and the completion of the rail system, they will create a beautiful model of sustainable living for those of us on the mainland and throughout the world.

(Photo of Hawaii traffic by Nick Mote, CC BY.)

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