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Sunday, August 25, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Does Honolulu provide answer to Seattle's gridlock?

HONOLULU — A decade ago, this mid-Pacific city came within a single council vote of committing itself to a full-scale light-rail system — and then backed off. But now, faced with still-worsening traffic congestion, Honolulu seems about ready to go for a system of exclusive, rapid busways.

Why? First, there's compelling need. Some people are leaving home as early as 4:30 a.m., then sleeping in their cars until work time, to avoid the gruesome traffic tie-ups between the growing suburban Kapolei area, 25 miles to the west, and downtown Honolulu.

A partially exclusive busway system from Kapolei, through downtown Honolulu and the Waikiki Beach area and the University of Hawaii, argues Honolulu City Councilman Duke Bainum, can be up and running, reducing traffic migraines, much faster than rail. And the costs will also be dramatically lower.

As opposed to the early '90s, when Honolulu's mayor and the transit agency pressed for a preconceived system, the current process first involved citizens from across Oahu in extensive debates about the island's transportation alternatives. More recently, local user groups have been consulted extensively on individual segments of the busway system that emerged as the peoples' favorite.

So far, Honolulu's switch in preferences — from rail to bus — is an exception. Light rail has been the overwhelming choice, picked in recent years by 15 cities, from Baltimore and Buffalo to Dallas, San Diego, the Twin Cities and Seattle. Because it's fixed, rail suggests permanence. That more easily stimulates private investments along the right of way. People prefer the ride on railcars and trolleys; most, in any event, have never ridden on a new, low-platform, truly high-quality bus.

Busways, though, are starting to gain ground. They have positive records, enjoying positive reputations in such cities as Pittsburgh, Ottawa and, just recently, Los Angeles. L.A.'s new Wilshire-Whittier line, with service every five minutes, is racking up ridership levels comparable with any U.S. light-rail line. The nearby San Fernando Valley gets its own busway this fall.

Openness to busways has expanded rapidly as U.S. politicos and transit officials have visited Curitiba, Brazil. Curitiba's expansive system of "surface subways" — five exclusive busway routes carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers daily — sets a kind of marker for system superiority: the buses are triple-length, accommodating up to 270 passengers; they pre-empt traffic signals to maintain speed; fares are collected before passengers board.

The Federal Transit Administration, which subsidizes many new transit starts across the United States, has jumped into the busway effort with a demonstration program covering 10 cities — Honolulu included. The FTA's new slogan: "Think rail, use buses."

Where many busways are truly inferior is in lack of completely exclusive lanes in inner cities. From Boston to Honolulu, merchants and motorists fight to keep privileges that easily slow buses, from parking along the bus routes to right turns across the bus lanes.

And even with lower capital costs, public approvals don't come easily. Despite Honolulu's clear commitment to a rapid bus system, Hawaii's Transportation Department remains aloof — 100 percent auto-oriented, "prehistoric on new alternatives," charges Bainum. It even favors double-decking the Nimitz Highway artery, he notes.

"But people don't come to Hawaii to see concrete: that's not why we live here, why people come here," adds Bainum. "We need to diminish our total reliance on automobiles." Adequate transit, he says, is like a major improvement to one's house: It's a big heartache to get done, but afterward one wonders "how could we ever not have done it?"

Sitting 2,000 nautical miles west of the continental United States, it's heartening to hear a local official impatient for action and quality. "Great cities of the world have great transit systems," says Bainum. "Hawaii has limited land space; we're picture perfect for bus rapid transit. Years from now, we may be ready for rail. But not yet. To do nothing now is shameful."

What the bus rapid transit movement may achieve is just what Bainum says Honolulans now want — affordability, sustainability, and community-responsive design. It's a breakthrough opportunity.

One can imagine hundreds of American communities making the same choice. In time, many may choose to convert to rail for still-higher capacity. But today's mounting congestion adds urgency. Where the choice is a busway now or rail much later, then busway logic is tough to refute.

Neal Peirce's e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com.

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