Oahu needs rail — for jobs, for family and for economy

Idea first proposed almost 40 years ago; this may be last try 

By Bob Nakata

Many of us have become concerned that the Honolulu rail project is grinding to a halt.

It is worth remembering why many of us wanted rail in the first place. It has been almost 40 years since rail was first proposed — a political lifetime. In the early 1970s, some of us tried to transfer H-3 funds into mass transit. Over those years, our island has gone through an inexorable sprawling pattern to development.

In recent years, we have found ourselves increasingly fighting defensive battles like the efforts to save Kukui Gardens or preserve Kawela Bay.

It seems like people of my generation are looking in a rear-view mirror at an ever-receding local style of the good life. So much of the work of our public life these days is spent trying to hold on to this or that remnant of that lost good life. The rail project is one of the few things that show real promise for being more than a defensive struggle, of being more than a nostalgic effort.

Most people can agree that the public process simply hasn't been handled as smoothly as it might have been, and the result is that what's at stake gets lost in favor of arguments about this fund or that tax, or even this or that individual politician or contractor.

Building the public will on this was left out of Mayor Mufi Hanneman's planning, for better or worse. But that argument can await another day.What is important now is that we all remember why the rail is so important.

First, rail — and mass transit in general — tends to limit sprawl. It does this by channeling and attracting capital investment to areas near the stops. City planners have known this for decades, and Portland or San Francisco are great examples.

On an island like ours this is of enormous benefit because it will channel the investment driving real estate development back into the city, and away from the shrinking pristine places like the North Shore.

Second, it is the biggest redevelopment project in Honolulu's recent history. As such it will help to recast neighborhoods and gives us a chance to tackle our deep affordable housing crisis. Transit-oriented development and transit villages have the potential to solve many of O'ahu's longstanding housing problems.

Third, for many of us it is the best public jobs program in our lifetime. No one can argue that we remain in a deep recession with many families out of work and struggling to make ends meet.

Rail puts people back to work, and that's what you are supposed to do in a recession. Even archconservative Milton Friedman admitted that transit was an appropriate place for government spending. Arguments against the rail on the grounds that it raised taxes, or is a giveaway to unions are troglodyte economics. We need to be smarter than that about our future.

Finally, and perhaps most important, it will make for a more livable city. This is a vital truth too often left out of the discussion; for families living from Pearl City on, the traffic has an enormous corrosive effect on their lives.

The extra hours lost each week is time stolen from families who live in 'Ewa and Leeward O'ahu.

People my age have waited a long time for an opportunity to get the kind of transit system that truly great cities have. If we miss the chance this time, we might never get another.

We will never again have the kind of political power in Washington, D.C., to bring the federal dollars that are needed to fund and operate one system. I hope we can put aside the momentary politics and move forward quickly.

Bob Nakata is president of Faith Action for Community Equity in Honolulu.

Opinion originally Posted on: Friday, February 12, 2010 - HonoluluAdvisor.com