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Editorial | Island Voices

Not too late for Oahu mag-lev rail

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The furor over costs of the planned steel wheel on steel rail (SWSR) transit system suggests another look at how best to meet Oahu’s commuting needs.

Compared to any steel wheels system, the High Speed Surface Transport (HSST) magnetic-levitation system is at least twice as quiet as noise-mitigated SWSR, safer because it wraps around the guideway beam and cannot derail, can be designed for operations at varying speeds, will use smaller structures and thus have less visual blight, and has smoother riding because it levitates above the beam.

Is the "train too far down the track" to change course? Not at all, if the mayor and the City Council take actions appropriate to implementing the best system at the best cost. Here’s how:

» Ask the City Council for a bill on a comprehensive design, build, operate and maintain contract, and then announce an open competition among all qualified rail suppliers.

» Direct re-accomplishment of the environmental impact statement to cover all qualified rail technologies.

» State that the city will request the bulk of federal funds on schedule (i.e., before October 2011), and plan contracts accordingly.

» Give a no-cost change order to the main contractor prematurely awarded a guideway construction contract — and is only in the soil sampling phase — to be prepared for possible (guideway) changes.

Despite nearly six years of accident-free revenue operations in Nagoya, a Japanese urban mag-lev system continues to be ignored by the city and its Department of Transportation Services. A sleek and quiet mag-lev system not only is better for residents and businesses along the route but can become a magnet for tourists, Hawaii’s lifeline. Mag-lev’s reliability rating exceeds 99.9 percent; can any SWSR system match that?

As for cost, the HSST supplier estimated that Oahu’s planned 20-mile guideway could be built for $570 million less than SWSR (or more than four miles of additional guideway for the current budget, enough to reach the University of Hawaii campus in Manoa and into Waikiki). For operations and maintenance, despite using more electricity (for levitation), the virtually frictionless mag-lev would save 30 percent-plus in costs per year (or $1 billion over 30 years).

Aren’t these advantages worth considering? Why not take the opportunity to implement 21st century mag-lev technology?

Those who anticipated mag-lev to be a strong contender were encouraged in 2007 by the lead city DTS project manager, who briefed a competition among four types of rail: SWSR, rubber tire on concrete, conventional monorail and urban mag-lev. Ten suppliers of all four technologies responded to a city Request for Information, and the City Council voted 7-2 for fixed guideway transit in December 2006. Five non-SWSR suppliers, after making presentations to the city, were to be denied when the city brought in four "hired guns" to recommend SWSR during two public meetings of a so-called expert panel in 2008. The lone dissenting member called selection of the panel a "case study in manipulation." The city’s SWSR "push" resulted in alienation of three Council members and — to date — no more than four positive votes for SWSR in any Council session. With three of those supporters no longer in office, one wonders what the new Council will do concerning rail.

The city’s campaign in 2008 convinced voters that "rail" was a synonym for SWSR, producing a favorable vote on the (SWSR) ballot question.

But those who went from backers to critics of the rail project believe the environmental impact statement (EIS) does not meet its own Notice of Intent in 2007: "The draft EIS would consider five distinct transit technologies: Light rail transit, rapid rail transit, rubber-tired guided vehicles, a magnetic levitation system, and a monorail system." The final EIS eventually rejected the mag-lev as "proprietary technology unproven in U.S." and rubber tires and monorail as "proprietary technology." Obviously, the rationale is specious. There are times when the competitive accomplishments of other nations must be acknowledged and adopted.

The mayor and the City Council chairman must pursue the best technology to address community concerns on both cost and operations of the Honolulu rail project. Doing it right the first time is the best way to deter rail opponents and ensure the project’s success and long-lasting sustainable operations. Wake, up, Honolulu!

Frank Genadio is a retired Air Force officer and systems analyst; Amarjit Singh is a professor of construction and engineering management at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

 

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