Elevated rail line breaks ground in Hawaii

It will support new development, including a huge new urban project called Ho’opili

A $5.5 billion, 20-mile, 21-station elevated rail line has broken ground on the island of Oahu, designed to connect downtown Honolulu to growing areas to the west. Along that line, the biggest proposed development, Ho’opili, is far too well-planned to be accurately called sprawl. Nevertheless, as The Transport Politic reports, the line’s effect on the built environment is raising concerns:

“… the elevated guideway will not be a particularly beautiful addition to the Hawai’i landscape, and in some places it could represent a barrier between the city and its waterfront. The alignment will require 20 residences and 66 businesses to be bulldozed. It is also expensive: A ground-level light rail line or a busway could probably be built for fewer funds. Yet neither would provide the kind of mobility benefits the automated rail line would.

“Moreover, opponents of the project suggest that its appeal — fast transit times from downtown to the far west side of the island — will encourage sprawl in areas around the planned university and in Kapolei. Indeed, there are already proposals on the books for a giant project with thousands of homes that will shift patterns of house-building activity to this area. Is it worth paving over now-agricultural land for the purposes of building park-and-rides with the assumption that in the future these areas will become transit-oriented cities of their own?”

Ho’opili, the giant project referred do, is to be developed by major builder D.R. Horton. It includes about 12,000 housing units on 1,600 acres, all of it walkable, as New Urban News reported in 2008. It includes a fine-grained mix of uses, neighborhood schools and parks throughout the plan, and two transit stations — one inside the project and another on the edge linking Ho’opili to a new campus of the University of Hawaii. The development will include areas of high, medium, and low density housing. Even the low-density housing will consist of relatively small lots of single family housing on blocks with alleys.

There’s plenty that can go wrong — a national builder like D.R. Horton is bound to make some compromises — how these compromises are made will be key. Also, traffic engineers and others who will have a hand in the project may do some damage. But Ho’opili appears to be planned by design firm Van Meter Williams Pollack as well as a large greenfield development can be planned, or close to it. It should be a model for this kind of development.