The start of construction on Honolulu rail brings back a lot of memories for me. In 1977, I attended one of the first groundbreaking ceremonies for the 103-mile Metrorail system, not because I was a radio reporter for a Washington D.C. all-news radio station at the time but because I was dating a spokeswoman for WMATA, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, pronounced "wah-MAH-tah." We wore matching T-shirts to announce to her co-workers that we were a couple. In my defense I was 24 at the time.
Marilyn organized the ceremony and in the trunk of her car had copies of all the speeches - one of the politicians always forgot his own copy - extra ribbon, extra scissors, and an extra shovel. For the next two decades she would never be without these items in the trunk of her car, as she organized one groundbreaking after another, then one ribboncutting after another. I was dragged along to many of these events, learning about the delicate diplomacy of which dignitaries sat where - if the ceremony was in Virginia, did a local county executive trump a member of Congress from the Maryland side of the river? - and there was always someone who showed up unannounced but expected to be seated.
Until the first part opened, Metro was controversial. There were complaints that it was too expensive, and that it didn't go to the right places. The first opening was to be a small Red Line segment from Union Station, a couple blocks north of the Capitol, west and north to Dupont Circle, a few blocks south of Embassy Row. Who would ride such a short subway? If the phrase had existed in those days, perhaps someone would have called it a Subway to Nowhere. From pillow talk I knew that the plan was to get part of the line operational anywhere, so people could see what their tax dollars were buying them.
In retrospect I can see that two key things were different about the political situation in those days, factors in favor of the project which rail proponents in Hawaii have not enjoyed.
The first was that a really expensive highway project was proposed through the heart of the District of Columbia at about the same time, and drew a great deal of NIMBY opposition, so much so that Interstate 95, the main highway down the Atlantic seaboard, was never built through D.C., and to this day the route merely circles the nation's capital on the eastern half of the Capital Beltway. The original highway, from the southern end of the city, crosses the Potomac, tunnels under Capitol Hill, emerges a couple blocks west of Union Station, and simply ends. The point is that the rail project made sense in many ways that a new freeway didn't, and this was more evident to people because they were confronted with both kinds of projects at the same time. In Honolulu rail proponents are constantly trying to remind people how expensive the H-3 was, and even that is an inadequate comparison because the true comparison would be a new route through the city, paralleling, or over top of, the H-1, and that would be so much more disruptive it will clearly never happen.
The second was that the Washington D.C. has three major jurisdictions: D.C., Maryland and Virginia; or more if you drill down to the city-county level: D.C., Montgomery Co., Md., Prince Georges County, Md., Arlington Co., Va., Fairfax Co., Va., the City of Alexandria, Va., and some other smaller city jurisdictions, and they never seriously considered opposing Metro because they were busy trying to get their share for the smallest financial contribution they could manage. In Hawaii, it's all one jurisdiction, with neighbor island counties left on the sidelines to heckle, though the day will come when one or more of those counties will need new transportation corridors, too.
The first line opened, also in 1977, and in an instant the rail debate changed. Office workers used it to go to lunch farther away from work than had previously been convenient. Thousands of people tried the system. And they liked it. This stretch was entirely underground. Eventually the above-ground parts began to open, and suddenly Metro was a tourist attraction. Some of the best views of the capital are from Metro trains. Finally the system reached the real suburbs, where the stations had large parking lots and feeder bus service. The system has been busy ever since, despite the fact that it was conceived as a hub-and-spoke system and a third of all D.C. area commutes are circumferential.
The system focused development in the D.C. area. New office buildings and high-density residential high-rises went up within walking distance of stations. Which meant they didn't go up in other places. Arlington County, Va., the part of Virginia that would be part of D.C. if D.C. were a complete diamond, is to this day a sleepy bedroom community just a couple blocks from the shiny urban string that has grown above the Blue Line. Or is it the Orange Line? It's been a long time.
By focusing development where the trains ran, Metro slowed development where it didn't go, accomplishing more in the direction of sensible urban planning that all the zoning rules in the world had before it.
Many people who don't think they want Honolulu rail believe they won't ride it, and assume most people won't ride it. But the experience of Washington D.C., and other cities with new rail systems far less ambitious than Metro, is that everyone does. People buy condos on the line and use it to commute. Most don't give up their cars, but they drive them less hard, which emboldens them to buy nicer ones. That's what happened in D.C., where car dealers had initially opposed rail. So did cab companies, only to find that they developed a whole new business providing daily rides to outlying stations.
There is a whole cottage industry of people who lobby against rail projects - most of the opposition arguments heard in Honolulu can be found, sometimes word for word, on Web sites of lobbying and consulting organizations who make their living on highway projects - but I knew those people in D.C. and some of them rode Metro to work.
This doesn't mean everything they say is wrong. Any major public works project runs the risk of cost overruns, time delays or other screw-ups. It happens to highway projects and it can happen to transit projects. In some cities it has. Honolulu has been okay on budget projections so far, and tax revenues are actually ahead of schedule, which is impressive in this economy. But there is always tomorrow, and watchdogging is good, so long as it's not merely a deceitful way of trying to kill the project. Close watchers of the debate have seen several people pretend to be independent analysts, only to be unmasked as partisan from the first, and we have a couple of politicians who claim not to be against rail, merely insisting it be "done right," who really are against rail.
The Potemkin village of Honolulu rail opponents - half a dozen asphalt huggers and retirees in need of hobbies, masquerading as a movement - has succeeded in getting so much press and air time that some regular citizens are starting to wonder if they're right. I'll be sorry if the opponents succeed. I don't know if they can kill rail, but I know this: they won't be able to build a new highway, either over the present one or anywhere else. The challenges to a narrow rail line are nothing compared to what a wide new highway would face.