Land Use Key to Understanding Real Solutions to Honolulu Traffic Congestion

by Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D 

O’ahu residents can be excused for being confused about the current state of Honolulu’s  transportation policy. This mid-size city faces big city traffic problems, and practical strategies to mitigate its economic and social impacts are hard to see in the current transportation policy debate. This is unfortunate because near-term solutions to congestion exist, although it will take leadership and fundamental rethinking of how the city is changing to give them the priority they deserve.
Honolulu residents know where and when congestion is worst. A weekday drive from the H1/H2 merge to the University of Hawai’i when school is in session gives anyone a taste of the LA-style congestion residents feel on a routine basis.

Any meaningful attempt to address congestion, however, requires understanding how current and future land development will shift the island’s economy in fundamental ways.

According to county planning documents, the Primary Urban Center, which includes Waikiki, downtown, Aiea, and Pearl City, has consistently failed to meet its population projections. In 2000, planners expected this area of the city to reach 454,000 in 2010. In fact, population will likely be lucky to reach 420,000.

But the real action is happening elsewhere on the island. Based on announced housing development plans, Central O’ahu could add another 100,000 people, reaching nearly 260,000 by 2025. Based on current plans and recent growth, Ewa will likely reach a population of 218,000. Combined these two areas will exceed the population of the Primary Urban Center as its population falls to about one third of the island (assuming historical trends in population).

How realistic are these projections? Based on current large housing projects current entitled or in the process of entitlement, Ewa will add enough housing to boost its population by another 153,000 based on the island’s average household size. Central O’ahu will be adding housing capable of boosting its population to by another 55,000. The Primary Urban Center will add just 13,000 people.
These population shifts have two fundamental implications for island transportation policy.

First, Honolulu is decentralizing, now in population but later in employment. While densities will likely remain high relative to mainland cities, current land-use and housing development patterns in places such as Kapolei, Wahiawa, and the Millianimauka-Launani Valley make clear that true urban densities are decades away from becoming reality.

Second, the linear character of Honolulu development has broken. Central O’ahu has already emerged as a significant third traffic corridor, which is why the H1/H2 split is such a debilitating chokepoint. More importantly, the development of the southwestern region is putting even greater stress on the H1 which is responsible for handling all the western traffic going to Pearl Harbor, Downtown, Waikiki, and UH.

But, there is hope. Paradoxically, policymakers and planners have allowed congestion to reach such significant levels that meaningful improvements to the highway network could be achieved within five to ten years if the county and state embrace public private partnerships and let private capital step into add new highway capacity.

An excellent candidate project would be to add high occupancy toll lanes, or HOT lanes on the H1, to boost travel times and give travelers a meaningful alternative to congestion paralleling from the H1/H2 split to the University of Hawai’i. HOT Lanes let high occupancy vehicles—vans, transit buses, and passenger cars with three or more riders—use them for free. Single occupant vehicles pay a toll for the privilege of ride that is guaranteed at freeway speeds, 24/7.

These roads have fully paid for themselves in other cities, and this may well be the case for Honolulu. This suggests private capital can supplement local funds to build these facilities while shifting the risk away from taxpayers and onto private investors.

In addition, policymakers should consider creating a new access point to the downtown from Ewa by building a toll tunnel underneath Pearl Harbor. This concept is embedded in an transportation alternatives analysis conduced by University of Hawai’i transportation engineer (and mayoral candidate) Panos Prevedouros and his graduate students in 2008. It’s worth a hard look by state and local policymakers since it anticipates future travel patterns and development.

Unfortunately, most of the political attention has been on an elevated rail project that is both outsized for the city and fails generate near term benefits. The current proposal, which begins with transit stations in the greenfields of eastern Ewa and low density Waipahu, will take decades to develop. The eastern terminus is in downtown, not the more logical Waikiki or University of Hawai’i. In short, the transit corridor misses all the important aspects of the city that would benefit from rail the most.

A far more effective strategy would be to focus practical and strategic investments in new road capacity such as HOT lanes and a toll tunnel.

Samuel Staley is the Robert W. Galvin Fellow and Director of Urban and Land Use Policy, Reason Foundation. This article is based on comments made at the Transportation Week Forum hosted by the O’ahu Chapter of the National Defense Transportation Association held on May 19, 2010 at the Pearl Country Club. His most recent book is Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

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