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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 23, 2010

Transportation woes hurt our island state

By Jay Fidell



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Hawai'i's troubled transportation system is standing in the way of a recovery. Without good transportation, our Islands are becoming more isolated and our economy more frustrated.

We don't have the benefit of contiguous counties or states. Our island configuration is unique and remote. Years ago, this was charming. Now, it's a challenge we need to meet.

Getting around always requires energy. The governor's clean-energy initiative has lost its priority in the recession, and we're way off schedule. This loss of momentum has slowed down advances we might have made in energy for transportation.


A destination resort island state needs to give good welcome to its visitors. Here, too, we're in crisis. Honolulu International, as everyone knows, is embarrassing. It's out of date and badly maintained. It needs an overhaul, but don't hold your breath.

Hawai'i is dependent on tourism. Tourism is dependent on transportation. Hawai'i therefore depends on transportation. As transportation costs increase, tourism decreases, shrinking our jobs, businesses and tax base the price of dependency.

With oil up, it's no surprise that Japan carriers have reduced their flights to Hawai'i. Kudos to Mazie Hirono for organizing a new route to Haneda, but where are the China flights Linda Lingle promised us? The Chinese travel everywhere, but not here. Without them, our tourism economy will continue to slip.


Interisland air travel is more expensive than we can afford. Clearly, this is related to Aloha's demise and the fact that we now have only one major airline. Fuel surcharges keep getting tacked on to marine cargo costs, but never seem to come off.

Any increase in transportation costs makes prices and the cost of living higher everywhere in the state. Sure, a quart of milk costs more, but it's not only the milk it's everything. The quality of our lives is affected on a daily basis by those prices. This is worse for people with low-paying jobs or with no jobs.

Medical specialists are leaving the Neighbor Islands at an alarming rate, so an aging population now has to travel to O'ahu for routine care. The formidable cost of those trips drives health costs way up. Can't we give them a break?


The Superferry was a visionary idea calculated to bring the state together, giving us logistics we never had before. You could take your car, family, pets and plants. Everyone, especially farmers, could go to market at a fraction of the barge.

Coastal and island states everywhere have ferries. One would have expected our state officials to develop a statewide ferry system decades ago, but they could never do it. When private enterprise did it, those officials couldn't find a way to save it.

Someday, the enormity of losing the Superferry will dawn on us. We need a ferry again, but we don't have one, and we won't have one, and for the lack of it we're steadily slipping into a kind of transportation abyss. The interisland gap is widening.


Demographics have doubled, but our roads certainly haven't. We need timed lights, traffic sensors, automated lanes and smart intersections. Rail won't do this for us. It will serve Kapolei, but most people don't live there, and rail won't help them. The billions would be better spent in traffic technology.

After they leave the airport, what will Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation heads of state think when their motorcades are engulfed in the flash jams paralyzing our roads? Will our transportation systems give them confidence in Hawai'i? Flowers on Nimitz won't help.

But the Hele-On bus system under Mayor Billy Kenoi on the Big Island is a breath of fresh air. It's free, and reflects a caring and kindness for riders, many of whom need to travel long distances to low-paying jobs. We should make it statewide.

Government has shown it is not adept at building transportation. The key is creative privatization where a right-of-way is leased to a contractor who arranges financing and recoups the cost through invisible tolls. This is happening on the Mainland, Europe and China.


These transportation issues distance the Islands and make us less cohesive and less effective as a state. How can our people achieve their potential if getting around isn't easy and cheap?

As with other infrastructure, we have not attended to our transportation systems. The resulting crisis constrains our ability to get to work and build the state's economy. As an island state, we need to catch up if we hope to compete in a world that demands new levels of mobility and logistics.

Honolulu will spend tons of money to look good for APEC, but we need to do more than showboat Waikīkī for one event. We need a heads-up statewide transportation system that is world-class and worthy, not only for heads of state but all of us. At this point, we need to put the pedal down for transportation.

Jay Fidell is a business lawyer practicing in Honolulu. He has followed tech and tech policy closely and is a founder of ThinkTech Hawaii. Check out his blog at www.HonoluluAdvertiser.com/Blogs.