Living in Honolulu the last few years, I’ve heard bits and snatches of talk about a proposed (and apparently already underway, though widely opposed) rail line connecting Kapolei, Waipahu, and Pearl City (to the west and north of Pearl Harbor) with downtown Honolulu to the east.
Today, Archaeology.org’s daily archaeology news roundup links to a KITV (Honolulu local news) video report about a new obstacle to the project. A Native Hawaiian woman by the name of Paulette Kaleikini has brought a lawsuit claiming that the full route needs to be archaeologically surveyed before construction continues, since there may be Hawaiian burial sites along the route. It is unclear from the article & video report what, if any, connection Ms. Kaleikini has to larger Native Hawaiian advocacy groups, or on what grounds she claims to be either a spokesperson for the Native Hawaiian community, or an archaeology/heritage expert.1 But, since the honored remains (known as ʻiwi in the Hawaiian language) of Native Hawaiian ancestors are scattered throughout the island, and very very frequently found when attempting a construction project, it does seem, on the surface, that there is indeed a high likelihood that the route will run across sacred burial sites.
Part of what makes this difficult is the fact that, unlike many other cultures, Native Hawaiians traditionally did not concentrate their burials in a single location (i.e. a cemetery), nor mark burials in any way. To the contrary, burials, especially of people of high birth or great power, known as aliʻi, were deliberately hidden and kept secret, so that no one could steal the ʻiwi (the bones) and in doing so steal the person’s mana – their power. When I first arrived in Hawaii, I thought the whole thing more than a little absurd; firstly, if you didn’t even know it was there, how can it be a sacred site? And secondly, if you value all the land (ʻaina) in the islands as sacred, then how is anything supposed to be built, ever? I have since learned to appreciate the Native Hawaiian culture, heritage, and beliefs a lot more, and feel bad for my prior attitudes. Still, these questions remain. Native Hawaiians enjoy the benefits of “modern” life just as much as the next person, and so they too must negotiate (and I am sure they do) for themselves where they stand in terms of there being a balance between protecting the ʻaina and allowing roads, buildings, and perhaps railroads to be built.
Now, in theory, as in any other archaeologically rich part of the world, the railroad route could simply be altered to go around any burial sites or other archaeologically significant sites that may be uncovered. The question is whether the planners will actually do that, whether they will choose to invest the time and money to do what has to be done to respect these sites, or whether they will (pardon the pun) rairoad right over Native objections, as has happened so many times in the past. Since this is a State Supreme Court case we are discussing, of course, there is also the technical legal matter of whether or not it is legal to do the archaeological survey in phases (as is being done, and as federal law allows) or whether it must be done along the entire route first, before construction can continue (as Kaleikini alleges is mandated by state law).
It remains to be seen whether the railroad project will go forward without a full archaeological survey being completed first. But, in the meantime, I think there is a lot of need for it, and at the same time a lot of very appropriate and correct-minded opposition.
Earlier this week, Honolulu was announced to have the worst traffic congestion in the US. Congratulations! It was obvious to me almost from the moment I stepped off the airplane three years ago that Oahu residents love their cars, and love driving, and that despite (a) it being a small, relatively compact town with the perfect climate for walking, biking, or skateboarding, (b) everyone’s desire to preserve and protect the beautiful natural environment, and (c) the terrible congestion on the freeway, in Waikiki, and elsewhere, there is little impetus to change. It is in fact an extremely unfriendly city for bicyclists, chiefly in terms of drivers’ complete disregard for bicyclists in terms of sharing the road, in terms of looking out for bicycles and not hitting them, and in terms of just generally being good drivers and acting in a predictable manner. I know numerous people who have gotten hit on their bicycle or moped and either seriously injured or killed.
So, yes. We absolutely need a railroad. However, while I do believe that there must be plenty of people who are simply bullheaded about their car-centered culture and who would oppose any improvement or expansion of public transportation2, the opposition we hear the most about focuses instead on the incredible monetary cost of the project, and on the allegation that the technology and design were already on the verge of being outdated before construction even began – by the time it’s complete, the whole thing will be even more outdated. If you’re interested in seeing more specifically what reasons people are giving for their opposition, I invite you to Google it.
Meanwhile, while I do support the expansion of public transportation – specifically of the railroad variety – on Oahu, I think it positively asinine to build it where they are planning right now. The proposed line runs from Kapolei to Ala Moana, in downtown Honolulu. It does not connect to the University, to Kaimuki or Hawaii Kai, or any other areas I have ever been, or needed to get to, or where anyone I know lives. Kapolei, I am told, is a relatively wealthy neighborhood, full of the kinds of people who have the kind of influence to bring a railroad out to their neck of the woods first, rather than to anyone else’s.3 These are, of course, the same kind of people who can afford the nicest cars and (for some reason, somehow) would never “stoop” to riding public transportation.
Personally, I say screw Kapolei. They can drive in. Or they can move somewhere more normal. Meanwhile, it’s the people all the way on the other side of the island, in Kailua and Kaneohe, who could really use a train, so that they don’t have to deal with the traffic on the Pali Highway, and with having to drive all the way across the island, each way, every day. And so that people like me, who don’t have cars, don’t have to deal with the ridiculously long bus ride to get out there, to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. A train over to Kailua/Kaneohe, connecting to the University (hard to bike to because it’s up in the mountains), Kaimuki, and Waikiki (hard to get to because there’s only two bridges over the canal), would be wonderful.
Finally, since so much of the opposition centers on the cost of the project, I don’t really understand why they’re building an elevated rail line. Yes, admittedly, ground-level train lines would cut up the road network, making it harder to walk, bike, or drive anywhere without having to go out of your way to get to a crossing. But, we have that problem with the freeway already anyway, and I don’t see anyone complaining that we should get rid of the goddamned freeway. Ground-level rails would do less damage to the skyline, would avoid the problem of putting areas into shadow (under the tracks), and would cost a lot less. Hawaii has had railroads before…
Whatever happens, I hope that a positive resolution is reached. If they do go ahead and build the railroad, I hope that they do so while properly respecting Native Hawaiian burial sites, and that the railroad ends up seeing strong ridership, and a significant easing of congestion on the roads. If it does well enough, they might even expand it out to some more actually useful places. Frankly, I’m pessimistic about either of these things happening, but we shall see.
(1) Interestingly, Kaleikini seems to have also been one of the primary people opposing the construction of the Wal-Mart on Keeaumoku St in downtown Honolulu some years ago. This was a fairly major issue at the time, and remains a prominent oft-discussed example today.
(2) People often talk about Honolulu’s creatively named “TheBus” being already the best public transportation system in the country; therefore, they argue, what do we need a railroad for? However, being named “America’s Best Transit System” in 1994 and 2000 doesn’t make it true today; furthermore, trains, especially elevated trains, don’t get stuck in traffic the way buses do. I cannot count the number of times TheBus was late, or didn’t show up at all. Note also that whatever issues the NYC subway system may have, it runs 24/7 and compared to the incredible infrequency of Honolulu buses along most routes, that has got to count for something. I’ll take the subway over a bus any day. And, if in a bike-friendly city like Kyoto, I’ll take my bike over public transportation.
(3) Reminds me of Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei who arranged for the Shinkansen (bullet train) to go out to his home region of Niigata when there was (and remains) much more demand for it to go elsewhere first. Even today, certain major cities like Kanazawa still don’t have a Shinkansen station.