With the special session to fund Honolulu's rail system now underway, some lawmakers want to look at alternative routes and other technologies besides heavy rail.
Proponents said a light rail system running at the ground level from Middle Street would costs one-fifth as much as a heavy rail system with its elevated guideways.
"In our mind there's a better way to do this, a more cost effective way to do this,” said Gary Andrishak, director of Vancouver-based IBI Group Inc.
Andrishak was part of a panel that spoke last month a rail forum at the state Capitol sponsored by Salvage The Rail, a group headed by local architects and planners.
For the $3 billion needed to complete the heavy rail system to Ala Moana Center, Andrishak said the city can build a light rail system from Middle Street all the way to the University of Hawaii.
"The one we're proposing goes up to King Street and loops around the downtown and then makes its way back to Middle Street,” he said.
The rail funding bill calls for the Legislative Auditor to study these alternative routes and technologies.
It calls for a review of "the projected costs for each alternative route(s) and development option(s) for the Middle Street to Ala Moana segment of the Honolulu rail transit project ..."
But the rail authority said the at-grade option was studied seven years ago and was rejected as impractical, especially in the downtown area.
"It will be cheaper but … but you won't have the efficient of an automated system,” said Krishniah Murthy, interim CEO of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.
He said HART would have to hire people to operate the trains and purchase about 40 acres of land in town for a light rail maintenance yard. Light rail’s construction is more disruptive that heavy rail, he added.
"In order to place the rail at grade, we have to provide the foundation for those tracks,” he said.
"Sometimes you have utilities. We'll have to relocate those utilities.”
These challenges could all add tens of millions of dollars – if not hundreds of millions – in additional costs.
Lawmakers will meet again tomorrow in special session.