Until recently, Oahu's rail transit project was little more than a big idea — a concept debated for years on Internet comment boards, via the voting booth and in the courtroom.
But in 2014, construction work is making rail a reality.
The work that resumed last fall in the fields of West Oahu, after a yearlong court-ordered hiatus, has spread east toward town and into more populated areas: Waipahu, Pearl City and Aiea.
This year alone, Oahu residents will see nearly 200 additional concrete columns erected to eventually support the elevated rail system, many along Kamehameha Highway west of Aloha Stadium, rail officials say. By early summer, residents will see the first guideway segments — the 50-ton concrete panels that will form the platform for the tracks — installed atop those columns, according to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.
But as the construction ramps up, so will the traffic delays from lane and road closures.
HART Executive Director Dan Grabauskas described the traffic impacts, expected to last through 2018, as "the one step backward" caused by the project. Rail, he said, will then provide "two steps forward" in addressing Oahu's traffic woes.
Half of the rail transit system is slated to open in 2017, and the full system is planned to begin operating in 2019.
Commuters who rely on Farrington and Kamehameha highways are already grappling with regular lane and road closures as workers replace utility lines and test the soil for the columns that will eventually go up there.
The busiest 12-month period for rail construction actually is slated for 2015-16, when residents should see work underway on almost every stretch of the rail system's 20-mile line, which will end in town at Ala Moana Center, Grabauskas said.
Nonetheless, 2014 represents a "banner" year for building, he added. Construction on the state's largest public works project will become more visible to more residents as it works its way east along Oahu's southern shore.
Construction this year is mostly centered on the rail route's 10-mile western half, from East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium. That leg will eventually require 422 columns. More than 220 columns will be in the ground west of the stadium by year's end, Grabauskas said.
The city is also preparing for a complicated maneuver in June, involving a towering engineering structure called a "balanced cantilever," to extend the rail project's guideway over the freeway Diamond Head of where the H-1 and H-2 merge, Grabauskas said.
"It's probably going to be one of the more visible aspects of our construction," requiring lane closures on the H-1 and H-2, he said. HART intends to give sufficient notice to the public as the work there approaches, he said.
By March, HART expects to be pouring 12 concrete guideway sections each day from a support "precast" facility in West Oahu. Each section will measure 12 feet long by 35 feet wide.
Meanwhile, rail's chief opponents have criticized the decision to forge ahead with construction while court challenges against the project remain unresolved. Cliff Slater, chairman of the anti-rail Honolulutraffic.com, said his group is concerned the city is trying to push rail through so it "forces the judges' hands" — but he doesn't think construction will advance far enough to achieve that.
Nonetheless, judges hearing the federal lawsuit against rail have openly pondered the effect that building the project might have in the decision-making process of whether rail on Oahu ultimately gets approved.
"The more you do that, the less likely it is that that system can be torn down again," 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt said of construction work during an appeals court hearing on the suit last summer.
The next key hearing in that suit is scheduled for Thursday in federal court in Honolulu.