HI: Rail Transit Gets Real

June 01--For people driving into town from East Kapolei. the line of concrete columns seen from Kualakai Parkway are a long-established part of the landscape. Now the impact of Honolulu's 20-mile elevated rail project will be seen and felt by an ever-growing number of Leeward Oahu residents.

Close to 100 columns have been built, more than 125 foundations, and about 350 of the segments that will be joined together to form the spans on which mass-transit rails and trains will rest, according to Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART), overseer of the state's largest public works project. At least one of those spans already has been hoisted into place. And in the next few weeks, the project will become much more of a visible reality for a lot more people, especially residents of Waipahu and Pearl City.

Most of them have been contending with work already. Kamehameha Highway, running through Pearl City, already has turns eliminated along the median where the columns will be placed, changing traffic patterns that serve local businesses.

Contract crews from Kiewit Infrastructure West Co. are making about a dozen of those segments a day at the casting yard located down Kalaeloa Boulevard, opposite Opakapaka Street.

Roughly 10 miles away, all along the Kamehameha Highway corridor that fronts Pearl City and Aiea, utilities are being moved to accommodate those columns. For months now, that construction work has already translated into lane closures and horrendous traffic jams.

And it's about to get more intense, said Barry Villamil, who works at Pearl City Shopping Center.

"The shopping center is very concerned about the construction affecting the traffic going into the center," said Villamil, who also sits on the board of the Pearl City Community Association. "Kiewit has been having meetings with the businesses. They want to make sure residents know, so it's not just something that suddenly happens."

Villamil edits MyPearlCity.com, which is owned by the shopping center. In the next week or so the site will include a new section with detailed advisories about road and lane closures (see story, page E4). Forewarned is forearmed.

Kiewit has provided good outreach to the community for the past year, he said: Last weekend, work was halted because of traffic overflow due to Campbell High School's graduation ceremonies at Aloha Stadium. But there will still be a lot of disruption.

"This construction that goes through our town is going to be incredible," he said.

Cruz Vina Jr., who chairs the Pearl City Neighborhood Board, counts himself among the luckier residents.

"I'm retired and only on the road between 10 and 2," he said. "But I have a friend who lives in Nanakuli. He goes to work at 4 in the morning and comes home at 8 at night."

The coming summer and fall months are prime time for construction of the $5.26 billion project, now clear of its myriad legal hurdles, in worksites from Reggio Calabria, Italy to multiple Oahu locations:

--The first completed segments are appearing now between the first stations in Kapolei and the Waipahu alignment, along Farrington Highway.

--Later this month in Italy, AnsaldoBreda, the rail car manufacturer, will start work on the aluminum outer shell of the train cars, later to be shipped to California for interior construction.

--And in July, an uncommon engineering project will begin to take shape: A stretch of the rail structure will be positioned above the H-1 freeway, the part of the alignment that then continues along Kamehameha, near Sam's Club.

The "balanced cantilever" exercise, in which the concrete spans will be lifted in the air, will be done while the freeway is closed down overnight, a night yet to be scheduled.

In addition to those elements, contracts will be let for constructing the nine train stations located along the first half of the route, with construction expected to begin at the end of the year.

Also in the coming months, community planning meetings will be held for rail stops closer to town, including the discussions on the more complicated design of an airport station that has to bridge the interisland and main terminals.

And at various points through town, crews are drilling on the roadside for soil testing, determining the depth of the column footing.

Right now the most arduous work is at the 35-acre casting yard, where almost 100 people are employed casting the spans, each of which is configured specifically for the precise angle and alignment where it will be placed, said Lance Wilhelm, senior vice president of Kiewit's Hawaii operations.

"We need about 5,200 of these segments to get our 10 miles done," Wilhelm said, pointing to the enormous casting bays where the segments are poured. "We have about a year and a half to do that. If you do the math we have to produce about 12 of these a day, every day. We're actually right there, right now, getting very close to that level of production."

Most of the acreage is needed for storage, Wilhelm said, because the crews can set the segments into the span about twice as fast as they can make them. So if the project is to keep up a good pace on location, there has to be a steady flow of completed segments from the warehouse to the jobsite, he added.

Near the future Leeward Community College station, the rail line continues from Farrington Highway toward Pearl City. But one branch of track will veer into the Maintenance and Storage Facility, a 43-acre property between Waipahu High School and the college that encompasses four buildings, one of which will contain the control center for the system.

This is where the rail cars will remain during the down hours of operation, between midnight and 4 a.m., said Brent Uechi, deputy project manager for the facility. There will be a Maintenance of Way building for the upkeep of the track system, a train wash and a wheel truing facility for checking the alignment of the steel wheels, he said.

The largest structure -- 160,000 square feet -- is the Operation and Servicing Building, which will start taking shape in the fall, said Dan Grabauskas, HART executive director and chief executive officer.

The facility needs to be ready to start accepting the delivery of the first rail cars in early 2016, when testing will begin, he said.

"People will see trains actually running in test for many months before we actually take our first passenger," Grabauskas said. "The operation testing will take the better part of a year, and then we'll be able to open for business for the first segment (from Kapolei to Aloha Stadium) in 2017.

"And then you'll see a lot of work on the remaining stations for the remaining 10 miles, for a 2019 opening."

Plans are in the works for four station park-and-ride areas, he added: 1,000 parking spaces at each of the first two stations, a 1,600-stall garage at the Pearl Highlands station, with a connection from the H-2 freeway; and a surface lot at the stadium with 650 spaces dedicated for rail riders ("We'll share on game days," Grabauskas said).

The city's transit-oriented development planning will involve talks with developers to arrange set-asides for extra spaces in tower parking structures that would be available for public use, he said. For example, the Kamehameha Schools project planned for South and Pohukaina streets will include 110 extra parking spaces beyond what residents will need.

But with all the project's ultimate complexity, it's the traffic disruption in the immediate future that has sparked the Leeward community's interest -- and concern.

"It's going to be a hardship on people's lives," said Waipahu resident George Yakowenko. "We still have to go to church, still have to go shopping."

Yakowenko serves on the Waipahu Neighborhood Board, along with Blaine Tsugawa, who has taken a philosophical view.

"It's like anything that happens in modern society. you're going to have disruptions in daily life," Tsugawa said. "Nobody likes change. Unfortunately, progress requires us to change. And I firmly believe the rail is progress.

"I'm 67 years old," he added. "In a few years, for one reason or another, I will probably have to stop driving -- and I'll be damned if I'm going to be stuck in Waipahu."

Send a message to the future

To commemorate the rail project's progress, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation will seal a time capsule, to be opened in 25 years, at its future headquarters site.

If you could write a short letter to Hawaii's people of the future, what would you tell them about your life today dealing with traffic? How do you get around? How do you cope? What gadgets, favorite music or notable vistas are part of your commute? Give the people of tomorrow a glimpse into your transportation situation today.

We especially want to hear from teens, now at the cusp of rail reality, who will be the most profoundly affected by a new commuting lifestyle.

Submit a 150-word letter to letters@staradvertiser.com or to 500 Ala Moana Blvd., #7-210, Honolulu, 96813; deadline is June 18. We'll select the best letters to run on June 22 -- and that edition will likely be placed in HART's rail time capsule, to be opened 25 years from now.

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