Of Continents, Islands And Cars


Mayor Kirk Caldwell

Traffic in Pearl City couldn’t be worse these days. Rail’s crept from neighboring Waipahu to the ewa end of town. That’s meant lane closures on Kaahumanu Highway — two lanes become one, and city buses have been diverted. It promises to get worse.

But it’s maddeningly slow now, even on weekends when the Kiewet construction cranes move the cement barriers to open a second lane.

On H-1, from 3 p.m. or so, traffic comes to a near halt near the Pearl City exit. A fender bender can back it up and over Red Hill, past Fort Shafter and far into town.

After 8 p.m. of late, they’ve also been closing three westbound lanes, slowing the homing instincts of even those on the night shift.

Is it all attributable to rail? Probably not, but largely. The state’s been repairing over-passes and constructing new lanes; Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s been conducting a paving jihad on Oahu’s worst roads.

It doesn’t matter who’s to blame. The best advice for Leeward commuters has become “Use alternative route.” Or, even better, “Don’t go anywhere in an automobile.”

Sitting in Leeward traffic, searching for an unclogged “alternative route” or hunkering down at home avoiding the snarls can make a longtime rail advocate ponder his sins: “Could I have been wrong? What manner of vehicular purgatory have I helped bring down upon my head?”

I’ve asked myself those questions repeatedly in recent months, usually between violent, when not fearful, thoughts about the monster pickup truck gridlocked in front of me, the eight-person SUV to my right, muscle car on my left and the 16-wheeler bearing down on my rear bumper. All, no matter how much road space they take up, contain one driver.

Including my gas-thrifty little hybrid. Mea culpa, mea culpa. Our traffic problems, dear reader, lie not in rail construction, but in ourselves.

We harbor continental fantasies: single-family four-bed, two-bath homes with a two-car garage and sufficient yard space to play catch with son Justin or kick a soccer ball around with daughter Jenn. Add the freedom, almost a constitutional right, of an American to drive a vehicle of whatever size, however unoccupied, wherever and whenever he or she pleases.

The state’s been repairing overpasses and constructing new lanes; Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s been conducting a paving jihad on Oahu’s worse roads.

Yet we live on an island much of which is occupied by two long, large mountain ranges: the beautiful and in places breathtaking Waianae Koolau ranges.

They grant us their ridges on which to precariously perch our four-bedroom homes and continental fantasies. Or we can wedge both into their valleys.

There is a central plain, and an ewa one, both of which we continue to fill with four-bed, two-bath, two-car garage homes. And there are more to come.

The rest of Oahu? It’s mere strips of land hedged by mountains and a slowly rising ocean.

Our continental fantasies originated, of course, in the vastness of America, stretching famously from “sea to shining sea.” The almost limitless space of the continental United States can seemingly make real the dreams of 320 million people.

But the island of Oahu possesses nowhere near the space to provide either single-family housing for all or unrestricted use of automobiles. Eventually, rail or no, regulation of automobile use lies in Oahu’s future.

Otherwise, we will gridlock, not just on Kaahumanu Highway, not just on the H-1 near the Pearl City exit. Oh, what a vehicular mess it will be.

Continental fantasies just don’t fit island spaces.