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Honolulu’s $9.8B Skyline Rail Up and Running

The nine-station, 11-mile route that runs from East Kapolei to Halawa ran its first trip on Friday and, though it was not a perfect launch, many residents were impressed by the elevated rail system.

Some plan to ride it again. For others it was a novelty to be among the first to travel the initial nine-station, 11-mile route from East Kapolei to Halawa, Hawaii, many with their children and grandchildren.

Honolulu's first rail passengers arrived by bus, TheHandi-Van, bicycle and on foot Friday to experience what Hawaii's largest public works project ever has produced.

Some plan to ride it again. For others it was a novelty to be among the first to travel the initial nine-station, 11-mile route from East Kapolei to Halawa, many with their children and grandchildren.

The launch of the $9.8 billion Skyline rail system was not without incident, however. At least one person vomited inside one of the four-car trains, and Larry Inouye, 83, of Waipahu, fell face first onto the train's floor as it departed the Waipahu Transit Center, known as Pouhala. Passengers rushed to his aid, pulled him up and found him an open seat.

"I hit my head when the train moved and I lost my balance, " he said.

Inouye was among untold others who wanted to see for themselves whether the views from the elevated rail system were as spectacular as promised by Mayor Rick Blangiardi.

Several passengers were in awe at the sight of the mothballed Navy fleet at West Loch, along with the ability to count the number of warships berthed in Pearl Harbor.

"I saw things I've never seen, and I'm 47 years old, " said Aiea resident Clinton Billington.

He brought along his daughters, Brooke, 12, and Leah, 15, who also gushed about being able to take in mauka and makai vistas they had never before witnessed.

The Billingtons were the first passengers to board the first train leaving the Halawa station on the town side of the rail system after trying to find residential street parking, like others, along the rail route.

For Clinton Billington, it might have been his last trip on Skyline. He said the current route doesn't work for him. But the girls said they'll likely ride the rail again, specifically for the views, and Leah might also take it to meet up with friends.

Some passengers complained that it was difficult for them to hear public announcements. Some shorter passengers complained that grab bars are too high.

Many, like the Billingtons, were frustrated by the lack of parking: Only three of the nine Skyline stations have limited parking.

Portable toilets were set up to compensate for locked station bathrooms, which officials say will be opened for anyone who needs them. But to reduce crime and other unwanted behavior, the bathrooms are left locked.

A westbound Skyline train door would not close at the Waipahu station but was eventually reset, allowing the train to depart without further issues.

The trains' air-conditioning system was both praised and criticized for being either too cold or not cold enough.

A few passengers found the ride was "bumpy," such as Barbra Armentrout, who relies on a walker and rode TheHandi-Van to the Halawa station. Armentrout had no problem boarding Skyline with her walker but said that people should be careful moving about inside the train cars while it's rolling.

Armentrout was accompanied by her close friend, Rose Pou of Kapahulu, who is visually impaired and uses a walking stick.

Pou, who was seated during the ride, had difficulty balancing and said it felt like she was "riding on a dirt road."

She eventually wants to take advantage of the rail system once it comes into town, but hopes her young grandchildren will eventually ride it.

"That's the reason we wanted the rail, to help with traffic," Pou said.

The day began in a celebratory mood, with speaker after speaker documenting the often troubled history of the rail project, which saw delays and cost overruns across four mayoral administrations.

At a morning ceremony at Hala wa station, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D- Hawaii, said the rail project had experienced "multiple near-death experiences along the way."

Paul Skoutelas, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, said that building a rail project "is not for the faint of heart, " especially when it's the country's first fully autonomous—meaning driverless—metro system.

"You're embracing the future, " he told those gathered. "The future is yours."

Blangiardi praised his three predecessors, especially former Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who he said "took more lumps on this thing than anyone else."

The mayor called Friday's commencement of full passenger service "a magnificent moment " that is "great for the future of our island."

Gov. Josh Green said it was "an honor to be governor at this moment."

Friday's public unveiling of the first segment of Skyline, built by Hitachi Rail, is expected to lead to further expansion to its original destination at Ala Moana Center, Hawaii's largest transit hub. Until then, plans call for completing the 19-mile, 19-station line to Kakaako by the city's 2031 projected timetable.

Crowds of passengers began lining up along the rail route long before the 2 p.m. start of service, which remains free through the Fourth of July, although a HOLO card is required.

Although no HOLO card was necessary Friday, volunteers handed out free commemorative HOLO cards marked with the date June 30, 2023, to commemorate the first day of passenger service.

Evelyn Balatico of Kalihi, who said she is in her 80s ; her neighbor, Virgie Melear, who said she is in her 70s ; and Melear's 17-year-old grandson, Nathan Keahi, an incoming senior at Farrington High School, arrived at the Halawa station by bus from Kalihi and were among the first to line up two hours in advance.

Balatico said she plans to take TheBus and ride Skyline to Pearlridge Center and to visit her older brother in Honokai Hale. But first she wanted to experience it for herself.

"Was it a good investment or not?" Balatico said.

A loud cheer erupted when the first of more than 200 passengers were finally let into the Halawa station, across Salt Lake Boulevard from Aloha Stadium, after 1 :30 p.m. By 2 :20 p.m. a line of more than 1, 000 snaked around the station.

On the other side of the system—at the University of Hawaii West Oahu station, called Keone 'ae—more than 100 people clapped and cheered when they were let into the station. The lines continued to grow, and by 4 p.m. vehicles circled the station's parking lot in search of an open stall.

Donna LeStrong, 70, of Makaha has been skeptical of the rail project and especially its $9.8 billion price tag to reach Kakaako by 2031.

So she had her doubts when she boarded the train at Keone 'ae. LeStrong said she is opposed to development of West Oahu in general.

"I wanted Hawaii to stay as it is, " she said. And when it came to rail, "I was against it."

But once aboard Skyline, LeStrong found an open seat and began to use her smartphone to video-record the view out of her window. She said the ride was enjoyable, and she also believes the rail system will help ease traffic congestion on Oahu's West side.

"It's a big plus, " LeStrong said. "Just the view alone, it's breathtaking."

Cynthia Durant, 65, of Kapolei, her husband, Danny, 65, and their friends Kathleen and Deidre Echi verni of Makakilo were aboard the first train leaving Halawa station, which was packed with about 800 riders.

"They were all smiling and filled with aloha, " said Cynthia Durant.

The group called the views "awesome."

Colette Wong and her sister, Coralie, were the first in line to get into the Honouliuli station.

"I want to be the first one to try it, " said Colette Wong, who drove to the station's 344-stall park-and-ride lot, which made for convenient access and was lightly used Friday.

Hans Paulsen, who lives at Ho 'opili, where development of the community is nearing the Honouliuli station, spent about two hours on the Skyline system with his wife and four children, ages 15, 4, 2 and 3 months.

He hopes Skyline can be expanded to serve more of the island and become a convenient, reliable system like the trains in Japan.

"I have high hopes for this to grow and be our main transportation system like Japan does, " he said.

Buddies Don Eovino, 77, of Diamond Head and Mike Knight, 70, of Waikiki pedaled their racing street bicycles more than an hour to get to the Halawa station, where Knight said he "loved " the train and "had a great time."

They plan to do the trip again and make their way to Ko Olina for lunch and cocktails before returning via rail to Halawa and then riding their bikes back home.

Their only hiccup was that Eovino's bike is too wide for the onboard hooks meant to secure bicycles, and he had to take up an extra seat to accommodate it.

Scott Gilbert of Kaneohe and Patrick Kelly of Makakilo rode their bikes from downtown Kapolei and boarded Skyline at the far western end of the line at the Kua laka 'i station.

They had no problem attaching their tire rims to the train hooks and said they enjoyed the ride. They plan to use Skyline for recreational bike rides to explore different areas along the rail system.

One of the many goals of Skyline is to reduce vehicle traffic and encourage public transportation, which works for Kelly.

"This is excellent for me to get part of the way to town and then (bicycle ) some more, " he said.

(c)2023 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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