City's rail rendering
City’s rail rendering

BY PANOS PREVEDOUROS PHD – When it comes to the rail, Kirk Caldwell and other politicians suffer from Wind Mill Deficiency. Their Wind Mill deficiency is real and its effects on society are serious. What I mean is this.

Wind mills or wind turbines are rated at a high capacity such as 100 MW for a medium size wind farm, but they come with a capacity factor. The capacity factor for wind mills is 0.3 and some argue that it should be as low as 0.2. (For reference, a coal or geothermal plant has a factor of over 0.9.) So a wind farm of 100 MW has an actual electricity production between 20 MW and 30 MW.

Similarly for rail, a single elevated rail can, in theory, carry more than 100,000 riders if a city buys enough trains and operates them very frequently, which means high acquisition, operation and maintenance costs. The real question is this: After billions are spent to make the rail, will the riders come? The sunny cities of Miami and San Juan have the answer: No way Jose!

Same as the wind mills, only about a quarter of the stated capacity of rail is usually utilized. This means that 75% of the investment does no good for the city that paid for it. Worse yet, most of the rail riders are forced on the rail by bus route closures, as is the plan for TheBus. In other words, rail is a lose-lose proposition: Rail itself is unproductive, and it downgrades the bus as well.

The advantage of buses and Bus Rapid Transit is that you only route as many buses meet the demand and no more. BRT is a far more flexible, demand-responsive and economical way to provide public transit, particularly for cities with modest populations.

Senator Inouye stated that: “Governor Cayetano does not understand that the precious $1.55 billion for Honolulu rail is not transferable but will go back to the federal government.” While I don’t speak for Ben, I have been in many public meetings with him. He hasn’t stated that this amount will automatically revert to his transit proposal, but he mentions the President’s, Congress’ and FTA’s strong commitment and additional special funds in MAP-21 for Bus Rapid Transit.

The plan for the federal $1.55 Billion of the senator-supported rail is predictable: If the check ever arrives, it will be endorsed and mailed to Ansaldo in Italy and New York state were they design and build trains, respectively. Instead of the $5.2 billion rail, Ben proposes a $1.1 billion traffic and transit program called FAST. The Flexible, Affordable, Smart Transportation plan is much more in tune with Honolulu’s needs and budget. Take a look at FAST at Ben’s website (

If Kirk Caldwell and Senator Inouye are really interested in improving transit in the county of Honolulu, they may begin their education on the history of elevated rail in sunshine cities by simply reading about Miami’s Metrorail, and San Juan’s Tren Urbano. Here are a few highlights for Metrorail and Tren Urbano.

Miami’s Elevated Heavy Rail: They got 80% Federal funds but still they run out of money due to cost overruns. (Honolulu gets only 30%).  Ridership forecast was about 200,000 riders (Honolulu’s is about 120,000 riders).  When the first segment of the single line opened ridership was only 10,000.  In 1990, six years after opening, it reached only 25% of its forecast ridership or about 50,000! They too ordered trains from Ansaldo.

San Juan, Elevated Heavy Rail: They got 50% Federal funds but still there was a 74% escalation of construction costs (+74% over budget!)  There was a huge escalation of combined bus and rail operation and maintenance cost after the line was opened. Combined costs shot up by +250%!  There was a downgrade of Puerto Rico’s bond ratings and new taxes were enacted to pay the debt. There was a dramatic decline of total transit ridership (bus and rail) because the train dismantled their bus. It is now more than six years since its opening in 2006 and the train has not reached 50% of its opening year forecast ridership!

I left the worst news for last: Honolulu’s rail with eliminate or terminate the following bus routes at the nearest station: B, C, E, 3, 9, 11, 20, 43, 53, 73, 81, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 96, 97, 98A, 101, 102, 103, 201, 202 (Source: Rail EIS).