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Honolulu Rail: Designed to Fail

rail graphic

BY PANOS PREVEDOUROS PHD - The Antiplanner wonders if employees at Parsons Brinckerhoff and other consulting firms who helped plan this and so many other expensive rail projects sit around laughing at the gullibility of city officials. Once people adopt the “we need a rail line at any cost” mentality, they are all too likely to be victimized by projects like this one.


Randal O'Toole, economist and author of several books on transportation and urban planning was in Honolulu last week where he spoke on two distinguished panels in Kapolei and in Honolulu (see notes 1,2.)

He summarized his opinion about Honolulu's rail in this eye-opening Designed to Fail article.

A few highlights:
Honolulu rail ... will have the high costs of heavy rail and the capacity limits of light rail.

Honolulu rail ... has too few seats so bus riders question whether people will be willing to stand for 20-minute trips.

Honolulu rail ... was planned to go to Kapolei, which has about 35,000 people, but the city decided it didn’t have enough money to go that far. Between East Kapolei and Honolulu the rail line will pass through Waipahu (33,000 people), Pearl City (48,000 people), and by Pearl Harbor Naval Base (its 20,000 people work right on the base).

The rest of the rail line goes through light industrial and commercial areas. So the rail line will serve, at most, about 15% of the residents of Oahu and probably no more than 20% of the jobs. That means no more than about 3% of workers will both live and work on the rail line.

Honolulu rail ... ridership projections are questionable and average at 110 passengers on board the two-car trains at any given time. US light-rail cars carry an average of 24 people, and the most crowded in San Diego carry just 37 people, 110 is highly optimistic.

Honolulu rail ... proponents argue that the project will relieve congestion, but even the final environmental impact statement says that, at every place evaluated, congestion will be worse in 2030 with the project than without it (see page 3-51).

Honolulu rail ... will not save energy: at 2,020 BTUs per passenger mile, Honolulu’s bus system already uses less energy than almost every other light-rail and heavy-rail line outside of New York City. By 2030, under the Obama fuel economy standards, the average car on the road will also use only about 2,000 BTUs per passenger mile, and cars in Hawaii (where gas prices are higher than the rest of the U.S.) will probably use even less.

Finally speaking about deficient (low) capacity, O'Toole calculates this:

With 64 seats, the two-car trains supposedly have room for 254 standing passengers. But that’s at “crush capacity,” which is far more crowded than Americans are willing to accept.

Assuming the city increases the seating to 76 seats, actual loads are likely to be limited to a total of about 150 to 200 people per train. At a maximum of 20 trains an hour in each direction, the line will be able to move about 3,000 to 4,000 people per hour inbound in the morning and a similar number outbound in the afternoon.

By comparison, a highway lane can easily move 600 buses per hour, and at 40 seats per bus that represents 24,000 people per hour, none of them having to stand.

Overall O'Toole observes that in order to pay for this and other rail contracts, Honolulu’s city manager quietly “suspended” the city’s debt limit without consulting the city council or, apparently, the mayor.

As Wendell Cox points out, the city faces billions of dollars in expenses fixing its sewer, water, and other infrastructure, and spending $5.3 billion on rail, which at best is a luxury (and at worst a curse) will make it harder to do anything else.

Notes: (1) West Oahu Development: Meat and Potatoes or Gravy Train? (2) Sustainable Growth for Hawaii

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2 Comments for “Honolulu Rail: Designed to Fail”

  1. On its website, honolulutransit.org estimates an expected weekday ridership of 116,300 passenger trips by the year 2030, servicing just 15% of Oahu. TheBus currently provides an actual 224,000 passenger trips each weekday. That's for all routes across the entire island. Does anyone really believe that rail will even come close to such an optimistic target?

  2. I firmly believe that the city's advocacy forecasts include a "lie factor" of 3.
    Divide by 3 to get a reasonable approximation of what will occur if rail is built.

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