Future of Honolulu’s Rail Project?

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Honolulu rail transit cartoon
Dark cloud of growing public doubts cast shadow on Honolulu rail.

Editor’s note: This guest editorial is speculation on what the future of Honolulu’s $5.3 billion steel on steel rail project could turn out to be. There has been no rail built yet. The city is issuing contracts and a lawsuit to stop the 20-mile project could still stop it in its tracks.

BY BOB FREEMAN – The long abandoned elevated rail system on O’ahu has found a new life and becomes literally the largest tourist attraction in the islands.  Modeled after the long successful Hi-Line project in Manhattan, New York, It brings new life to an eyesore reminiscent of politics and financial planning  run amok during previous City administrations.


The 20-mile stretch of graffiti-covered elevated concrete corridors, which has been a haven for drug dealers and vagrants, has finally been cleaned up.  Tracks and other remnants of the failed system have been removed and sold as scrap to partially finance the project. Tons of copper wire and other electrical items had been stolen and sold for scrap by vandals and thieves long ago.

Beautiful plantings of exotic tropical flowers and trees line a path and bike-way stretching half way across the island of O’ahu.  Five story high train stations, which have been turned into mini shopping malls along the way, provide starting and stopping points for those who are not ready to brave the full 20 miles.  They also provide restroom facilities, maintained at the expense of concessionaires.

In 2008, then Mayor, Mufi Hannemann, with the support of construction unions, designers and engineers and others looking for a piece of what was then proposed as a four billion dollar pie, designed and supported the project against the objections of traffic engineers, economists and half of the O’ahu population.

The project,  started over 30 years ago as a light rail “solution” to O’ahu’s growing traffic problems, grew in scope and cost, and disrupted traffic on major thoroughfares for 17 years.  The din of pile drivers operating 24 hours per day  to provide supports for the concrete corridors rang in the ears and rattled the homes of residents. Money was extracted from the funding of the City’s bus system, which was rated as one of the most successful in the country, to help support the rail project.  After numerous delays, work stoppages and massive cost overruns, voters finally demanded,  through referendum, that  legislators “pull the plug”.

The projected project cost had escalated to over $5 billion before ground was broken, and had reached over $20 billion before the project was abandoned in 2028.  Projected maintenance costs which were grossly underestimated, probably intentionally, were later recalculated to exceed paid fares by over 2000%!  This income shortfall was to be recouped by raising the State gross excise tax (similar to sales tax in most states)  from 4%  to 15%.

Although concern was shown by Hawaiian groups before ground breaking in 2011 and discounted by rail supporters, iwi, or the bones of buried Hawaiian ancestors were discovered at many of the construction sites. Hawaiian culture is very protective of iwi, and feel that they should not be disturbed. Many of the rail stations were re-designed and relocated to avoid newly discovered ancient burial grounds. Others were delayed for years during the process of carefully disinterring the remains for relocation.

The Italian company, Ansaldo,  contracted to build and maintain the rail cars, for just over $5 million, filed for bankruptcy after receiving over $1.5 billion, and delivering only 4 cars.  Those cars, which never carried a single passenger, are now used as planters full of beautiful ferns and protea in front of some of the stations at Ala Moana, Downtown, Kalihi and Waipahu.

Few people today remember the efforts of a few groups and individuals who in 2010 attempted to “Stop The Rail”  to save the people of Hawaii and their children from the projected long term  financial burden of this project  It is expected that the last of the bonds will be paid off by 2060; 50 years after the beginning of the failed rail project.   This makes this the world’s most expensive flower garden.






  1. The very vocal, anti-rail, MINORITY is indeed delusional, or at least stories like the satire above make them seem that way. Quit sad, really. Sorry to burst your bubbles but there is very little in the way of “growing doubts,” at least not any of real significance or at least not any truly capable of “derailing” the project. This despite how much the anti-rail crowd what’s to believe there are doubts or how hard the try to manufacture stories about them.

    We will all have to wait and see, but I do not believe that history will look back upon the anti-rail crowd as righteous warriors fighting the good fight, but rather view them not dissimilar to those that lacked the ability to imagine a world that is not flat before the courageous proved it to them.

    I really have yet to hear one good reason why we shouldn’t build the rail with all due haste. Too expensive? Not when amortized over decades and not when you factor in the egalitarian boost to the populations economic and social mobility. Not to mention a more livable city, with more accessible neighborhoods. Doesn’t do enough to relieve traffic. Hate to break it to you but nothing is going to relieve traffic except not driving. Get it. No amount of freeways or roads will be enough, ever, period. All cities have traffic. Nothing short of eliminating all cars will ever fix that. At least one could read or be productive in relative comfort and safety on the train. Rail will be an eyesore. Really? And a double-decker freeway chock full of gridlock isn’t? Or how about a network of buses, which actually contribute to traffic? I actually think the view from the train as it zips across Oahu will be breathtaking and I also believe that the stations offer a tremendous opportunity to do some much needed improvement to our neighborhoods. . It may disturb our iwi. And how is that different than any other construction project in Hawaii? Iwi and respect for our indigenous culture is part of everything we do in Hawaii and it will be handled appropriately. Especially, given the public nature and scale of this project. No one will ride it. Wrong, no one you know will ride it. But rail isn’t for you, it’s for your kids, and grand kids, and their kids and their grand kids. You know those that actually have a completely different world view than you do. They will love the rail and actually won’t be able to imagine life without it.

    Let’s hold our leader’s feet to the fire so that we get this project done right but let’s also get it done ASAP. We need to move forward courageously into the 21st century and stop thinking about things as if it were still the 20th.

    We CAN do this We CAN do this right… We can. We must. And we will.

  2. Dancingcat, I totally agree with you.

    Another consideration is the annual operating costs. I live in the SF Bay Area. BART annual operating costs are about $650 million for 100 miles of track, or $6.5 million per mile. Fare revenue covers only half of that.

    So, applying that metric on HART, at $3.25 million per mile, Honlulu has to come up with annual subsidies of $65 million, on top of the amount to cover the capital costs of the construction.

  3. Mindfulcitizen: Most cities with heavy rail are more centrally situated so the rail spreads out like an octopus. It is usually built near an airport or bus terminal. Honolulu’s train will travel on an linear route, is not accessible at the airport (so our tourists won’t use it) and will stop every mile of it’s 20 mile route. How will that save time?

    You state the anti-rail crowd “lacks imagination”; however, imagine having rail spurs shooting into the valleys of Halawa, Nuuanu and Manoa or climbing over the mountains to the windward side.. doesn’t take much imaginattion to visualize a total destruction of our beautiful island state!

    If the only purpose of building a rail is for “traffic relief”…but according to you, “nothing short of eliminating all cars will ever fix that problem”, why doesn’t the city build fly-overs at the major bottle-neck junctions? Why doesn’t the city look into “managed freeway” systems? It certainly would be a lot easier on our pocketbooks than the $6.5 billion and counting.

    You mentioned a “double deck freeway in gridlock” but how about a train jamup, with stations every mile or two, in order to exit. At least on a freeway, the exiting off-ramps are doable.

    Finally, Honolulu has never built (to my knowledge) any major project ON TIME and WITHOUT cost overruns…i.e. Reef runway, H-3, Kalananaole widening, etc. etc. This rail will indeed cost OVER the estimated 6.5 million plus additional costs to maintain and police the stations! Can your children and grandchildren afford those monetary increases while their paychecks remain static? I doubt it.

    The bottom line is: A heavy rail train just doesn’t make sense for Honolulu: it’s not financially feasible; not versatile; not flexible; not visually attractive; not practical….and it won’t save commuters any TIME. BUT, please do build it so all the supporters can ride it and I can drive into town traffic-free! I

  4. Private Investors built 4 MILE Vegas Lite Rail —-> cost 4 BILLION… now BANKRUPT!…
    Hawaii THINKS 15 MILES for 5 BILLION with NO Material or Skilled Workers on Island?
    Can’t Wait for Construction DEFECTS…. Hawaii City Gov.. Need to find a F –ck-ing Calculator.. such IDIOTS!

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