Honolulu: Mega Rail Project in a Micro City

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

BY PANOS PREVEDOUROS PHD – An exorbitantly costly rapid transit heavy rail project has been proposed for the small Hawaiian island of Oahu, where the leading metropolis, Honolulu, ranks 53rd in population among U.S. cities, with less than 500,000 people. If the project moves forward it will be the world’s only elevated heavy rail in a metro area with a population of under four million.


Nothing about this 20-mile long rail project makes sense, except for its politics and its cronyism. It is projected to cost $5.3 billion according to the financial analysis of the city, or $7.2 billion, according to the state. For comparison, the Blue Line between Los Angeles and Long Beach that opened in 1990 has the same length and would cost roughly $1.5 billion to build now.

Cities worldwide and in the U.S. have shown a clear preference for light rail. The only rapid transit (heavy rail) system built in the US since 1990 is the one in Los Angeles in 1993; another was constructed in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2004. In the same period, 19 light rail systems were installed.

Honolulu lost a case against the EPA concerning its sewage in 2008; the current bill for fixing its sewage treatment stands at between four and five billion. Note that project costs in Hawaii have a wide range. That’s part of being a remote island state with high transportation and inventory costs, and of crony politics that generate multiple change orders and inefficiencies which result in large cost overruns.

Hawaii’s liabilities add up: a total of the sewer consent decree, the proposed rail, the necessary airports and harbors modernization, repairs to some of the worst road pavements in the nation, and one of the nation’s highest — and underfunded — public employee pension and medical benefit systems comes to $40 billion over the next 20 years, for a state of 1,360,000 people. That’s about $120,000 per family of four, of which 17% is for the proposed rail, which is the only discretionary project in the mix.

The 2008 recession sensitized the previous governor, Linda Lingle, to the mounting liabilities. She ordered a financial analysis of the rail project by one of the nation’s leading financial assessment firms. They opined that it will cost $7.2 Billion. Current Governor Neil Abercrombie and the pro-rail mayor dismissed the report as an “anti-rail tirade.”

The city’s advocacy forecasts for the rail project are seriously suspect. Bent Flybjerg, Chair and Professor of Major Program Management at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, has revealed that forecast manipulation is the norm in rail proposals, internationally. For example, the Blue Line in Los Angeles was forecast to carry 35,000 trips in the opening year. It carried only 21,000.

A more suitable comparison for Honolulu is Tren Urbano in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which opened in 2006. The similarities are eerie. Both are unique island cities with heavy rail projects under Federal Transit Administration (FTA) oversight, and have the same project planner, Parsons Brinkerhoff, who estimated 80,000 trips in the opening year for Tren Urbano, and a construction cost of $1.25 billion. FTA approved both. Tren got 25,000 trips, and was ultimately built for $2.25 billion, a nearly 100% cost overrun.

After the first year of operation, bus fares were doubled to push people to use the Tren. It didn’t work. A new sales tax of 5.5% was eventually enacted, and San Juan added 1.5% on top of that. Tren Urbano was a catalyst for financial hardship.

Another recent example are the Edinburgh trams, originally scheduled to open in July 2011 but rescheduled to 2014. The original cost was projected at $640 million, but estimates now are over one billion dollars. As of spring 2011, 72% of the construction work remains to be done, but only 38% of the budget is left.

Past experience and hard evidence have never fazed politicians in Hawaii. In 2008, Honolulu’s mayor Hannemann used several million dollars of taxpayer and political contribution funds to convince voters that his fully elevated (heavy) rail is actually a light rail system that would cost under $4.5 billion, and would solve Honolulu’s congestion problems.

Hannemann gave then-Minnesota Congressman and Transportation Committee Chair Jim Oberstar a helicopter ride along the route. He failed to indicate that three of the train route’s 20 miles would be on prime agricultural land, and that 12 of the 20 miles would be in low-density suburbia. Oberstar declared it a good project, and offered promises of federal funding.

Then the city released the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), just two days before elections which included a referendum or rail. The EIS was several thousand pages long. Many cried foul, but Senator Inouye advised the people to read the abstract. It was devoid of any quantitative information. The plan for passage barely worked: 50.6% of the voters voted in favor of rail.

The 2010 final EIS revealed that congestion in 2030 with rail will be far worse that it is now. The project is not green, given that 96% of Honolulu’s electricity comes from oil and coal. The present marketing push has switched to jobs and development opportunities. But six billion dollars would produce many more jobs and benefits if spent on almost any other infrastructure endeavor.

In late March, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff, Senator Inouye and Hawaii Congresswoman Mazie Hirono descended on Honolulu to stage a pro-rail rally with the mayor, the unions and the cronies. However, anti rail sentiment is growing, and, following an earlier lawsuit, a second one was filed in May 2011.

Honolulu is still completing the paperwork for its heavy rail, but preparatory construction has already started. This irrational project needs to be stopped. Stopping it will save the federal government $1.8 billion, save overtaxed Hawaii residents well over $5 billion, and save visitors to Hawaii about $700 million. It will save prime agricultural land, preserve island beauty and, importantly, save Honolulu from decades of added taxation, debilitating construction, and lack of funds for essential infrastructure projects.