Honolulu Rail Makes No Cents

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BY RANDAL O’TOOLE – Honolulu has the best bus system in America, taking a higher percentage of commuters to work and carrying more daily riders per capita than any other bus system.

But just having the best bus system isn’t good enough for some people, who just have to have a rail line to have “real transit.” So the city is about to break ground on a 20-mile-long elevated rail line that is expected to cost $5.27 billion ($260 million per mile), and will probably end up costing more. The city has already spent $350 million just planning the rail line–enough to operate its bus system for nearly two years–without laying a single inch of track.


The project even has Bette Midler upset. She grew up in Honolulu but now lives in New York which, she notes, went to a great deal of trouble to remove many of its ugly elevated rail lines. “That this project is going to be so small, cost so much, and have such a terrible impact on the environment is dreadful,” she says. “The very idea that the state would sacrifice the most important amenity it has to offer the world, the beauty of its environment, is beyond belief.” Not beyond belief: some people want rail transit no matter what the cost.

The latest news is that former Hawaii Governor Ben Cayetano is running for mayor for the specific purpose of killing the rail line. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser “objectively” reports that, if Cayetano wins, “money and jobs may disappear.” Yes, money will “disappear” back into taxpayers’ pockets, who will foolishly spend that money on things that will create jobs that are a lot more useful than building an elevated rail line that will only have to be torn down in a few years.

Someone (actually several someones) once asked “why do conservatives hate trains?” The real question is why do so many liberals so love trains that they are willing to overlook the high financial cost, environmental justice costs (when buses to low-income neighborhoods are cut to pay for trains to middle-income neighborhoods), the deteriorating state of our existing rail transit lines, and the failure of any rail line built in the past fifty years to significantly increase transit’s share of travel.

The answers may depend on the liberal in question, but I can’t help but feel the real answer lies in the innumeracy of so many Americans today.

Randal O’Toole is a transportation and planning expert with the Cato Institute and has his own web site, the Antiplanner.