Skyline’s $54 per passenger operating cost highest in U.S.

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The following is a news release that was issued by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii on July 13, 2023.
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“Taxpayers are already paying an enormous amount to build the project, but now are paying even more to run it nearly empty”

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HONOLULU, July 13, 2023 >> The actual cost to operate Skyline in fiscal 2024 is probably going to amount to about $54 per passenger — the highest cost among all light-rail systems in the United States — according to new research from the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

Joe Kent, Grassroot Institute executive vice president, said, “This means for every $3 ticket that passengers buy, taxpayers will be paying an additional $51.”

Kent said the estimate is based on figures supplied by the Honolulu Department of Transportation Services, which put the Skyline’s operational costs for fiscal 2024 at about $85 million.[1] The total includes electricity, administrative and maintenance costs, but does not include capital or financing expenses, according to the department.

Kent noted that the Honolulu rail’s capital and financing costs have ballooned to at least $10 billion, making it the most expensive rail system per capita in the world.[2] When construction began in 2012, the estimate was $5.1 billion.[3]

“Taxpayers are already paying an enormous amount to build the project, but now are paying even more to run it nearly empty,” Kent said. “Given the enormous cost to shuttle so few passengers around, I wonder why the Skyline is being run at all. This is $85 million that could be spent in other ways, rather than paying $54 for each train ride extending for only a few miles. City officials should ask whether this is a wise use of tax dollars.”

Kent said the operational figures apply to just the 10.75 miles of track already completed, which extend from Kapolei to Aloha Stadium in Halawa.[4]

The full rail line is supposed to stretch about 18.5 miles from Kapolei to Kakaako, with its full completion date now set for at least 2031.[5] Its original completion date was 2018.[6]

Kent said that from July 5 to July 9 — the first five days of the Skyline’s official but only partial operations — the highest ridership day was only 4,312 paying passengers.[7]

He said that if the Honolulu rail has 4,312 passengers per day for the remainder of fiscal 2024, the operational cost per passenger will total $54 per person.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, Honolulu’s $54 per-ticket projected operating cost for the Skyline is far higher than the next highest light-rail systems in America — in Cleveland, San Jose and Seattle — all of which cost about $19 per passenger ticket.[8]

Kent said the Skyline would have to carry 12,000 passengers a day to match the $19 per passenger costs of those three cities.

Officials with the Honolulu Department of Transportation Services, which is in charge of operating the rail system, say they expect the Skyline’s ridership to increase to up to 10,000 riders per day after the summer, which supposedly will bring down the operational costs per passenger significantly.[9]

Kent said achieving 10,000 riders per day would bring the operating cost down to $23.29 per passenger — still the highest in the nation.
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[1] Source: Travis Ota, Honolulu Department of Transportation information specialist, during a phone conversation on July 11, 2023, with Joe Kent, executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. Ota said the operational costs for the rail in fiscal 2024 will total $85 million, including electricity, administration and maintenance.

[2] “GRIH calculations of rails: Cost per capita, worldwide,”Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, July 2023.

[3] “Concrete poured on Honolulu rail project,” Hawaii News Now, May 16, 2012. See also letter from Daniel A. Grabauskas to Leslie T. Rogers, “Request to Enter a Full Funding Grant Agreement,” Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, June 29, 2012.

[4] Chavonnie Ramos, “What It’s Like to Ride the ‘Skyline,’” Hawaii Business Magazine, June 19, 2023.

[5] See Noelle Fujii-Oride, “How Rail Got to $12.45 Billion and 11 Years Late,” Hawaii Business Magazine, Nov. 9, 2021. On July 12, 2023, a person answering the “HART hotline” — who declined to give his name — said the rail would be built to its end point in Kakaako by 2031. He said the rail would reach Kalihi by “around 2026.”

[6] Noelle Fujii-Oride, “A Look at the Rail’s Increasing Price Tag and Pushed Back Completion Dates,” Hawaii Business Magazine, Nov. 9, 2021.

[7] Dan Nakaso, “Initial paid rail ridership more than doubles after revision,” Honolulu Star-Advertiser, July 11, 2023.

[8] “2020 National Transit Database,” American Public Transportation Association, December 2021. See also, “Grassroot Institute of Hawaii Calculations using APTA statistics 2020 updated with Skyline,” Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, July 2023.

[9] Dan Nakaso and Mia Anzalone, “Over 71,000 passengers ride Skyline in first 5, free days,” Honolulu Star-Advertiser, July 6.

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