Honolulu Rail Transit: A Solution That Will Become A Problem

To learn more: Reason Foundation

What is the Issue?

According to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), they agreed to help cover some of the cost of the project by paying out $1.55 billion, while the rest of cost will be covered by the resident of Hawai’i, who will be paying a higher excise tax every year until the project is completed in 2019.

Furthermore, politicians and labor union assured the cost will be covered and there are contingency plans to avoid any cost over-run, but with projects of this magnitude they usually have cost overrun due to mismanagement of the project, and unforeseen problem while building the rail and maintenance cost.

This project would be another typical example of Hawaii’s public work system being financially unstable and corrupt at the city and state level. I argue that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) should look into ways to stop and/or decrease the amount of vehicles instead of focusing on rail transit project because it’s going to be:

1. A financial burden

2. It will negatively impact the environment

3. It won’t solve the traffic in Hawai’i.

Will the benefits out weigh the cost?


O’ahu, Hawai’i, a state that is ranked 2nd in the worst traffic in the United States for the year 2012 and 2013. This is due to a population of 905,000 people and where the total number of cars, trucks, SUVs, and motorcycle registered in Hawai’i are close to equaling the state’s total population. Having almost as much vehicles as the state’s population creates problems due to the roads not being able to sustain that many cars.

This problem had led to our government finding the best possible solution, which is to build a rail transit. In 2008, the rail transit system was able to get enough votes to start the propose solution to building a rail transit system to help alleviate the traffic.

Even though residents of Hawaii didn’t conform to the idea of having a rail transit system in Hawai’i, it was the number one public concern and traffic condition has been getting worse every year. This lead to an agreement with the government to build the rail transit system, which was the best possible solution to the stop the congested roads.

Is “Light Rail Transit” the solution to traffic congestion in Hawai’i?


Honolulu Rail Transit Project

The rail transit system project will be a raised rail transit line that will start at East Kapolei and end at Ala Moana Center near Waikiki. It will pass through Ewa, Waipahu, Pearl City, Salt Lake, Kalihi, and Downtown Honolulu. Also there will be an extension build to include the University of Hawaii Manoa campus and Waikiki.

This project’s plan was to build a 34-mile rail line that would cost $2.6 billion, however the plan changed and the rail line has been reduce to 20 miles and costing taxpayers $5.3 billion. It will require the acquisition of 160 acres. In those areas,  20 residences, 67 businesses and one church will be forced to relocate or be displaced.

Map of The Rail Line

Rendering of what the train will look like


For more than 40 years, there has been debates to build a rail system in O’ahu.

  • In 1967, The rail system was discussed for the first time. The O’ahu transportation study recommended a fixed guideway from Pearl City to Hawaii Kai.
  • In 1970, when Frank Fasi was the Mayor at that time and he was able to start the project and received federal money for the Honolulu Area Rapid Transit (HART) project to build a rail that would connect Aloha Stadium to Kahala Mall. However, in 1980 Fasi lost the election to Eileen Anderson, which stop the rail.
  •  In 1992, Fasi was reelected mayor and received congressional approval for $618 million in federal funding to cover the project’s leftover costs, but the City and Council voted against the tax increase in a 5-4 vote, ending the plan.
  • In 2003, The state Senate President Robert Bunda and Governor Linda Lingle proposed a light rail in West O’ahu and an elevated Nimitz “Flyover” Highway, but later dropped it because it would have required tax increase for funding. However, two later in 2005, the Legislature passed a GET surcharge, which Lingle allowed to pass into law without her signature.
  • Then in 2008, FTA and voters approved the start of the rail transit project.

Rendering of Nimitz “Flyover” Highway

1. Effect on Traffic

First I want to look at the main purpose of the rail system, which is to help alleviate the traffic on the road. The main reason to building a rail system is to convince drivers to stop driving and get onto a train.

I don’t believe that having a rail system will be enough to convince drivers to take the train because the reason they drive is their vehicle are able to take them close to their destination and in a timely matter. If they were to take the train it will drop them off in certain areas that are still far from where they want to go. They won’t be able to get to where they want in time because traffic will start to build up in those areas where people are getting dropped off by the train.

This will create stress for people, making them take other means of transportation that will be faster to travel than the train. These are few reasons why drivers won’t take the train. If people are not going to stop driving, then it’s highly likely we are going to see the traffic increase and highway time increase.

Even in a response to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the FTA agreed with the rail critics who said the traffic congestion will increase because the purpose of the project is to provide an alternative to use of congested highways. In other words the project will not reduce congestion, just provide an alternative way of transportation.

According to the article, “ Ten Plus One Reasons Why I Do Not Support The Honolulu Project” by Panos Prevedouros stated that, “Among all travel option on O’ahu, mass transit serves 6% of the travels, just slightly above the U.S. average of 5%.  Focusing on this small piece of the pie is no way to solve the mobility problem of the 80% that drives and carpool, i.e., rail is the 1% solution because City’s rosy numbers show that transit share will grow from 6% now to 7% with rail.”

Panos Prevedouros, PHD, professor of Engineering at the University of Hawaii

With the build of the rail it will eliminate all the bus routes that are near the rail station, which is about 24 routes making the TheBus system a feeder operation compared to being a core operation. In addition, it will create a lot of inconvenience and disappointment to the resident that need TheBus service the most.

Picture of the H-1 Highway

2. Effects on Environment, Health, and Aesthetic

The next problem I want to talk about is the environment, health, and aesthetic issue of the rail system.  I was disturbed and concern when I found out that HART had not conducted an archaeological review of the entire project when they begin construct along the undeveloped land west of Honolulu, which were sacred ancestral burials of the native Hawaiian.

This led to University of Hawaii law professor, Randy Roth, former Governor Ben Cayetano, Transportation Expert, Cliff Slater and the Honolulu Traffic Group suing FTA for not considering every reasonable alternative to the project in the environmental impact statement. In effect delayed the project and pushing back the projected time the project was suppose to be finish. Thus, making the people of Hawai’i pay higher excise tax longer.

Randy Roth, Law professor at University of Hawaii at Manoa

Ben Cayetano (left) and Cliff Slate (right)

The fact HART did not conducted an archaeological review of the entire project made me have doubt in the company and things they are doing with the project. A project of this magnitude should be controlled by someone who is reliable and get the job done the right way and not someone who does a half-fast job because when there is a lot of money at risk, people expect the project to be flawless and high quality.

Also HART said that the train will be electric power, but most of Oahu’s electrical power comes from the burning of petroleum products. In other words the train will use fossil fuel for power, so technically they are not helping the environment.

The few problems I have with rail is the risk  of being vulnerable to a natural disaster. If a storm was to hit O’ahu the rail system could be incapable able to run and cost taxpayers millions of dollars to fix the rail.

Another risk with the rail is it is an easy target for an terrorist attack and a magnet for people to commit suicides. On top of that the rail station could be a hot spot for robberies and drug trafficking.

Picture of the construction for rail


Disturbing The Peace!

According to HART the train will run from 4 a.m. to midnight.

The downside to that is the train will generate 79 decibels of noise from 50 feet away. Similar to the sound of a dishwasher or washing machine running all day long, but adding the sound of a screeching brake. This will negatively affect O’ahu residents and businesses who are located near the train because nobody likes to hear a noise like that everyday.

Beside the sound of the train the visual appearance of the raised rail system will not be visually appealing to the resident of O’ahu. Just imagine being able to see the beautiful ocean from the mountain side and then imagine just seeing a rail line blocking your perfect view of the ocean and no way of remove the rail line from your view. It’s not a pretty sight to see.

Picture before Rail (left) and Rendering picture with Rail (right)

3. Finance & Cost

The last problem I have with the rail system is the financial burden it will have on the resident of Hawai’i. Especially the middle and lower class because Hawaii already is an expensive place to live and increasing the tax will only hurt those who are struggling to pay off bills.

The location of where the rail line will go will negatively impact those people living in Leeward Oahu and Waianae coast. Those areas are where there is a high number of middle and lower class people. Additionally the rail will not benefit people living on the North Shore, Central area, East side and the outer island because the rail line doesn’t go through those area, so its unfair to those people who has to pay a higher excise tax and won’t be able to use the rail.

Beside the rail impacting the resident close and not close to the rail, I don’t believe the benefits of the rail system will outweigh the cost of the project. If the rail is built it won’t see an high increase of ridership, the traffic congestion won’t decrease, and looking at the other four cities with light rail system, their cost of the rail exceeded their projection by 19%. If we look at the graph below we can see the rail cost will go over what HART expected the cost of the rail will be 3x higher if it takes 8 years to complete the rail project.

Cost of rail will be three times higher in 2022

Furthermore, if we look at the graph below it will show you comparision of the Honolulu rail project compared to other similar metro area project. Hawaii is ranked top 4 for the rail cost and cost per capita, but ranked last in total population and 55th in population ranking.

Comparison of Honolulu rail project compared to other similar metro area project

Even UCLA Professor Brian Taylor, who was a planner with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the San Francisco Bay Area, agrees with rail cities saying, “ The overall numbers of projected rides will not nearly be enough to offset the tremendous capital cost needed to build the system, as well as the additional expenditures required to operate and maintain it.”

Professor Brian Taylor, currently a chair of the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies Federal Transit Administration Transit Economic Requirements Model review committee.


On another note the FTA the project was suppose to receive $250 million, but ended up receiving $236.2 million of federal funding and the rest through general excise tax, which is a bad sign because the federal government has to adjust the distribution of revenue the project get through the funding and the resident of Hawai’i.

Even though the rail is supposed to be completed by 2019, it is highly unlikely it will because of the lawsuits being filed against the rail and the issues that are delaying the build of the rail causing resident of Hawai’i to pay the higher tax for a long duration and increase the cost of the rail.

According to Panos Prevedouros, he mentioned that, “spending over $5 billion for a non-solution is clearly unethical and all responsible for it are breaching their professional and fiduciary duty.”


I highly recommend and reconsider other better more efficiency and cost-effective alternative to solving Hawaii’s traffic problem rather than just continuing building the rail system, which is clearly not a solution to solving the traffic congestion in O’ahu .

For example, the group called Honolulu Traffic, suggested ideas of building a highway tunnel to the north of Honolulu that would connect the suburban neighborhoods west of the city with the University of Hawai’i Manoa campus.

Also they wanted to expand the bus access along common pockets of congestion to help alleviate the traffic.

Other ideas that we should look into is the Honolulu’s TheBus system, which has been honored and awarded twice for the “America’s Best Transit system” by the American Public Transportation Association.

We could create a bus rapid transit on reserved lanes, so the bus can get to each destination without the hassle of going into traffic with other vehicles. With a reserved lane for buses will help them get to their destination on time and with no hassle.

However, these are just few alternatives to think about. While the rail transit project is still in the process of being built. I am more than welcome to hear other suggestions and comments about this topic on my blog. I encourage both party, who are for and against the Honolulu rail system to  . I am really curious and want to know more about the reason why Hawai’i should have rail

Is rail worth the cost?

#4 Alternatives to Honolulu Rail


The debate over the Honolulu Rail Transit system is easily one of Hawaii’s major controversial issues because the decision whether or not to build the rail will affect all of Hawaii’s citizens and visitors.  There are basically three groups of people/audience that I considered while writing this essay; they are the pro rail, anti rail and undecided.

images1.jpgThis essay is from an anti-rail point of view, but with tasteful respect towards anyone who is pro rail and informative to those who are undecided.  I argue that the effectiveness of the elevated rail system is not worth the amount of 5.3 billion dollars, instead of going through with the building of the rail we should pause the construction to reconsider other cost efficient viable options for relieving the traffic problem on Oahu.  I understand that the city has already started construction on the rail, but if we pause the construction now and save that money we might be able to come up with a better solution.

Like all debates every issue has its pros and cons and the debate over the rail transit system is no different.  I do acknowledge the pro rail arguments such as the rail transit system will reduce traffic congestion, the rail will be a faster mode of transportation, and the rail will be “green” and economically friendly and will provide local jobs.  But does the cost outweigh the benefits? Or are there other transportation options that are cheaper and still get the same or better results for relieving the traffic crisis on Oahu than the proposed rail system?images

Part of The Problem 

Population growth is one of the many inevitable causes of increased traffic that the rail will not be able to fix because the rail cannot control the rate at which the population grows.  The decrease in percentage of auto trips on Oahu would only decrease from a projected 23 percent to 21 percent.  This measly two percent equals about 40,000 auto trips, which is not even close to making a significant dent.

Power to THE BUS


Former Governor Ben Cayetano is one of the many public proponents to the current rail transit system.  In the 2012 election for Mayor, Gov. Cayetano’s main purpose was to stop the building of the rail and proposed his own solution to the traffic problem on Oahu.  He suggested the implication of his FAST program or Flexible Affordable Smart Transportation system.  This proposal would contain the addition of BRT or Bus Rapid Transit routes and contained a plethora of changes to the current transportation system.  Gov. Cayetano argued that his FAST plan would cost about $1.1 billion instead of the estimated $5.3 billion rail transit system.  This means Cayetano’s option is one fifth the price of the rail, which means we could take one fifth of the risk of building the rail.  Cayetano also said “unlike heavy rail, which will take ten or more years to complete, Honolulu commuters will see traffic congestion reduced by our FAST program within six months”.  If we had gone with Cayetano’s plan in the first place not only would we save money initially but the citizens of Honolulu would also reap the benefits sooner.

Part of the BRT bus routes

The Bus Rapid Transit system would call for eight more BRT or express bus routes including the pre-mentioned Route C County Express.  The estimated amount of thirty-six additional busses would need to be added to these routes to make the plan effective.  The new busses and their routes would take advantage of the eastbound Zipper lane that runs from Kapolei to downtown and the newly constructed west bound Zipper lane.  The newly implemented westbound Zipperlane would open up the express busses to service Wahiawa, Mililani, Ewa, Kapolei and Waipahu in a timelier manner.  In future thought of his plans Cayetano also proposed an underpass tobe constructed under major streets such as Kapiolani Boulevard, Beretania Street, Kalakaua Avenue and Ala Moana Boulevard to increase the flow of traffic through critical areas.imgres

There would also a “College Express” that would run through the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu Community college and Hawaii Pacific University.  So basically it would cover all the colleges in town.  This route would be useful because it would help students who take classes at two or more of the colleges listed, plus the additional stops along the new route would add to more busses traveling around town, which could lead to more people using public transportation.  Another significant addition to the bus routes would be another route that runs from Aloha Stadium to down town.

Gov. Cayetano also proposed in addition to the BRT and underpass routes, to build a two-lane viaduct above Nimitz Highway to increase the flow of traffic from downtown to the west side.

Bus vs. Rail

One of the claims by the pro rail saa-lrt-bus-saarbruecken-interchg-apr2003_s-baguettegroup is the promise in a significant reduction in travel time from Kapolei transit center to Downtown.  They estimated the rail to take about fifty-three minutes to get from Kapolei Downtown.  When in present day it takes the Country Express C Bus thirty-eight to fifty-two minutes to make the same trip depending on the time one travels and the intensity of the traffic.  If someone were to travel during rush hour traffic the Country Express C Bus will more likely take a travel time closer to fifty-two minutes or more.  On the other hand if someone takes the same bus at a non-rush hour time the trip will take a travel time of thirty-two minutes.  In either situation the rail transit system will take longer.  One of the main reasons why the Country Express C Bus and other express buses have decent travel times is because they are able to use the Zipper Lane.  At the moment of this article’s publication in 2013 the Zipper Lane only went one way, from Kapolei to Downtown.  This means the trip into Downtown from Kapolei takes a shorter amount of time than the trip from Downtown to Kapolei.  If the city decides to build another Zipper Lane going from Downtown to Kapolei theoretically the travel times for all Country Express C Buses will decrease.  Unfortunately the City has said that they will discontinue the use of the Country Express C Bus and all other express buses once the rail transit system is up and running.honolulurail_vs_bus

Beretania St. Tunnel Alternative

Currently being a college student at the University of Manoa the idea of the rail making a stop at the UH campus would most like be a positive idea.  In the original plans of the Honolulu rail transit system the rail was supposed to circulate from Kapolei to the UH campus.  The rail that is being built now stops at Ala Moana Center and does not touch UH.  This is where the Beretania St. Tunnel Alternative comes in.  Although not part of the original plans of the rail, Chief U.S District Judge Susan Oki 200px-Susan_Oki_MollwayMollway suggested in a letter to the Federal Transit Administration that the alternative tunnel should be implemented now during the building stages.  She predicts if HART were to implement it now it could save the city money in the future instead of upgrading the rail to run from Ala Moana Center to the University.


Propose Beretania St. Tunnel

The Beretania St Tunnel Alternative would start at Ka’aahi Street underground and resurface near the police station on Beretania St.  From the police station the underground track would connect to the elevated stricter across Alapai Street, then it would transfer onto King Street and run till it hit University Ave.  From University Ave the route would then cross the H-1 and dock at the lower campus of UH Manoa.

What do the Experts Think?

Brian Taylor DSC_0048Brian Taylor is a professor at the University of California Los Angeles has a PhD in Urban Planning from UCLA, a MS in Civil Engineering from UC Berkley and a BA in Geography from UCLA.  He was a planner with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in San Francisco Bay before joining the faculty at UCLA.  Needless to say he has some experience when it comes to urban transportation.  He sides with the Bus Rapid Transit over the Honolulu rail transit system for several reasons.

The firs reason when it comes to the bare essentials is the amount of ridership the rail is expected to draw.  In an interview with KITV4 news Taylor says “while the overall number of projected riders appears impressive, it is not nearly enough to offset the tremendous capital cost needed to build the system, as well as the additional expenditures required to operate and maintain it.”  His studies also show that the less steps it takes to get to the transportation whether it be the rail system or the BRT, people are more likely to go with the transportation with easier access.

Therefore rail transit systems are needed in areas with huge populations that can use the rail systems as major mode of transportation.  These places include cities like Tokyo, New York City and London where they get the amount of ridership to cover the overhead cost of their rail systems.   In Honolulu’s case it is hard to justify building a 5.3 billion dollar rail that only covers twenty miles of fixed track over a bus rapid transit system that covers a multitude of routes for a lesser price.

Panos Prevedouros is a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa specializing in transportation engineering, traffic analysis and simulation, demand forecasting and intelligent transportation systems.  He has long been an opponent against the rail transit system.  Although he makes many good arguments against the rail transit system, he does touch on the Panos_Prevedouros_as_Mayoral_Candidatenegative effects towards The Bus that will happen once the rail is built.  He says “the rail will dismantle the No.1 system in the nation.”  The Bus routes that will be discontinued are “B, C, E, 3, 9, 11, 20, 43, 53, 73, 81, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 96, 97, 98A, 101, 102, 103, 201, 202.”


Before starting my research I already had my own reasons for opposing the rail transit system.  The extent of my knowledge beforehand consisted of things I heard by word of mouth from my family and friends.  Some of those reasons mixed with my own was the formula for premature thesis.  One reason I opposed the rail was because I figured since I drive and right outside of town there is no need for me to take the rail.  If I need to go to Kapolei I would just drive even if there was a rail and the chances of me going to Kapolei during rush hour is less than likely.  Thus my ridership and transportation needs do not fit the rail transit’s demographic.  Another reason that I heard from friends and family is the rail only services a specific group of people.  Those people would be regular commuter from the west side who commute regularly to town using public transportation.  The amount of people that would actually use the rail is fairly small, yet the GET was increased just to help pay for the rail, which means everyone who pays taxes is helping pay for the rail without reaping the benefits.  These were some of my preconceived notions before doing my research.

I focused my research on the alternatives to the rail system.  Ben Cayetano seemed to have a fairly reasonable alternative to the current rail system.  First of the rail says it will take forty thousand car trips off the road and at first this number sounds impressive.  When in actuality there will be a twenty one percent increase with rail instead of a twenty three percent increase without rail.  Cayetano’s main proposal was the BRT, which was supported by experts like Brian Taylor.  Basically the BRT would add more express busses, bus routes, and take advantage of the Zipper lanes at a cost of about $1.1 billion dollars.  Clearly at a cheaper cost than the rail, this could be a better alternative for the cost.

Although I am against the rail I do have an opened mind and I encourage pro rail supporters to express their ideas on this blog.  I am interested to hear the other opinions and facts out there whether they are for or against the rail because I know I did not cover all the discourse surrounding the Honolulu rail transit.

For more Information:

Dayton, Kevin, and Gordon Y.K Pang. “Cayetano Lays out Transit Plan.”Hawaii News, Honolulu, Honolulu News, Sports, Editorial, Features, Travel and Business. Star Advertiser, 28 Sept. 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. <http://www.staradvertiser.com/s?action=login&f=y&id=171748061&id=171748061>.

Hao, Sean, and Gordon Y.K Pang. “Honolulu’s Rail Costs Put State at Financial Risk, Governor Says.” Honolulu’s Rail Costs Put State at Financial Risk, Governor Says | The Honolulu Advertiser | Hawaii’s Newspaper. Honolulu Advertiser, 9 Jan. 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. <http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2010/Jan/09/ln/hawaii1090342.html>.

“Honolulu Rail Project Archives – Civil Beat.” Civil Beat. Peer News LLC, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. http://www.civilbeat.com/topics/honolulu-rail-project/

Launiu, Stephanie Namahoe. “Honolulu Rail Transit – The Trouble With the Train.” HubPages. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. http://hawaiianscribe.hubpages.com/hub/Honolulu-Rail-Transit-The-Trouble-With-the-Train

League of Women Voters of Honolulu Rail Transit Task Force. “LWV-Honolulu Arguments for and Against a Rail Transit System for Honolulu.” League Of Women Voters Of Hawaii. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. http://www.lwv-hawaii.com/rail_pro-con-90.htm

Mellers, Rich, and Rick Daysog. “Federal Judge Urges HART to Recognize Rail Route
Alternative.” Online posting. – Hawaii News Now. N.p., 11 July 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. <http://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/story/22819821/federal-judge-urges-hart-to-recognize-rail-route-alternative>.

Mulero, Eugene. “TRANSIT: Will a $5B Rail System save Paradise or Destroy It?” E&E Publishing, LLC. E&E Publishing, 17 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. http://www.eenews.net/stories/1059987350

Pang, Gordon Y.K. “Debate over Rail’s Future Flares after Court Ruling.” Star Advertiser. Star Advertiser, 03 Nov. 2012. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. http://www.staradvertiser.com/news/20121103_Debate_over_rails_future_flares_after_court_ruling.html?id=177086041&mobile=true

Prevedouros, Panos. “Rail Is Not a Path to Prosperity for Honolulu.” Hawaii News. Hawaii
Reporter, 1 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2014. <http://www.hawaiireporter.com/rail-is-not-a-path-to-prosperity-for-honolulu>.

“Why You Should Fight To Keep Rail Out Of Our City.” Honolulutraffic.com A Community Wide Effort To Keep Elevated Rail Out Of Our City. N.p., 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. http://www.honolulutraffic.com/