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?

Overview

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

History

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.”

Conclusion

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?

2 Comments

  1. Excellent collaborative blog on a very important issue. It’s crazy that the rail is being executed and we can actually see it being built. I have always felt as though it would not help the crazy traffic situation in Hawaii. The points that were brought up to support your argument to reduce vehicles instead of building the rail were articulate and easily understood. The layout made it very easy/attractive to read and the side table of contents made navigation a lot easier. Graphics were also relevant and the video was a nice touch to provide a little more background on the subject. Sources are also reliable and credible. Great work you two!
    -Lucia

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  2. You did a superb job exploring almost every avenue of argumentation. First and foremost, you did a great job reeling the readers in. I for one, do hate Hawaii traffic as it takes me 1 and half hours to get from Manoa to Pearl city during traffic hours! By asserting Hawaii being ranked #2 for worst traffic conditions, you made a clear point why this issue must be addressed. Many other key points you covered well the financial burdens and the noise disturbance. It was great idea to explore the delays while drawing expert opinions to frame how it is unnecessary to implement a rail system considering that Hawaii is small in population numbers compared to states numbers with transit system. Hawaii’s population is not enough to off set the current traffic conditions. One thing I recommend for the rail is to extend it to UH Manoa! I believe that college students also a play a big role with the traffic, considering that it will be a great alternative to decreasing financial burdens for college students (i.e college students who work 2 jobs and have loans etc.) You did a great job tackling many of the public opinions such as the sound disturbance, relocating businesses and arguing that people with cars won’t be so easily swayed with the rail because they’d like to get to their destinations at their own convenience. Lastly, what stood out to me the most is how you discredited HART’s ethos by asserting they did not do an geographic survey of this project. At that point, I was persuaded that there must a much better oversight of the rail especially at this level of landscape modification. Overall, you did a great job arguing from multiple angles of argumentation while dispelling many of the controversies of the the Rail. You’re visual appeals are on point and your sources are very credible. Great job with covering the topic, I have never seen anyone else argue it in complex ways

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