Honolulu Rail: $9.9 Billion to Go Nowhere
by Randall O’Toole, The Antiplanner, May 2, 2022
The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) now says it will cost $9.9 billion to not finish its rail project by 2031. As recently as a year ago, HART insisted it would be able to complete the project by 2031, a mere 12 years late. But now it admits that it has a $1.4 billion funding shortfall that will prevent completion.
The rail line was supposed to go from Kapolei, a community of 21,000 people known as Oahu’s “second city,” to Ala Moana Center, Hawaii’s largest shopping mall. Even now, HART’s website claims it is essential for the rail line to go to Ala Moana “because of the Ala Moana Transit Center, which is the City’s largest bus transit center.” Rail passengers would be able to transfer there to buses that could take them to Waikiki, the University of Hawaii, and other destinations.
But that’s not going to happen under HART’s latest plan, which the Federal Transit Administration demanded HART prepare in order for the project to remain eligible for federal funding. Under the new plan (which wasn’t yet on HART’s web site when I wrote this), the rail line will end at the Civic Center Station, more than a mile from Ala Moana. Moreover, it isn’t exactly at the Civic Center; Honolulu’s city hall is a half-mile away and state agencies are even further away.
Meanwhile, the state of Hawaii has released a report explaining why the rail project will fail no matter where it goes or how much it costs. A survey taken last August found that nearly a quarter of all workers in Hawaii worked exclusively at home while another quarter were working at home part time and at an office or other work site part time. Nearly all of those who are working at home expect their employers to allow them to continue to do so after the pandemic is over.
According to demographer Wendell Cox, downtown Honolulu had about 56,000 jobs before the pandemic. With so many people working at home, it is likely that no more than 30,000 downtown workers will be commuting to work on any given day after the pandemic. This will relieve congestion and take away the incentive that many would otherwise have to take transit to work.
The needs of the few people still riding transit to work could easily be met by buses. Honolulu actually had one of the best bus systems in the country, but ridership peaked in 2012, shortly after rail construction began. By 2019, ridership had fallen by nearly 15 percent.
The problem with rail transit is that projects take so long to plan and build that the world may have changed by the time the projects are done. The pandemic is such a world-changing event, so projects that made sense before (and Honolulu rail wasn’t one of them) make no sense after the pandemic. Yet Honolulu taxpayers are forced to throw good money after bad in order to complete a wasteful project that never should have been considered in the first place.