The City and County of Honolulu is building a 20-mile, 21-station rapid-transit line that runs from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center. Its latest official cost estimate, based on the project’s 2017 recovery plan, is almost exactly $9 billion, including financing.
Island leaders have tried for the past half century to build a fixed-rail system on Oahu, and the current project remains controversial. Advocates say it will serve as a critical alternative option to the traffic-plagued H-1 freeway to get into town. But the project has seen its own plague of budget problems, where construction costs have grown by an estimated $3 billion since fall 2014.
The full line was originally slated to be completed in 2019. However, delays have pushed back that official completion about six years, to December 2025. Future plans call for eventually extending the line to the University of Hawaii-Manoa and Waikiki.
The city considered four options before settling on a steel-wheel-on-steel-rail system, which has received city, state and federal support. During the 2008 general election, 50.6 percent of Honolulu voters said yes to the charter amendment question: “Shall the powers, duties, and functions of the city, through its director of transportation services, include establishment of a steel wheel on steel rail transit system?”
The rail issue was so divisive during the election that year that more people voted against the steel-on-steel technology (140,818) than voted for anti-rail mayoral candidate, now-Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi. Kobayashi received 128,798 votes.
In subsequent years vocal detractors of the project have called for alternatives, such as high-occupancy toll lanes with prioritized bus rapid transit or even nothing at all. Those proponents emphasize a democratic obligation to uphold the people’s 2008 vote in support of the project.
The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the project was released in June 2010. The Federal Transit Administration issued a Record of Decision approving the project in January 2011.
The stations are designed be Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant, with escalators, elevators, stairs and platforms level with the trains’ floors. Only four stations will have substantial parking facilities, but the rail system is intended to work in concert with TheBus, allowing for easy transfer between the two.
The initial Honolulu rail line would pass the University of Hawaii-West Oahu campus,Waipahu, Leeward Community College, Pearl City, Pearlridge, Aloha Stadium, Salt Lake, Kalihi, Honolulu Community College, downtown Honolulu and Kakaako.
Extensions are also planned. One extension would go from Ala Moana Center to the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus, as well as Waikiki. Other proposed extensions would lead west through Kapolei and to Kalaeloa.
The route proposed in the 2010 EIS required the acquisition of 160 acres. Nearly 200 parcels would be impacted, with 40 of those being being fully acquired, or “full-takes.” In total, 20 residences, 67 businesses and one church are slated to be displaced and relocated.
Property acquisition is well underway, with some tenants being helped under the Federal Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act. In 2018, rail officials notified the FTA that they may not have properly followed that process – and thus potentially violated federal law – in making those payments.
The route will also have visual impacts. Some trees will have to be cut down and some ocean and mountain views will be altered by the elevated tracks. In vocal criticism of the project, the American Institutes of Architects Honolulu Chapter posted simulations of what an elevated rail line would look like in downtown Honolulu along Nimitz Highway.
The current rail proposal isn’t Oahu’s first. The idea has been considered for 50 years.
In 1967, the Oahu Transportation Study recommended a fixed guideway from Pearl City to Hawaii Kai, which then-Mayor Neal Blaisdell pursued. In the 1970s, then-Mayor Frank Fasi inherited the project and received federal money for the Honolulu Area Rapid Transit (HART) project, a fixed guideway that would connect Aloha Stadium and Kahala Mall.
However, Fasi’s defeat to Eileen Anderson in the 1980 election put his rail plans on hold. Fasi would regain the mayoral seat and, with support from Gov. John Waihee, receive congressional approval for $618 million in federal funding for HART. The plan called for a 0.5 percent general excise tax increase to cover the remainder of the project costs, but in 1992 the City Council voted down the tax increase in a 5-4 vote, killing the plan.
In 2003, rail came up again, this time as a light rail proposal from then-state Sen. President Robert Bunda. Then-Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, that year also proposed light rail in West Oahu and an elevated Nimitz “flyover” highway. She ended up dropping both plans due to her party’s opposition to the projects, which would have required tax increases for funding.
Two years later, however, both the city and state agreed to work together on a rail proposal. In 2005, the Legislature passed a GET surcharge, which Lingle allowed to pass into law without her signature. This time the city council approved the tax increase.
In 2008, the city, state, federal transit officials and voters all approved the start of a steel-wheel-on-steel-rail system. The project’s groundbreaking was scheduled for October 2009, but was pushed back multiple times until a ceremony in early 2011 marked the start of pre-construction work. State and federal lawsuits then helped stall construction for about a year. That work resumed in late 2013 and has continued ever since.
As of 2018, federal officials considered the rail work about 45 percent complete overall, with the most difficult construction into town yet to start. The elevated guideway from East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium is done. Stations along that stretch are underway, and the work on the elevated line and stations to Middle Street is in the early stages.
A 0.5 percent surcharge on Oahu’s state general excise tax, combined with state transient accommodations tax revenues and $1.55 billion in federal “New Starts” dollars are funding the bulk of the $9 billion project. As of March 2018, the city was obligated to cover an additional $214 million in rail’s budget.
The Honolulu Rail system will use steel-wheel technology. In Feburary 2008, an independent panel of transportation experts appointed by the administration and city council recommended steel-on-steel as the best long-term and most cost-effective solution. The panel cited benefits that include higher passenger capacity, better ride quality, better energy efficiency and lower noise and air-quality impacts.
The panel had compared the steel-wheel on steel-track system to rubber tire on concrete, monorail and magnetic levitation technology.
The decision to move to rail came just a couple years after the city abandoned plans for a bus rapid transit system in urban Honolulu, due in part to concerns that dedicated bus lanes would create more congestion rather than help it. The city considered other alternatives, such as elevated high-occupancy toll roads, as well.
The Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Honolulu rail project looked at the traffic corridor from Kapolei to Manoa and drew conclusions based on more residents and job sites moving toward West Oahu through 2030.
More than 60 percent of Oahu’s population and 80 percent of its employment is located in the designated transit corridor. The planning documents looked at a narrow 23-mile strip bounded by the Waianae and Koolau mountain ranges and the Pacific Ocean. The corridor includes most of West Oahu, including many new and upcoming suburban developments and the “second city” of Kapolei, as well as the business district and Waikiki.
By 2030, the population living in the area is expected to increase to 69 percent, along with 84 percent of jobs. If those projections are correct, along with the expectation that 95,000 commuters will ride a train on a daily basis, the city predicts future traffic congestion will be reduced versus if the system is not built.
In 2007, about 73 percent of more than 2 million daily trips on Oahu originated between Kapolei and Waikiki, including about 350,000 trips during peak morning travel times. Under the proposed system, trains will hold more than 300 passengers, which planners say is the equivalent of more than 200 cars, with trains coming every three minutes during rush hour.
If the train ridership is as robust as the city hopes, it could mean 30,000 fewer cars on the road each day. According to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, this could improve traffic congestion and parking shortages for others commuting to work in downtown Honolulu, Kakaako or the Ala Moana area, even those coming from areas not served by the rail system.
While there is skepticism among opponents about whether the ridership projections will be realized, the city hopes to have similar results to smaller communities, as well as less densely populated cities with successful steel-wheel transit systems, including Portland, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Although 2010 data shows declining ridership in public transportation nationwide, the American Public Transportation Association reported before the economic downturn that public transportation use had been on the rise in several cities, with increased ridership of 5 percent to 43 percent within a one-year time frame.
Honolulu’s ridership numbers will likely depend on how easy the rail system will be to use and how much it reduces commute times. The city so far has offered little data to make comparisons between the length of a rail commute and driving in rush hour. The Draft EIS offered only two comparisons between 2007 rush hour drive times and projected 2030 transit travel times:
• Waianae to UH-Manoa: 128 minutes by car vs. 91-93 minutes by train
• Kapolei to Ala Moana Center: 101 minutes by car vs. 57-59 minutes by train
Impact on Historic Sites
The city has said seven historic sites will face negative impacts, but the Historic Hawaii Foundation believes at least 33 historic properties, including three historic districts, will be adversely affected by the planned rail route.
Adverse effects, according to the foundation’s definition, include “demolition, physical occupation of a portion of the site or having an impact on the site’s setting, context, feeling or association.” Another 50 are in the area of potential effect.