We pointed out in a Star-Advertiser commentary on August 21, 2011, that the proposed elevated heavy rail system would result in a $100 million increase in the City’s annual subsidy to public transportation, “just to keep the trains running.” We also suggested that the obvious sources for the increased subsidy would be “substantially higher fares for riders and substantially higher taxes for everyone.”

Civil Beat judged our statements as half true. We stand by our statements.

Civil Beat took an early wrong turn when it decided to separate the projected subsidy for TheBus and TheTrain into two separate numbers. This made no sense in light of the City’s plan to integrate the two systems and use a unified fare structure.1 Once someone bought a Bus/Rail pass, no one would know whether that person was using it to ride the bus, the train, both, or neither.

Similarly, today’s bus operating and maintenance costs cannot meaningfully be compared with projected bus operating costs in an integrated system. If rail is built, the bus system will be turned upside down: Virtually all long-haul express bus routes would be eliminated and other routes reconfigured to feed the train.2

Of course, the exact amount of the additional subsidy for the integrated system is unknowable at this time, but $100 million is a conservative estimate. The City says the increase in the first full year of their joint operation would be $119 million, and even that number assumes that actual ridership will not fall below the projections. The evidence suggests that the City’s projections are overly optimistic.

The City assumes that public transportation trips will increase from 6.0 percent of all trips to 7.4 percent, if rail is built. That would be a 23 percent increase in market share. Yet the percentage of the U.S. population using transit actually declined significantly between 1980 and 2000.3

U.S. Census data show that no U.S. metro area with rail experienced an increase in the percentage of commuters using transit during that 20-year period, which was when most of the nation’s new rail lines were built.4

The latest Federal Transit Administration survey of forecast vs. actual rail transit ridership shows that actual rail ridership averaged 41 percent less than what had been forecast. The only heavy rail5 lines listed in this survey were BART’s San Francisco Airport extension to Daly City and the Tren Urbano in San Juan. These achieved ridership less than half of what they had forecast.6

The city relies on federal funding for the costs of replacement buses each year, and it intends to use $244 million of this funding between 2013 and 2019 to build the rail line.7 In other words, the city would be taking what normally are federal bus funds to use for rail construction, and then substituting General Funds to pay for new buses. The city would probably do that more directly if it were clearly legal to use General Funds for rail construction.

If anyone who thinks we are being too skeptical of the City’s numbers, here’s what the Federal Transportation Administration Oversight Contractor wrote about the City’s financial plan:

“The cost estimates/planning assumptions/financial capacity sub-factor is rated Medium-Low. Several observations support this rating. First, it is questionable whether the City can afford the growth in subsidies presented in this financial plan, which require a higher portion of the General Fund and Highway Fund revenues than has historically been the case. Second, the subsidies could be yet higher due to optimistic assumptions regarding operating cost growth for all services. Third, the projected cash balances of the Public Transportation System Fund, inferred from current cash plus investments and the forecasted balanced budget, fall below the 1.5 month standard (12 percent of operating costs) that would be needed to support a higher rating. Finally, there is some prospect that the Project’s O&M costs could be understated, based on a comparison to heavy rail and light rail operations in the U.S.”8

Civil Beat simply assumed the City’s numbers to be accurate, including wildly optimistic projections. We don’t know if that reflects incompetence or bias.

1. “A unified fare structure is planned, similar to the current structure for TheBus” (FEIS, p. 2-30)

2. “Bus routes eliminated: Transit service will be improved through local bus routes and pedestrian and bicycle access to guideway stations, resulting in an increased transit share of total trips (particularly for work-related trips).” (FEIS, p. S-6). Some bus routes will be reconfigured to bring riders on local buses to nearby fixed guideway transit stations. Service on duplicative routes will be reduced as the service is replaced by the fixed guideway system. 2 To support this system, the bus fleet will be increased in 2030 (Table 2-5). Appendix D, Bus Transit Routes, details future transit routes.” (FEIS, p. 2-24)

3. These two facts are true for the nation as a whole and virtually every metro area in the country — including Honolulu — and can be easily verified in the chart below and the sources of data.


A double check on that is that of transit boardings 9.4 billion in 2000 to 10.2 billion in 2010, an increase of 8.5 percent while urban populations have growing at twice than rate. www.apta.org and http://www.demographia.com/db-19502000.pdf

The U.S. Urban population total was 125.649 million in 1960, growing to 222.353 million in 2000, an increase of 77 percent, while transit boardings remained flat. In the last ten years boardings increased by 9 percent while urban populations whose data is not yet available appeared to be still growing at the faster rate.

Nationally, we can check the census data since 1960 for the percentage of people using public transportation to commute. It has declined steadily from 12.6 percent in 1960 to 4.7 percent in 2000 and judging from preliminary American Community Surveys seems certain to decline once again in 2010 once that data becomes available. The same holds true for the use of public transportation in general.

4. The sole exception was San Diego, which eked out an increase from 3.3 percent to 3.4 percent

5. “The City has referred to the mode as a ‘Light Metro’ vehicle. However, the vehicles can be described as automated short heavy rail vehicles with a tight turning radius. For the purposes of this Spot Report, including the transit capacity analyses, the vehicles are identified as a ‘heavy rail’ vehicle, which corresponds with the modal technology identified in the Standard Cost Category (SCC) workbook estimate provided by the City.” FTA’s PMOC Report, January 2009. http://www.honolulutraffic.com/jacobsreport_0709.pdf

6. http://www.honolulutraffic.com/FTA_ridership_forecast.pdf

7. Source http://www.honolulutraffic.com/draft_financial_plan_april_2011.pdf Page I.

8. FMOC Report http://www.honolulutraffic.com/FTA_FY2011_Financial_Assessment_OCR_copy.pdf