On the Sept. 30 edition, the editors of Honolulu Star-Advertiser concluded that “Cayetano’s rail alternative doesn’t cut it” and quoted Wayne Yoshioka, director of the city Department of Transportation Services, saying that the Nimitz flyover which is part of Ben Cayetano’s Flexible, Affordable, Smart Transportation (FAST) plan was studied in 2009 during the Lingle administration and was estimated then to cost at least $600 million.

Actually the 1998 cost estimate of the Nimitz flyover was updated in 2008, not in 2009. This figure is likely to be a high estimate for 2012 conditions. Recall that steel and other prices have dropped substantially since their 2008 highs. Mayor Carlisle declared in the past that rail construction bids were coming in lower than expected. As a result rail’s cost has dropped from about $5.5 billion in 2009 to $5.16 billion in 2011.

Of course with the rail budget one never knows since they continuously change the level of contingencies and the amount they “borrow” from TheBus capital funds in order to publish a politically palatable number.

The Nimitz flyover cost estimate provides an opportunity to assess rail costs. The Nimitz flyover is a 2.2 mile and 40 ft. wide simple viaduct. Like rail, the viaduct will have 150 ft. spans and will carry a live load (vehicles, people and cargo) of approximately 160,000 lbs per 150 ft. span. It will cost approximately $270 million per mile based on the 2008 state DOT estimate.

Rail’s 26 ft. wide viaduct will carry a live load and other rail equipment weighing over 500,000 lbs per 150 ft. span in a 2-car train configuration. The concentrated load of trains in the middle of the span necessitates more structural strengthening for seismic resistance compared to the spread out load of traffic over the lanes.

In addition, the rail’s guideway is designed to accommodate 2-car trains at its opening but 4-car trains at a future time. This increases the design live load to one million pounds per 150 ft. span. This is six times higher than the live load on the Nimitz flyover.

Furthermore, the rail line requires massive utility relocation, intersection re-designs and eminent domain land acquisition as part of its basic guideway costs. The section of Nimitz Highway where the flyover has been planned has no utilities in the median where the foundations of the flyover will be. The Nimitz flyover does not alter intersections and requires minimal land acquisition (most of which is city or state land.) So in comparison, the structural and construction cost of the rail viaduct per mile will be similar or higher than $270 million per mile.

Twenty miles of rail at $270 million per mile will cost $5.4 Billion. The rail’s budget is $5.16 Billion. This means that:

  • The rail project will have no money left for trains, stations, a rail yard, etc. after 20 miles of viaduct has been built.

  • The rail will cost well more than $7 billion to complete.

  • Or that the Nimitz flyover (and the rail viaduct) will cost much less than $270 million per mile to build.

Once again rail proponents find themselves with little factual support for both their estimates and their critique of alternatives.

About the author: Panos Prevedouros is a University of Hawaii professor whose areas of expertise include transportation engineering, traffic analysis and simulation, demand forecasting, and intelligent transportation systems. He has twice run for Honolulu mayor.

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