Over the last few years the costs for Honolulu’s rail system have ballooned, forcing the city to go to the Legislature and ask for an extension of the rail tax to allow them to complete the project. While lawsuits and Honolulu’s hot construction market are partly to blame; city and HART officials have made mistakes over the years that have contributed to those rising costs.

The Legislature has a duty to ensure that taxpayers get the most value for their money, and so they are justified in scrutinizing project costs. However, future generations will judge the rail project by its long-term benefits, and so when deciding what to do about the proposed general excise tax extension, it is critical that the Legislature take into account the utility of the rail system that is built – and even more importantly – how the city plans to utilize the system.

HART Rail Train Number 1. 2 may 2016.

The city has made some mistakes with Honolulu rail project but it’s still a worthwhile project with long-term benefits.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rail To Ala Moana Provides Greatest Value

Failure to extend the GET surcharge would likely mean that the project would need to be terminated at Middle Street, or else delay the project while the city identifies alternative sources of funding. Honolulu taxpayers will get greater value from an $8 billion to $9 billion system that goes all the way to Ala Moana than from a $6 billion system that ends at Middle Street. And delaying the project will only further increase the final price tag for taxpayers.

For these reasons, I believe the Legislature should approve an extension of the GET surcharge. However, to ensure that Honolulu taxpayers truly get the most value for their money, the Legislature should demand a more transformative vision from the city for how it will maximize rail ridership.

Rail’s Ridership And Benefits Are Not Fixed

There seems to be a common misperception that once the rail system is built, ridership is going to be what it’s going to be, and there isn’t much that can be done to affect it. In reality, the city and state have many tools at their disposal that could significantly increase rail ridership and the associated benefits. These tools include land use policies, parking policies, improving bicycle and pedestrian facilities, encouraging and facilitating car-sharing and bike-share alternatives, creating commuter benefit programs, and even implementing congestion pricing.

The higher the ridership on the rail system, the greater the reduction in traffic congestion, CO2 emissions, and household transportation costs. Additionally, since the costs of operating and maintaining the rail system are mostly fixed; as ridership increases, the rail system will become increasingly cost efficient.

In the rail project’s environmental impact statement the city projected approximately 120,000 daily boardings by 2030. They also projected an increase in daily public transit trips from 184,700 to 282,500 with transit’s share of all trips on the island rising marginally from 5.7 percent to 7.1 percent from 2007 to 2030.

The city and state have many tools at their disposal that could significantly increase rail ridership and the associated benefits.

Rail skeptics are justified in questioning whether it’s worth spending $8 billion to $9 billion to build a system that only shifts 1.4 percent of trips from cars to transit; especially when the total number of daily trips on Oahu is expected to grow by about 25 percent between 2007 and 2030.

The rail system the city is building will be frequent, fast and convenient. More importantly, it will have the capacity to carry far more than the 120,000 projected daily riders. With the city’s current plans to run trains every five minutes during peak hours and 10 minutes during off-peak hours, the system could accommodate over 300,000 daily boardings. Furthermore, with the current track configuration, the City could actually run trains every three minutes – and even as frequently as every 90 seconds if the system is expanded to Kapolei.

The city could develop high frequency express bus service connecting Leeward, Ewa and Central Oahu communities to the rail system, and connecting Windward Oahu and East Honolulu to the Urban Core. This would allow rail to serve as the backbone of an expanded public transit system that could handle over a million daily trips, putting an end to traffic congestion, improving mobility, reducing CO2 emissions, and saving Honolulu’s households hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Vancouver Provides A Model For Honolulu To Follow

In the late 1990s city leaders in Vancouver, British Columbia, set an aggressive goal to have more than half of all trips in the city be by walking, biking, and transit by the year 2020. They then coordinated all of their land use and transportation policies towards the accomplishment of that goal.

Over the following 20 years, in addition to improvements to their already stellar transit service, Vancouver aggressively expanded high-quality pedestrian and bicycle facilities, encouraged car-sharing services, restricted parking, and required developers to include amenities that allowed people to walk or bike to meet most of their daily needs.

The results have been astonishing. Vancouver achieved their 2020 target in 2015, a full five years ahead of schedule. From 1992 to 2015 the percentage of all Vancouver’s trips by personal automobile fell from 69 percent to 50 percent. Additionally, from 1996 to 2015, the percentage of commute trips by car fell from 62 percent to just 41 percent. Today an amazing 34 percent of all trips in Vancouver are by walking and biking, up from 17 percent in 1992.

Since 2007 alone, motor vehicle miles have declined 16.5 percent, and per capita miles by 26 percent. Traffic congestion is down, crash rates for cars, pedestrians, and bicycles have all declined, and C02 emissions have fallen significantly. Vancouver now has the lowest per capita household transportation costs of any city in North America, providing average savings of $2,623 per household, totaling $1.7 billion in annual savings for the region.

Extend The Rail Tax With Requirement For Aggressive Transportation Targets

Honolulu is building a world-class rail system that has the potential to be transformative. City officials are also already doing many of the things that could potentially lead to greater levels of transit ridership; including transit-oriented development and expanding the bikeway network. However, the city has not yet established any high-level vision or goals for how to maximize ridership on the rail system and the resulting benefits.

The Legislature is right to scrutinize the costs of the rail project. However, in order to maximize the value to taxpayers, it is critical that the rail project avoid further delays and is built all the way to Ala Moana Center. Furthermore, the Legislature should ensure greater value to Honolulu taxpayers by including a requirement for the city to establish high-level transportation targets similar to those set by Vancouver.


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About the Author

  • Shem Lawlor
    Shem Lawlor is the Clean Transportation Director for Blue Planet Foundation. A resident of Honolulu since 1997, Shem is passionate about sustainable transportation and creating vibrant, healthy communities for everyone. He joined Blue Planet Foundation in 2014 after spending more than six years as a transit-oriented development (TOD) planner with the City and County of Honolulu.