Now is not the time to bury our heads in the sand, embarrassed and dismayed by the worsening fiasco of HART. We can see this train coming from many miles away; and there is still time to avert the accident.

For better or worse, we have committed enormous resources and time building an elevated guideway system, with current contracts to Middle Street. What HART does not want you to know is that the remaining five miles or so through downtown can be completed seamlessly using street level rail, at a tremendous savings of time and money. This can be done without extending the GET surcharge, and without losing federal funding for the project. It would also provide more local jobs.

A report released in January of this year by the Honolulu Transit Task Force advocates for system modifications for the HART rail project for the final five miles through Honolulu. The proposed transition to street level rail through downtown Honolulu would save $3 billion (and probably more) and would save four years of construction time (completion in 2021 instead of 2025). It would also render an extension of the general excise tax surcharge unnecessary and has already been cited as a viable option by the Federal Transit Authority (FTA). The full report is available for download at

HART Rail Salt Lake Boulevard Aloha Stadium Kamehameha Hwy guideway. 23 feb 2017


The benefits of street level rail are numerous. A route through downtown Honolulu would deliver riders to their places of work. Instead of just a commuter rail, it would be a true urban transit system, attracting additional riders who want to travel through the city center’s intense employment areas.

Having a conversation about alternatives for the downtown route will not slow down or stop the completion of rail. Without a GET surcharge extension, rail can be completed four years faster, with far less construction impacts, and lower operating and maintenance costs in the future. This is not wishful thinking. It is based on current data from the 38 other cities in the U.S. using light rail.

Running street level rail from Middle Street through downtown can be done with the $6.8 billion in existing funding (already collected and GET surcharge revenue projected through 2027). It can be connected with the elevated guideway system, giving people the “one seat ride” required for federal funding (and rider convenience).

HART has been very secretive about construction plans through downtown, for good reason. Cost overruns and traffic and business disruptions will increase exponentially when elevated rail construction begins downtown. Entire roadways will need to be cut open to pour underground spread foundations to support the weight of the elevated guideway over fill material. Constructing the football-field sized stations planned for elevated rail would create immense disruption to nearby structures, traffic and businesses downtown. These are very different conditions than the inland construction in Waipahu or Pearl City, with firm soil and buildings far enough away from the guideway that foundation issues don’t arise.

In contrast, to lay a set of tracks for street level rail construction would be 14 inches deep by 8 feet wide, which is the same depth as normal road construction. This would not require purchase of any additional land. Existing streets could be used. Because these streets have already been excavated, the issue of new archeological finds is not applicable. Street level rail stations are not bigger than a bus stop, requiring only a canopy for rain shelter and small ticket machine on an existing sidewalk.

The mayor’s financial plan is for taxpayers to write him a blank check. In return, absolutely no public financial reporting has been released by HART, and cost estimates keep going up. Using the proposed street level route, the city already has enough funds to complete the project using existing GET surcharge money through 2027, without imposing more taxes. This would save four years of construction time and $3 billion dollars. It’s time to salvage the rail.

The time has come to seriously consider alternatives to the portion of the rail route that will run through downtown Honolulu. It’s not too late. For ourselves and for the next generations of people who will live in Honolulu, it’s urgent that we do so.


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About the Author

  • Scott Wilson
    Scott Wilson has been part of the AIA Honolulu efforts to research rail transit since 2009. He was Chair of the AIA Transit Task Force from 2009 - 2012 and Chair of the AIA Regional & Urban Design Committee from 2011-2016.  He was president-elect and President of Honolulu Chapter, American Institute of Architects, 2014-2015.