It’s been nearly three months since state leaders approved their latest, $2.4 billion funding package to bail out the largest public works project in Hawaii’s history.
But don’t tell Randall Roth, Cliff Slater or Panos Prevedouros that Honolulu rail transit is finally in the clear to reach Ala Moana Center. For the three longtime outspoken rail critics, who’ve previously predicted budget overruns, it’s not a question of “if” the $8.17 billion project will again run out of cash — it’s “when.”
“When the city gets as far as the money will allow them to get — we think for sure to Middle Street; we don’t think much beyond that … they’ll make the same argument then that they successfully made two months ago,” Roth, a recently retired University of Hawaii Richardson School of Law professor, said of rail leadership while meeting with the Civil Beat Editorial Board on Wednesday.
“‘We spent too much money to stop. How can you pull the plug?'”
For years now, Roth, Slater and Prevedouros, along with former Gov. Ben Cayetano, have tried unsuccessfully to stop the 20-mile, 21-station elevated transit line taking shape along Oahu’s southern coast. They are a local Four Horsemen of sorts warning against the cataclysmic financial and economic costs that they believe lie ahead.
In 2011 they tried to stop the project by filing suit in federal court — an effort that ultimately failed. Earlier this year, Cayetano took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post calling on President Donald Trump to withhold future federal dollars designated for rail.
Roth and Slater have appeared at more public meetings on rail in the past year. In a fascinating exchange this past June, Roth publicly sparred with City Councilman Ikaika Anderson for more than 10 minutes during a council hearing over the fairest way for local taxpayers to fund the project.
Despite the latest influx of cash to move rail forward, Roth, Slater and Prevedouros haven’t given up their efforts. They have adjusted their message, however.
Now, the trio advocates stopping rail at Middle Street and exploring whether the growing popularity of ride-hailing services such as Uber and future self-driving technologies could then get Honolulu commuters from that transit hub further into town.
Prevedouros, a UH civil-engineering professor who previously ran for mayor as an anti-rail candidate, suggested the city could run automated buses along Dillingham Boulevard and Nimitz Highway from the Middle Street transit hub.
The city’s existing road grid could potentially handle more vehicles if they’re self-driving because they would travel more closely together, he added.
However, there’s been no local studies to examine whether this might work, and the idea is only preliminary, he acknowledged.
“This is part of the discussion that hasn’t happened here at all, and it is time that we make that discussion and make that connection to the rail,” Prevedouros said Wednesday.
“What’s the choice of investment? Nineteenth century versus 21st century and this discussion is not even happening in this town. No one is talking autonomous,” or self-driving vehicles, he said.
Slater, meanwhile, pointed to Uber’s recently announced plan to buy 24,000 sports-utility vehicles from Volvo to launch its own self-driving car fleet.
“These things are all happening now which are happening much faster than we thought,” Slater, a retired businessman and decades-long opponent of rail, said of the burgeoning self-driving car technology.
The push to use new self-driving technologies instead of building rail’s final four miles is a relatively new tactic for local rail critics. During his 2012 run for Honolulu mayor, Cayetano, along with his supporters, called for the city to employ bus rapid transit instead.
Rail leaders have always touted the system’s “multi-modal” potential, in which its transit passengers would also use TheBus, Honolulu’s new “Biki” bikeshare service, Uber and other options to complete their commutes.
The rail system’s four-car trains are designed to fit some 650 passengers comfortably or squeeze up to 800 people looking to avoid the traffic gridlock on the streets below the line’s large, concrete guideway.
Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation officials pledged to lawmakers earlier this year that their latest, $8.17 billion price tag is far more reliable than earlier estimates, which proved woefully short and ultimately helped erode public trust in the project.
They’ve touted internal reforms made at the agency under its interim executive director, Krishniah Murthy, aimed at getting a better handle on project costs and flagging risks earlier.
But Roth, Slater and Prevedouros remain deeply skeptical. The billions of dollars needed to finish all the way to Ala Moana and the intense “disruption” that would create for residents and local businesses is simply too great, they say.
By building rail to Middle Street, “at least there’s going to be some value for a while,” Roth said. “But why not initiate a conversation…to recognize that it’s a different world.”