SAN JUAN – Ever since its start, Honolulu’s rail project has been haunted by the Tren Urbano — its Puerto Rican counterpart that some see as a cautionary tale.

For years, local critics have pointed to the struggles of this similar elevated heavy rail system – operating on a similar U.S. island thousands of miles away – to warn of what might be in store for Honolulu.

At least some of those warnings have proven correct. Honolulu rail did eventually see severe cost overruns and years of delay that echoed those of Puerto Rico’s Tren Urbano. The 10.7-mile transit system launched service in 2005, carrying commuters from the western fringes of San Juan to the heart of that Caribbean city.

Now, it remains to be seen whether Honolulu can avoid the problems Puerto Rico saw once its rail system opened.

The Sagrado Corazon station — the final town-bound stop for the Tren Urbano- – in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Marcel Honore

The Tren’s ridership has been dismal. It’s hovered between 30,000 and 42,000 daily trips since opening, even though it was predicted to hit more than 114,000 daily trips in its 10th year of operation.

But Honolulu rail officials remain confident they’ll hit the more than 120,000 daily trips their consultants have predicted. Puerto Rico’s Tren, they say, is a totally different beast with its own set of problems.

The Puerto Rico line, for example, is half as long as Honolulu’s planned rail route, and it misses key suburbs and destinations such as the San Juan airport, they point out.

For Hawaii, the Tren has served as an abstract talking point in the local debate over whether Honolulu rail will ultimately succeed.

In June, however, this Civil Beat reporter was able to ride the Tren as the evening rush hour waned and speak with its passengers directly.

Several shared why the transit system works for them — and why they think it hasn’t worked for so many fellow residents around San Juan.

‘No Vale Precio’

For Rene Franco, a 38-year-old pharmacist, the problem is pretty straight-forward.

No vale precio,” he said in Spanish. The Tren’s $1.50 single-ride fare is too expensive for most commuters in San Juan.

Franco elaborated in English while en route to his girlfriend’s house in the San Juan district of Guaynabo after work. “The cost of Tren Urbano, the cost of mobility, of transportation — to go to school, to the work, the business and everything — is too expensive,” he said.

Nonetheless, Franco said he still rides rail because it’s faster than driving or taking the bus to work.

He and other commuters further criticized the route, saying it’s too short and misses important areas around San Juan.

Marcel Honore/Civil Beat

Train cars wait for passengers in a virtually empty Tren Urbano transit station. The system has struggled to attract ridership since it opened, and passengers say fewer people are riding after Hurricane Maria.

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“I think the main problem with this train is that it does not stop in key locations,” said Diego Morales, 40, who described himself as a longtime Tren Urbano passenger. The line, he pointed out, doesn’t stop at the airport.

Further, it doesn’t reach the popular tourist destinations of Old San Juan and Condado.

“They would get so much more people if they stopped at Plazas Americas (the island’s largest mall) and they don’t,” Morales added.

Still, Morales said he rides the Tren because “driving in Puerto Rico is a disaster.” The island endures heavy traffic and pothole-plagued roads, he said – not unlike Honolulu.

“One thing I have to say about this train, they’ve kept it clean.” Morales said. He added that it feels pretty safe and arrives on time.  “No complaints, really.”

Marcel Honore/Civil Beat

ListenA lone security guard patrols a nearly empty Tren Urbano transit station in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Ridership has never hit its targets. Passengers say fewer are riding after Hurricane Maria.

Rio Piedras resident Astrid Moscoso, meanwhile, uses the Tren to get from her job in San Juan’s central Santurce district because “it’s the only means of transportation that I have.”

There’s a station within walking distance of her home, the 24-year-old Moscoso said. Despite that convenience, costs to use the rail doubled within the past couple of years, she said, and the 16-station line “only covers barely part of the metro area.”

If the route were longer more people might use it, she said.

Federal documents indicate there are plans to extend the route, including a line to the airport. But it remains unclear how viable those plans are given the island’s current fiscal woes. Efforts to reach Tren Urbano officials last week weren’t successful.

Guessing Ridership: A Mixed Bag

Tren Urbano is hardly the only U.S. rail system to attract fewer riders than expected once service starts running. In fact, it’s pretty common for new transit systems to miss their targets.

In 2016, the Honolulu City Auditor compiled a list of transit systems dating back to 1987 whose ridership fell short. Some missed their forecasts pretty dramatically, and the auditor’s report recommended that the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation prepare in case it misses, too:

New transit systems often fall short of the ridership that their planners project, as this 2016 Honolulu City Auditor’s table shows. Honolulu City Auditor

The auditor’s table doesn’t include Tren Urbano, which only attracted 23 percent of its forecast ridership shortly after it opened.

Often, “the ridership projections for projects are overly optimistic and take the most generous interpretation as possible,” said Keith Millhouse, a Los Angeles area-based rail-safety consultant and expert on transit issues.

“If you’re cynical, it’s intentionally done that way” to get the approvals to green-light such projects, he said.

HART officials, however, remain steadfast that they’ll hit their forecast for Oahu’s elevated system of more than 120,000 daily rides by 2035, about 10 years after opening.

They point to other more well-received transit systems — most notably in Houston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles — that bucked the trend and out-performed their ridership projections.

A HART representative said the local agency prefers to use Vancouver’s elevated SkyTrain — not Puerto Rico’s Tren Urbano — as its model system. And the SkyTrain is reporting record ridership this year.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Several Tren Urbano riders flagged the transit system’s fares as too expensive.

For any brand-new system looking to attract riders, it helps to start with lower fares, Millhouse said.

He even recommended a free trial period — perhaps several weeks — for potential users to try it out and see if it works for them.

Another critical factor for success: “People have to overcome the first mile of getting to a transportation station,” Millhouse said. “In Honolulu, how do you get people to their homes? Is there adequate parking?”

The key is to make the system as convenient to use as possible and then to “promote the heck out of it,” he added.

Marcel Honore/Civil Beat

Seats on the Tren Urbano are readily available near the end of rush hour in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Passengers say fewer are riding after Hurricane Maria.

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For Oahu, HART has planned 4,100 free park-and-ride spaces spread across four westside rail stations. That may not seem like much for more than 120,000 daily trips, but the local rail agency says it expects only six percent of all passengers to use park-and-ride spots at its stations.

HART expects more than half of all passengers either to walk or bike to a station, and nearly 40 percent of riders to get to a station using a bus, based on its 2017 figures.

Whether riders will find the system convenient enough remains to be seen.

An interim opening to Aloha Stadium is slated for late 2020. The 20-mile, 21-station full system to Ala Moana isn’t expected to open until December 2025 — at the earliest.

In Honolulu, it’s up to the city’s new rate commission to make a recommendation on fares ahead of the interim opening.

Meanwhile, the same critics who invoked Tren Urbano to warn that Honolulu could see dramatically low ridership are now among the most vocal in pushing for halting Honolulu rail construction at Middle Street.

Such a move would almost certainly reduce ridership, requiring the public to cover more in annual operations and maintenance costs.

Nonetheless, longtime rail critic Cliff Slater said last week that the move still makes better financial sense. Completing the full 20 miles to Ala Moana, Slater said, will likely require several billion more taxpayer dollars than rail’s current construction budget, which stands at more than $8 billion.

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