Act 1 of 2017 increased estimated rail project collections to $9.3 billion through 2030 but also directed a financial audit, with a provision that the state auditor shall “Identify, based on information and prior analyses by the Honolulu authority for rapid transportation, alternative routes and development options and the projected costs for each alternative route and development option for the Middle Street to Ala Moana segment of the Honolulu rail transit project.”

With the added funds, the city no longer discusses alternatives such as stopping rail at Middle Street or Aloha Tower. Mayor Kirk Caldwell stated at the Legislature last year that $10 billion will be needed to complete the 20-mile minimum operable segment but now wants the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation to hold costs to $8.165 billion (excluding financing), as detailed in the September 2017 Recovery Plan.

Any believers out there? Rail opponents, who once complained that the minimum operable segment could cost as much as $7 billion, now project $12-13 billion for completion.

Shinkansen Maglev and Railway Park in Japan.

Flickr: hans-johnson

The Federal Transit Administration should reject the Recovery Plan and continue to withhold the $744 million remaining of $1.55 billion in federal funds obligated as part of the 2012 Full Funding Grant Agreement — that showed total project costs at $5.12 billion — at least until the financial audit is completed and all alternatives are given a fair evaluation. HART Board member John Henry Felix has called for a forensic audit and a pause in the project at Middle Street.

I support the forensic audit but recommend an immediate pause for exploration of alternatives. I have been critical of the project since 2008, when an open technology competition was denied and only steel wheels on steel rails suppliers could eventually compete; however, I never called for its termination. At this stage, termination along with removing all vestiges of rail will cost about $6 billion and leave local taxpayers with nothing.

‘Staying The Course’?

Despite the usual mantra from the city and HART that it is too late to change, “staying the course” with steel wheels on steel rails is even worse. It is time to “rescue” rail with American-designed 21st-century urban magnetic levitation technology.

The rescue will include using the existing guideway, which will reach about 12 miles (i.e., near the airport) in the next year or so. That guideway can be converted for use — and still be available for use by steel wheels on steel rails trains — through emplaced levitation panels.

Panels can be installed between the tracks even after the system begins operations in 2020, with work performed during maintenance down time from midnight to 4 a.m.

The last eight miles would be completed with maglev-only monorail beams, saving construction materials and also reducing the “footprint” through downtown along with less need for property condemnation. Including funds already expended, eventual modification of (perhaps 40) steel-wheels-on-steel-rails rail cars, maintenance and storage facility modifications, 40 new maglev cars, all 21 stations, renegotiation costs with contractors, and some new overheads, total cost for the minimum operable segment would be $6.66 billion.

Maglev monorails will more easily enable an eastward extension of the rail guideway past Ala Moana.

Despite approval of the SamKoo condominium project at Ala Moana, the city must still find a way to reach the Manoa campus of the University of Hawaii. The mayor has not estimated a cost. Continuing with steel wheels past the minimum operable segment would show a complete lack of consideration for taxpayers, and I will not venture a guess for the cost of a steel wheels extension. Maglev extensions, however, have been cost-analyzed for completing the City Council-approved locally preferred alternative with a plan that will deliver a truly comprehensive rail system.

Maglev monorails will more easily enable an eastward extension of the rail guideway past Ala Moana. An “locally preferred alternative-plus” plan will provide service east from Ala Moana for both Waikiki and UH Manoa (on a one-way loop) and west to Ko Olina.

The conversion plan will include 20 maglev-only guideway miles added to 12 converted miles; 35 four-car trains; 31 stations, and a new 5,000-space park-and-ride lot adjacent to a Kapolei Judiciary Complex station to accommodate Waianae Coast commuters. The total estimated cost is $8.41 billion, leaving $890 million for contingencies.

The above systems are closer to what we would see here (i.e., low- to medium-speed), as opposed to the Japanese test maglev that holds the world speed record for trains at 374 miles per hour.

The Maglev 2000 plan will meet Full Funding Grant Agreement terms for three-minute service during weekday peak hours by pre-positioning a train at each of the 31 stations (with four trains in reserve) for the start of service.

HART has no plan for meeting this requirement and will provide five-minute service with trains that will hold 640 passengers (i.e., 7,680 passengers per hour).

Maglevs, with a more comfortable 600-passenger configuration, will move 12,000 passengers per hour. The HART 20-mile plan estimates 121,600 passenger trips per weekday. The maglev 32-mile plan estimate is 158,800 passenger trips per weekday.

Finally, the “elephant in the room” is the cost for rail operations and maintenance. HART’s estimates for the minimum operable segment first full year’s operations and maintenance are $127 million to $144 million. The most conservative estimate for urban maglev operations and maintenance is 33 percent vis-à-vis steel wheels. For a 30-year life cycle, just for the minimum operable segment, maglev savings would run from at least $2.5 billion with zero inflation to over $4 billion at three percent.

Since the federal government will not subsidize rail operations and maintenance for a municipality of our size, maglev will keep a lot of money in local taxpayers’ pockets.

The city can bring in a Maglev 2000 alternatives evaluation team and become a modern infrastructure leader or remain a poster child for wasteful transportation planning. American maglev to the rescue.

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to news@civilbeat.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author