As rail officials race to get Honolulu’s elevated transit line ready for interim service late next year, the city is nowhere close to setting passenger fare rates.

“We haven’t even had that discussion,” City Council Budget Chairman Joey Manahan said Tuesday. “It hasn’t really come up” other than in a few brief questions at a recent council committee meeting, he said.

Still, fares are among the prime details that Oahu residents consistently ask about rail, alongside lingering concerns about the billions of dollars it’ll ultimately cost to build the system.

Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation spokesman Bill Brennan says the top two questions he gets from the public are first, when will the system be ready, and second, how much will it cost to ride.

The fare query is the only one Brennan doesn’t have an answer for, he said.

“I feel bad because I have a lot of other answers to a lot of other questions,” he said Friday.

HART rail guideway car photo op Farrington Hwy. 30 may 2017
Crews test one of Honolulu rail’s driverless trains on the elevated track above Farrington Highway in Waipahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

To be sure, Brennan can’t give a bulletproof answer for when the system will be ready, either. HART currently aims to have rail ready for limited, interim service in December 2020 and to offer full service in December 2025. But it remains to be seen whether the agency will hit those dates following years of delays, as the project still faces plenty of challenges.

Nonetheless, the city will have to make some key decisions ahead of the opening — not just how much the fare will be but also whether it will be a flat rate or distance-based.

Officials also have to decide whether to set a cheaper price for the interim 10-mile service from the fields east of Kapolei to Aloha Stadium. Manahan said he can’t imagine the city would charge the same as for the full service to Ala Moana Center.

City Council Ultimately Approves The Fares

In 2016, Honolulu voters opted to move such operational decisions from HART, which now focuses solely on building the system, to the city’s Department of Transportation Services through a charter amendment.

The setting of rail fares will start with recommendations to city leaders by the seven-member Rate Commission, which was created by the same charter amendment.

The commission’s chairwoman, former DTS director Cheryl Soon, didn’t respond to requests for comment. However, the commission’s 2018 annual report stated that it plans to discuss rail fares this year after having spent most of last year hashing out recommendations to raise fares for TheBus and Handi-Van riders.

“We expect to devote considerable time and effort into developing a package of policy guidance and rate particulars, including inter-modal transfers,” the report stated.

Honolulu City Council member Joey Manahan, Chair Transporation Committee and VIce chair of the finance commitee.
Honolulu City Councilman Joey Manahan says rail will have to be “easy and seamless” for passengers to use if it’s to collect sufficient revenue. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Once the commission is done, DTS and the mayor’s office can make their own recommendations.

Ultimately it rests on the City Council to adopt the fares — and Manahan said that could happen at any point prior to the interim opening. Brennan said his outreach team at HART will need to spend most of 2020 educating the public on how the system will work.

“We really need to go full bore and make sure no questions are unanswered and everyone feels comfortable,” Brennan said Friday.

The City Council is still trying to finalize fare increases for TheBus and Handi-Van users that incorporate recommendations from the Fare Commission and DTS, Manahan said.

Those increases would be enacted via 2018’s Bill 77, and they would include raising TheBus’ current single fare from $2.75 to $3. They’ll be especially important since they’ll also set the table for rail’s eventual fares, Manahan said. 

City officials are also testing a “Holo” smart-card with a limited pool of bus customers, and they aim to offer that option to ride rail, too.

Notably, the Fare Commission’s 2018 report also states that the city’s plan “assumes a single fare for both rail and bus, and which inflates from current fare rates.”

DTS officials weren’t available for comment Tuesday.

The department’s former deputy director, Mark Garrity, is currently working as a consultant for the city as its “operations and maintenance interface manager,” helping to get DTS ready for rail.

Since he’s a consultant he’s not authorized to speak to the media on the record, according to Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office.

Clues On Fares Buried In The Budget

For now, the public must rely on HART’s future rail operations budget, part of its federally submitted recovery plan for the project, for hints on what the fares might look like.

According to that plan, the city doesn’t expect to collect much fare revenue from passengers during its initial service going as far as Aloha Stadium. The city expects to take in just $3 million in rail fare revenue during its first full year of interim service. 

Editorial board meeting Panos Prevodouros.
Rail will rely on healthy ridership to help recover about a third of operational costs. Longtime critic Panos Prevedouros remains skeptical of the city’s ridership projections, however. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Once the full 20-mile rail line opens, however, those revenues are expected to jump to $40 million. That’s based on an official projection of more than 120,000 daily rides. The costs to operate are expected to hit $127 million that year.

The plan further shows that future rail fares, combined with bus fares, will  cover from 27% to 33% of those systems’ total operating expenses. That’s the range set under the city’s longtime “fare box recovery” policy, which city leaders use to set bus fares.

Not everyone is as bullish on the city’s projected ridership numbers, however. Panos Prevedouros, the chair of the University of Hawaii’s engineering department and a longtime outspoken critic, believes the system will attract about half of the 120,000 projected daily rides.

To recover about 30% of costs through fares, the city will have to make the system “easy and seamless” to use between bus and rail, Manahan said.


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