The largest public works project in Hawaii history is opposed by 53% of registered voters on Oahu, with just 34% expressing support for Honolulu rail.

The numbers are similar when voters living on the neighbor islands are factored in — 50% and 35%, respectively. Although rail is funded primarily through a general excise tax surcharge in the City and County of Honolulu, a 1 percentage point increase on Hawaii’s hotel room tax statewide also goes to support the project through 2030.

And yet, in spite of enormous cost overruns and delays that have pushed the completion date to a decade from now, 44% of folks on Oahu think the rail line should go all the way to Ala Moana Center as planned.

Just 26% would prefer to end construction at Middle Street. Only 19% would settle for going a little further east to Aloha Tower downtown — a couple miles short of the full destination and skipping altogether the densely populated and growing Kakaako area.

What to make of all that?

“Although the support for Ala Moana has seemed to drop a little, after all the time and money spent people do not want a watered-down version of rail,” said Matthew Fitch, managing partner of MRG Research, which conducted the latest Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll. “They don’t want to get less for what they have already spent.”

As for the limited support for rail in general, he said, “We have asked about this many times in many different ways, and while support for rail has always been soft, it has bobbed up and down within a range of about 10 points. Right now, it’s back to low tide.”

Destination Ala Moana?

Civil Beat has indeed surveyed voters on Honolulu rail numerous times over the past decade, and the numbers in support have always trailed the opposition figures — but with the important caveat that we have polled on rail in a variety of ways.

For example, we have asked whether property taxes should be used to pay for it (no), whether a voter’s position on rail influenced who they preferred for Honolulu mayor (yes), how neighbor islanders feel about rail versus Oahu residents (it depends on whether they have to pay for it) and whether building a rail line was even a good idea in the first place (decidedly mixed).

Still, a trend line of sorts can be discerned.

Similar to the latest poll, in October 2012 approximately 38% of likely voters said they supported the project versus 53% who oppose it. In April 2015, meanwhile, 43% said they supported rail — a high-water mark, up almost 10 percentage points just three years earlier — while 50% of voters opposed it.

And in August 2016, 64% still wanted the rail line to go the full 20 miles from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center even as 41% of people surveyed say that how the rail work has unfolded (i.e., cost overruns and tax increase extensions) was “troubling.”

What’s different in May 2021 is that Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said late last month that his administration is weighing whether it’s worth it to build the rail to Ala Moana, given that there is $3.6 billion dollar budget hole for a project now sporting a $12.4 billion price tag.

The Civil Beat/HNN poll was in the field April 16-21, which was before Blangiardi made his announcement. So that was not a factor in influencing voter responses.

But in just the past few months the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation has made many headlines, mostly negative. They include the purge of nearly half the HART staff, a clash with a major contractor over the train’s wheels, the revelation of yet another cost increase and completion delay, and the ouster of its executive director.

Asked for comment about the new poll, HART Interim Executive Director and CEO Lori Kahikina issued the following statement:

“Our new team completely understands that we have to gain the trust of all of our stakeholders and increase support for rail. From the first day I assumed the Interim Executive Director and CEO position, my directive to all staff was to be open, honest, and transparent with all stakeholders especially the general public, the residents and tax payers of the City and County of Honolulu. We hope by doing so, the support for rail can increase from today’s number of 35% of those polled.

“We are, however, very encouraged by the poll results that show a majority of respondents want rail completed to Ala Moana, which is consistent with our obligations to the Federal Transit Authority. People understand that our primary transportation corridor is already overburdened and rail is a needed investment that will improve the effectiveness of the corridor’s infrastructure.”

‘Mismanagement, Corruption’

Civil Beat/HNN sampled 1,506 registered voters statewide on rail, with a plus or minus margin of 2.5 percentage points. The Oahu representative subsample included 1,002 registered voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

For voters like Marie Samudio of Kahaluu, a rail line for Oahu makes sense — or at least it used to.

When Samudio and her husband moved to Oahu’s Windward side some 30 years ago, she said rail was “a really good idea” because of the growing population.

“And it still is a really good idea, but the myriad problems that have caused tremendous expense — well, that’s just unacceptable,” she said. “But what do you do?”

HART Rail Pearl Harbor Station near the intersection of Kamehameha Highway and Radford Drive.
The rail line at the Pearl Harbor Station near the intersection of Kamehameha Highway and Radford Drive this month. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Samudio, 74 and retired after a 50-year career in education, would still prefer that rail finish at Ala Moana and even extend to the University of Hawaii Manoa. There was even talk back in the day that Kaneohe might be linked to a rail system, something she said would have been nice to ride into town.

“But all the mismanagement and corruption and all the things that have happened just should not have happened,” she said.

Moses Akana of Aiea, however, believes rail must be built.

“Based on how traffic has gone from what it was 10 years ago, things are just going to get worse,” he said. “There really is no other option because Hawaii is land-strapped. It’s not like LA, where you can just add lanes. Anyone who thinks they can get by with just more buses on the road — who are they kidding?”

But Akana, a 74-year-old retired air traffic controller, does not want the line built to Ala Moana, as it is controlled by a private entity rather than government.

“The owners stand to make a lot of money, which is off the backs of taxpayers,” he said. “The rail really should have gone from the West Oahu campus to the Manoa campus.”

Akana has been around long enough to remember when a rail plan from Mayor Frank Fasi was defeated narrowly by the Honolulu City Council decades ago.

“So now we are in this predicament because of what happened back then,” he observed. “A lot of folks could not see beyond their own noses.”

Coming Friday: Voter views on legalizing recreational marijuana

Read the full results of the Civil Beat/Hawaii News Now poll here:

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