In yet another bit of bad news for rail, the projected ridership for the city’s half-built, $12.4 billion train system from Kapolei to Ala Moana has declined, according to rail authority Executive Director Lori Kahikina.

Kahikina was asked about ridership during an online video presentation on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” program on Wednesday, and in general terms acknowledged that the ridership calculations show a drop. She did not say how much of a drop.

“We do have our ridership projections, and they have decreased from when we first started, to after the pandemic, but it’s still high,” said Kahikina, who is the chief executive officer for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.

Later in the discussion on ridership Kahikina said she expects that ridership will increase as people grasp the benefits of the new train system, but acknowledged that “maybe at first it’s not going to be high.”

Pedestrians walk along Dillingham Boulevard with rail guideway supports being built towards metropolitan Honolulu.
Pedestrians walk along Dillingham Boulevard with rail guideway supports as a backdrop. HART Executive Director Lori Kahikina said ridership projections dropped after the pandemic, but “it’s still high.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

She did not provide further details on the new ridership projections, and rail spokesman Joey Manahan said he was unfamiliar with any updated ridership projections. Manahan said he needed additional time to gather information on the issue.

Years ago consultants for the city calculated a fairly robust ridership for rail. The city’s 2012 agreement with the Federal Transit Administration projected there would be 104,300 passengers boarding the system each weekday in 2019, and 119,600 weekday boardings in 2030.

Those estimates are still cited in federal reports on the Honolulu rail project, but are obviously outdated nearly a decade later. The system never opened in 2019, and no part of the rail line is open to the public today.

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation has never publicly updated those ridership calculations, and critics of the rail project have questioned the city’s original ridership estimates for years.

Some rail opponents argue that various developments in transportation ranging from ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft to self-driving cars will reduce the number of people who will use the system.

Other observers such as University of Hawaii civil engineering Professor Panos Prevedouros note that early ridership projections for major projects in cities such as San Juan, Puerto Rico, proved to be wildly optimistic, and bus ridership on Oahu has been dropping for years.

Prevedouros warned last year the pandemic was also having a huge effect on transit ridership across the nation, causing passenger counts to decline by 80% in many cities amid fears of COVID-19.

Looking ahead to the post-pandemic era, Prevedouros cites national estimates that even established transit systems in urban centers such as New York City and Atlanta can expect permanent ridership reductions of 20% or more.

To take that into account, Prevedouros said he has reduced his own estimate of daily weekday boardings for the Honolulu rail system from 70,000 to 60,000, which is about half the official projection.

Editorial board meeting Panos Prevodouros.
UH professor Panos Prevedouros is concerned rail ridership will be much lower than anticipated by the time the project is finished. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The city generally seeks to recover about 30% of the cost of operating the Honolulu bus system from passenger fares, and will likely set a comparable target for rail. But fewer riders translates into less fare revenue, which means the system would require larger annual taxpayer operating subsidies.

HART has estimated the rail system will cost on the order of $150 million a year to operate once the 20-mile line and 21 stations are complete.

Kahikina said Wednesday that predictions that everyone will work from home in the years ahead are wrong.

“I disagree that everyone will be telecommuting from now on,” she said. “I mean, HART, we brought back all of our employees, the city is bringing back all of their employees, government I’m sure will all bring back all of their employees.

“I’m not sure about the private sector but there are some consultants that feel it’s not efficient to telecommute, so they’re going to be bringing back all of their employees also,” she said.

Kahikina said “naysayers” are common with major rail projects across the country, but said such systems are transformative for the cities and communities that surround them.

Kahikina also gave a few more details Wednesday on the evolving role of former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in connection with the rail project.

The HART board decided last fall to hire a liaison to deal with federal, state and county issues, including extending the general excise tax surcharge and hotel room taxes for rail, Kahikina said. Those taxes are scheduled to provide most of the funding for the rail project and are set to expire in 2030.

Hanabusa was the only person to respond to the procurement, and was awarded a consulting contract worth up to $924,000 over six years. The solicitation appears to have been written to closely track Hanabusa’s resume, raising questions about the procurement process.

Kahikina said she could have intervened to stop the procurement, “but I just didn’t think it was prudent. This was something that they felt strongly that they needed, and so I went ahead and did the procurement.”

Kahikina said Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi then called her Tuesday to say outgoing HART board member Glenn Nohara had recommended that Hanabusa replace Nohara on the board, and Blangiardi agreed.

Hanabusa then announced at a press conference she will serve as an unpaid board member, and will not accept the consulting position. HART Board Chairman Tobias Martyn then told the Honolulu City Council Tuesday that HART will not repeat the procurement process, and will not fill the consulting job.

It is unclear when the 20-mile rail line will be completed because HART estimates it needs an additional $3 billion to complete the project, and does not yet have a way to raise that money.

Various proposals have been floated to cope with that problem, including shortening the rail line to cut costs, or finishing the last 4 miles of rail through the Honolulu city center in phases as new funding becomes available.

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