The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s latest ridership forecast shows a dip in the number of passengers who might eventually use the island’s future rail line — and it still doesn’t take into account the plunge in transit ridership caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Previously, the rail agency expected to see as many as 122,800 daily boardings by 2030 along the full 20-mile, 21-station route to Ala Moana by 2030. 

Now, HART has reduced that official number to nearly 101,000 boardings based on its most recent internal modeling, which was done in May.

The new forecast is largely due to the decline in recent years to Honolulu’s public bus ridership, according to HART officials.

HART Rail Operations Center,
HART’s latest forecast estimates that an interim opening of the rail line to Middle Street would see nearly 22,000 daily boardings. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

It also assumes that the city will no longer have a five-year head start to grow ridership prior to 2030. Instead, given rail’s severe cost and schedule setbacks, the full transit system is not expected to open until around 2030. On previous occasions, HART leaders have put forth March 2031 as a realistic opening date.

Civil Beat obtained the agency’s latest internal ridership forecast earlier this month via a public records request after HART Interim Executive Director Lori Kahikina alluded to the update and its lower numbers during a board meeting.

For years the agency has held firm with a public forecast of no fewer than 119,600 daily rides by 2030. However, in recent years the agency has also been refining that forecast internally, according to Ryan Tam, HART’s director of environmental planning.  

“We’re always tweaking the numbers and continually looking at it,” Tam said. Last year, the forecast started to decline when HART plugged in bus data from 2019 instead of 2012.

The latest forecast further reveals that HART expects to see some 12,600 daily boardings for rail’s initial, interim launch from east Kapolei to Aloha Stadium. 

That’s down from the nearly 15,000 boardings it expected from modeling done last year, before the bus data was updated.

It’s not clear when, if ever, that interim opening along the first 10 miles might occur. 

The forecast also expects there to be nearly 22,000 daily boardings along the line if there’s a second interim opening that reaches as far as Middle Street, based on modeling done in November.

The rail agency’s modeling done just eight months earlier forecast more than 28,000 boardings along the Middle Street interim route.

Transit Officials Say The Numbers Still Work

The heads of the Department of Transportation Services — the city agency that will operate the rail line once it’s ready — say that despite the lower forecast they nonetheless believe the line will prove useful on Oahu. 

 “The long-standing messaging Honolulu has always gotten has been, if rail cannot work in this kind of tight corridor” — an urban stretch that’s about five miles wide between the mountains and ocean — “then functionally it shouldn’t work anywhere,” Jon Nouchi, DTS deputy director, said.

Nouchi’s boss, DTS Director Roger Morton, said the numbers in the latest HART forecast remain robust considering it’s a single rail line and not part of a larger rail network. He compared Honolulu’s lone, future line to Portland’s five light rail lines, which in pre-pandemic times saw about 122,000 daily weekday rides combined.

TheBus Buses lined up at Ala Moana with signs ‘Wash your hands’ due to Coronavirus concerns.
TheBus’ ridership plunged when the pandemic hit, as it did in most cities. That still hasn’t been factored into rail’s long-term ridership forecast, and transit leaders don’t know how much of an impact it will still have by 2030. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“Hey, if we get that, people here will be very very happy,” Morton said of the HART forecast. Eventually, “it’ll be a crowded system.” Morton added, however, that he hoped to boost the 12,600 daily rides forecast for the interim service to Aloha Stadium.

Maintaining a healthy ridership will be key to help pay for an elevated rail system that’s projected to cost the city more than $130 million annually to operate on top of its existing bus and Handi-Van expenses. Under existing city policy, passenger fares are supposed to recoup between a quarter and a third of Honolulu’s public transit costs.

The latest forecast assumes that the system’s four-car trains will arrive at a station every six minutes during peak hours and every 10 minutes during off peak hours. It relies on updated transit data during a seven-year period when TheBus saw its ridership fall from 220,000 daily rides to 190,000, a nearly 15% decrease, for a variety of reasons.

However, the model does not include 2020, when ridership plummeted by about 70% as passengers stayed away from TheBus amid the pandemic. TheBus has only recouped a little over half of its pre-pandemic ridership amid what appears to be a slow recovery.

Even before the pandemic hit, some city leaders were calling on HART to update its ridership forecast based on the declining bus transit numbers, part of a national trend.

Tam, meanwhile, said that HART will likely have more updated ridership projections that include the pandemic-era data in mid-2022, based on a DTS bus ridership survey that’s expected to occur in the fall.

Morton and Nouchi said it remains to be seen how much the effects of the pandemic will linger by 2030. 

Should rail construction stop at Middle Street, DTS would be able to boost the interim service forecast somewhat by adding more bus connections there, they said. Still, they wouldn’t be able to boost it much above the forecast of nearly 22,000 daily trips, Morton and Nouchi added.

Under the new forecast, rail ridership should hit 120,700 daily boardings in 2040. That assumes the full 20-mile line will have been running for about 10 years at that point.

Previously, HART forecast it would take five years of full rail operations to reach that ridership.

Read HART’s most recent ridership summary here:

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