Policy discussions on Hawaii’s high cost of living often focus on housing, but there’s another unavoidable expense that bleeds thousands of dollars from households annually — transportation.

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After housing, child care and food, the cost of transportation in Hawaii represents the biggest monthly expense for many residents, studies show.

And for people who need a car or truck for work or family obligations, the cost is exorbitant, in some regards higher than West Coast cities like Portland and Los Angeles, thanks to state and local government fees.

While the high costs affect everyone, they especially hit working families who are struggling to get by.

“The lower your annual income the more you are affected by transportation costs, and it’s not just that you spend a higher proportion of your income,” said Suzanne Skjold, chief operating officer of the Aloha United Way, which has analyzed the cost of transportation and its effect on families.

Even on Oahu, which has a relatively extensive bus system and an ever-improving network of bike lanes, many working people simply can’t afford to live in town and thus need a car to commute to work and transport kids, Skjold said.

“The pile on effect is you can’t put yourself in a position where you’re close to work, where you can take the bus, or walk or bike to work,” she said.

“In our current reality, the suggestion that people should bike to work when they have two kids and need to pick up groceries is just not a viable option,” she said.

Afternoon commuters head west on the H1 freeway.
Hawaii steers much of its transportation funding to roads, which some say simply encourages more people to drive. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Estimates Of Transportation Expenses Vary

If the current reality means owning a car, it also means spending a big chunk of money on transportation. Estimating how much a family must spend on transportation to get by is difficult — estimates vary — but the data is important to guide policymakers analyzing what people have to spend versus what they need.

According to a 2021 study by the Ulupono Initiative, the cost of owning a vehicle in Hawaii is $8,100 annually, or $675 per month, when factoring in the various costs, including gas, maintenance and insurance. Ulupono used census data compiled by the accounting firm Deloitte – which shows 80% of Hawaii households own two or more cars – to assume most households own at least two cars and thus face a $16,200 annual expense, or about $1,350 a month for transportation.

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The Aloha United Way also studies how much people in Hawaii need to survive. The organization has a term for people living paycheck to paycheck but above the poverty line: ALICE, which stands for asset limited, income constrained and employed.

The Aloha United Way’s ALICE report published in 2020 estimated a family of four needs to spend $675 per month for transportation to survive, while one adult can survive on $283 per month. A previous ALICE report noted that, while there was public and nonprofit support to help cover costs of housing and food, there was none for transportation.

A state study put the cost lower, especially in Honolulu. In a 2021 report examining how much money it takes for a family on Oahu to cover basic living expenses, the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism concluded many people on Oahu can get by without using a car. Accordingly, it estimated a family of four on Oahu with one preschooler and one school-aged child needs just $260 a month for transportation.

Bicyclist shares road with cars along Kalakaua Ave in Waikiki. 3.6.14 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat
Experts say investing more in bike paths can create alternatives to cars for many people. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

In light of the varying numbers, Civil Beat did its own analysis, which examined not the minimum cost to survive, but rather how much it costs to operate Hawaii’s most popular vehicle: the Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. The conclusion: the estimated cost to own a 2015 base model Tacoma on Oahu is approximately $6,800 a year, or about $566 per month.

The estimate doesn’t include parking expenses or debt payments, but does include registration fees, per vehicle mileage averages for Hawaii as of 2018 from the U.S. Highway Administration, and maintenance estimates from a Hartford Insurance/AARP report.

At today’s prices, for a Tacoma averaging about 21 miles per gallon, the cost of gasoline alone would amount to just less than $200 per month, based on driving about 30 miles per day, the average driven in Hawaii. Honolulu’s notoriously high gas prices, as of Thursday, were about $4.55 per gallon compared to the national average of $3.72, according to AAA.

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Gas isn’t the only thing that costs more on Oahu than in other places. The price of registering a car on Oahu exceeds that of many if not most other locales, cost comparisons indicate. And it’s not only outliers like Alabama, where the annual state registration fee is just $23, according to a recent national analysis of registration fees by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Accounting for state and local taxes, the cost to register a base model Tacoma in Honolulu is about three times that of West Coast cities such as Portland and Los Angeles.

The estimated cost in Honolulu – which Civil Beat estimated to be about $383 annually – is based on a state registration fee of $45, a state weight tax of $63.78, a Honolulu registration fee of $20, and a Honolulu weight tax of $255. It assumes the truck weighs 3,645 pounds as reported by Edmunds.

Registration Cost By Weight Often Favors The Rich

One issue driving costs for many people is that vehicles in Hawaii are taxed by weight, not value as many states do. So someone driving a 2005 Ford F-150 pickup weighing just under 4,000 pounds, with a Kelley Blue Book value of $1,000 to $2,500, would pay more here than someone driving a new, $136,000 Porsche 911 weighing 3,349 pounds.

According to the Aloha United Way, the vehicles ALICE households can afford tend to be older and less valuable, with a median value of $4,000 versus a median value of $12,000 for vehicles owned by middle income families.

While proponents of the weight tax say it makes sense because heavy vehicles put more stress on roads, others say the weight-based tax is regressive because it unfairly burdens working people who own less valuable vehicles, especially those who need a truck for work.

Hawaii Auto Registration
Hawaii is one of about a dozen states that taxes auto registration by weight instead of value or according to a flat fee. Most tax according to a flat fee, value or age. National Conference of State Legislatures

Regardless, the estimated registration cost for the 2015 base-model Tacoma in Los Angeles would be $133, based on information from Los Angeles County’s auto registration info page, while the truck would cost an estimated $120 to register in Portland, based on the National Conference of State Legislatures, Oregon Motor Vehicle Code and Multnomah County Department of Transportation. That’s roughly a third of what it would cost to register the same vehicle on Oahu.

Honolulu isn’t a total outlier. Like Hawaii, Nevada has substantial fees, especially at the county level. So the cost of registering the hypothetical Tacoma in Las Vegas appears in roughly the same ballpark as Honolulu, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles and Nevada Revised Statutes.

But some Tacoma owners say Civil Beat’s analysis underestimates registration costs. For example, Jocelyn Doane, a lawyer in Honolulu, owns an extended cab Tacoma. She pays $503 annually, including $25 extra for a specialty plate. While she said she understands the need to charge a fee, Doane said what she pays doesn’t make sense given how little she drives.

“I drive 15 minutes a day,” she said.

Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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