It’s Time For Honolulu To Consider Stopping Rail Entirely - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Max Markrich

Max Markrich is a consultant and development economist focused on impact measurement and sustainability. Born and raised in Kailua, Oahu, he currently resides in Washington, D.C.

In 1994, a 4-ton elephant named Tyke escaped its circus and stampeded through Honolulu, crushing two people to death and nearly killing another. Tyke was finally killed after officers shot her 86 times.

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For the past 10 years another kind of white elephant — the rapid rail transit system — has plowed across Oahu and now is struggling to push into downtown. It’s time for the city to seriously consider putting this animal down, too.

In economics, white elephant projects are large-scale publicly financed infrastructure investments — think dams, bridges, stadiums, airports, or rails — that return a net negative social and economic return to the intended beneficiaries.

They are typically justified by the economic benefits of short-term GDP growth and employment generation and long-term enabling effects, like shorter transit times or new access to markets.

However, ultimately, they often benefit the politicians — and their affiliates — who push through such investments, gaining political, social and financial capital, but who leave office long before the project is complete, absolving them of responsibility and abandoning the cost burden to future generations.

Why Continue At All?

Honolulu’s rapid transit system, referred to colloquially as rail, is undeniably a white elephant project. To illustrate, consider rail’s many well-known problems: it is over budget and out of funding; it is past the deadline for completion; it has been poorly built; and it will require public sector subsidies for years after completion.

The Federal Transit Administration officials in Honolulu this week, who are investigating HART’s new plan, are asking “Have all the risks been considered?”

Instead, they should be asking: “Why continue at all?”

It’s not too late to abandon rail. Research has consistently shown that humans often insist on continuing a course of action despite rising negative outcomes because we cannot stand to see efforts thus far go to waste.

Rail cars at the HART Rail Operations Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

In behavioral economics it’s known as the sunk-cost fallacy. The city is suffering this affliction to the detriment of the people of Oahu.

There are other priorities to focus resources on rather than continuing to throw good money at a bad project. Stopping would if nothing else eliminate the opportunity cost of rail.

Hawaii’s multitude of immediate problems other than congestion — rampant and tragic homelessness, pothole ridden roads, hot and outdated school buildings, eroding beaches, climate change risks, inequity, etc. — deserve the full focus and resources of the city.

It’s not too late to abandon rail.

If the city were to stop, the structure doesn’t have to go entirely to waste. The city could consider opening one last tender for rail: a competition awarding a fixed budget to the best idea for using the existing structures.

It could be transformed into an elevated walkway, like the High Line in New York City. It could be used as a bike or running path. Let the best idea win.

The city is in a hole with rail. It would do well to consider stopping digging.

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About the Author

Max Markrich

Max Markrich is a consultant and development economist focused on impact measurement and sustainability. Born and raised in Kailua, Oahu, he currently resides in Washington, D.C.

Latest Comments (0)

The sunken cost to taxpayers is the extension on the half percent GET and the cut of TAT HART was awarded. The buck stops there and however HART and the mayor decide to best spend it, that's on them to prove. No more. It's definitely not enough cash to get to Ala Moana and maybe not even to the mythical destination called "civic center." I grew up here and have never heard of such a place. Point is terminate where you can get it and never speak of rail ever again. I mean, after being the poster child for bad everything, there is talk of extending to UH and Waikiki? What are politicians smoking? Matter of fact, I think it would have been cheaper to simply move UH to Kapolei and build an entirely new campus.

wailani1961 · 1 year ago

Over 100 comments now in response to this rail project article, many of them hard hitting and well informed! At this critical juncture, when there is still time to cut our enormous losses and end the project, a Civil Beat Editorial Board piece on this issue could be extremely helpful. Please consider it!

Christine66 · 1 year ago

Rail should have never ever been built. The cost to Hawaii's taxpayers is just hugely tremendous and wasteful. It's the mistake of the century and this rail should be ended now.

macprohawaii · 1 year ago

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