Neal Milner: Honolulu's Rail Is More About Incompetence Than Corruption - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Officials through the years urged patience, but the problems facing the project in 1992 are still elusive.

Thirty years ago last month, “The Simpsons” aired “Marge Versus the Monorail” about a con man who persuades the small town of Springfield to build a monorail. 

“Well sir,” he tells the town meeting in “The Monorail Song”:

“There’s nothing on earth
Like a genuine, bona fide
Electrified, six-car monorail.”

Were you sent here by the Devil?
No, good sir. I’m on the level.”

The episode is a cultural icon. “Monorail” has become a shortcut term for flimflammers, bullshit artists and people whose grandiose ideas lead to disaster.

The Honolulu rail project certainly has had its share of this, but, as you’ll see, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation is much more about incompetence than monorailing.

Most monorailers are not crooks. There is no bright line between dreamer, visionary, huckster, eccentric and a brilliant but unorthodox thinker. All of these can mess things up, each in their own way.

What each share is a hyper-enthusiasm about something bold and beautiful, something HUGE. 

Ultimately what monorailing does is to dare you to dream and then have these dreams go up in smoke.

Here are three examples of monorailing in Hawaii “All-Out Monorail,” (the new stadium); “Monorail in Progress?” (Josh Green); “Less Monorail  Than You think,” (Honolulu rail).

All-Out Monorail: A New Stadium

Everything we hear about the new stadium is monorail. 

There is no reason to believe whatever you hear about stadium progress. Until you see some actual deeds, assume what you hear is just a fantasy-inducing vacuum of blithering covered with a smokey cloud of blathering.

The Honolulu rail project has been in the works for more than a decade with rising costs and mounting criticism. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

There is, for instance, that caffeinated babble about an “entertainment district.” A what again?  

A vague idea gets word-twisted into a genuine, bona fide, electrified, like nothing on earth —


“Venue” is a flourish word. Stadium boosters love the word. So do stadium architects. It connotes rock stars, capacity crowds and “cuisine” rather than stale popcorn, and package saimin from the far end of the upper deck.

Swap meets are surely not a venue. 

The emperor has no clothes? Well, just put him in a venue and no one will even notice his dangerous belly fat.

So, for now when it comes to the stadium, those flacks are monorail. You need to be Marge.

Monorailer Work In Progress? Gov. Josh Green

Monorailer-wise, the new governor could go either way. He can sound like the words of “The Music Man’s” Professor Harold Hill, the inspiration for the Simpson episode:

Please folks. May I have your attention please? Attention please! I can deal with this trouble, friends, with a wave of my hand, this very hand!“

Please, folks, trust me, it’s a lock. Because I’m Josh Green and a doc.

Yet there are huge differences between Green and full on monorailers. Green is honest. I can’t even imagine him making any money off the things he is advocating. Most of all, we need what he’s trying to get. 

Green wants to give the impression that state government has failed the public in big ways, and that he’s committed to fix it. Good for him.

But hidden in this enthusiasm is a monorailer poison pill. The pill is not about lying. It’s about overpromising and raising expectations about what he can accomplish and glossing over how slow and complicated policymaking is even when it’s working.  

Green is asking us to be optimistic. He also needs to ask us to keep it real about, say, how long it takes to get anywhere close to enough affordable housing and to get homeless people off the streets.

Otherwise, there will be unrealistic expectations leading to more cynicism, more belief that Hawaii can never change.

Less Monorail Than You Think: Honolulu Rail

Springfield rail is about corruption. Honolulu rail is more about incompetence. Springfield’s was a straight shot from a town meeting to disaster.

Honolulu’s troubles have taken a more twisting path with no end of the road in sight.   Wikipedia has a thorough account.

There was plenty of grandiose dreamy baloney among pro-rail politicians early on. Then-Mayor Peter Carlisle’s “Hallelujah” at rail’s groundbreaking in 2011 fits right into Professor Harold Hill’s “River City’s gonna have a boys’ band!” playbook.

But the moral of the HART story is much more about incompetence than it is about monorail.

There were opportunities to stop the process. The public chose not to. Fifty-three percent approved rail in a referendum. Anti-rail candidates always lost their elections. Reluctantly or not, other key politicians continued to support the project.

In short, like it or not, it was democracy in action, which of course doesn’t always turn out well. 

But to say this was monorailing misses the point. Most of HART’s problems have been just like regular Hawaii government mess ups — the things Gov. Green wants to fix: shoddy workmanship; terrible monitoring of the work; bad oversight; and lack of transparency.

I bet you can name your own example of such terrible foul ups.  Mine is the new state mental hospital. The failure to get that up and running is simply a quiet, under-the-radar version of HART. And more frightening.

In January 1992, the same month that “Marge versus the Monorail” aired, Gov. John Waihee gave his State of the State speech.

During his first term, Waihee said, he had asked us to dream big and dream bold and to stretch our imaginations.

“Dream,” “bold,” “imagination,” “stretch,” those could be the stuff of a heavy-duty monorailer.

But then the second-term governor said this: Be patient. Don’t lose faith in our ability to solve those “elusive” problems that still need solving. That tempers the impulse to go down the dangerous all-out monorail path.

But at the same time — most of those elusive problems in 1992 are still elusive problems now.

So, you can see why “Let’s dream together, and we can get this done once and for all” is so tempting.  

But sometimes we need to resist what we really and truly want to believe. Politically, this can involve checks and balances. Emotionally this involves checking yourself.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Incompetence rather than corruption? One breeds the other. Generally in Hawaii it's more like incompentent corruption. Only the ones that are caught are the blatantly stupid ones.

oldsurfa · 7 months ago

Another good column from Mr. Milner. From 30,000 feet, he provides a more or less accurate perspective. When you get to a more granular level, it gets complicated. The anti-rail politicians made it harder for HART to be transparent by refusing to let HART put informational ads in the media, like every other city with a major rail project. Also, any problems were seized on by rail's detractors to use as sticks to beat the project and its administrators. So rather than being forthright, as they should have been, the HART administration tried to keep mistakes and problems under wraps.According to the NYU's Marron Institute of Urban Planning, which studies public policy in transportation, U.S. rail systems are exponentially more expensive than those in Korea, Japan, and EU countries. The litigious nature of construction projects and the regulatory framework drive up the cost, while the nature of large rail projects, especially those starting from scratch, have too many unknowns to be accurately estimated. Honolulu's project is a case in point, with multiple miscalculations caused by soil stability, bedrock depth and the amount of rebar/concrete required for column foundations.

CaptainMandrake · 7 months ago

You're probably right about incompetence vs. corruption. We need to remember that behind much of Hawaii's incompetence is corruption. Corruption, however, is often harder to spot, and difficult to prosecute.

mtf1953 · 7 months ago

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