The service along half of the route would see few daily riders, but officials say it’s time to let the public experience rail.

Honolulu city leaders say their long-sought goal to launch partial passenger service along Oahu’s elevated rail line, which they now plan to call “Skyline,” is finally within reach. 

The nine stations along the 10.7-mile stretch from east Kapolei to Aloha Stadium are slated to officially start service 2 p.m. June 30, officials announced Wednesday. The rides that day through July 4 will be free, but riders will need a valid Holo card to access the trains starting July 1, city transit officials said.

“This community has waited a long time for this project. It has suffered through fits and starts of the worst kind,” Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said at a press conference in the future Halawa rail station, across from Aloha Stadium, as driverless trains ran overhead. 

“This community has waited a long time for this project,” said Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi. (Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2023)

Honolulu rail has seen its construction costs approximately double, its route trimmed by more than a mile, and its full opening delayed by more than a decade. The project’s previous leadership had hoped to launch partial service by the end of 2020, but failed to get that done amid procurement woes and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Blangiardi, who took office in 2021, had hoped to launch service last year, but problems with the system’s track layout and cracks forming in the rail line’s columns pushed the goal back even further.

“Now that we’re finally here, we want to celebrate this for the men and women who live here – and children – to ride,” he said.

City transit leaders said they expect that limited service along the rail line’s western half will attract some 10,000 daily riders by the time it’s been operating a full year, many of them commuters who work at the Pearl Harbor naval shipyard and Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam. 

The limited rail route falls short of key Oahu destinations, such as central Kapolei, the airport and downtown. It will, however, offer a reliable, 21-minute trip between east Kapolei and Halawa – reducing at least some of the uncertainty of the daily commute across Hawaii’s most crowded and traffic-plagued island, city transit leaders said Wednesday.  

The city further plans to run added express buses to the Halawa station every 10 minutes or so, to transport passengers exiting the rail line into town and University of Hawaii Manoa. 

The lower section of the future Halawa station across from Aloha Stadium. (Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2023)

The rail system is now expected to cost the city $94 million to operate in its first year, including $54 million paid to the rail’s operator, Hitachi Rail Honolulu, according to Roger Morton, the city’s Transportation Services director. 

That annual operations and maintenance cost is expected to climb well above $100 million in subsequent years, as more stations come online farther east down the line. The city hopes to open five additional stations including Lelepaua – the airport station – in two years.

Stll, Blangiardi said Wednesday that the $94 million cost is worth it.

“Once you get operational, it’s going to have its own impact (on the community). I’m really confident,” he said. “We want an enthusiastic response here, and we think we’re going to get that because the experience is going to be so unique. I’ll tell you right now, having rode on the train, the view plane alone is going to surprise people.”

‘By And Large’ Ready To Go

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, the semi-autonomous agency that’s building rail, is slated to formally hand over the first 10-plus miles of the system to the city sometime in the coming weeks, city officials said at Wednesday’s press event. 

HART Executive Director Lori Kahikina said her agency expects to have the crack repairs done this month. 

There shouldn’t be any other “technical issues” affecting the transition to passenger service, Kahikina added Wednesday. 

Deputy director Jon Nouchi said “No work is too big if we all work together.” (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

Previously, city transportation employees working on the project, as well as a former consultant, have expressed concerns that the rail agency did not properly resolve its track-crossing woes and that the situation could lead to costly city repairs once the system opens. Nonetheless, Kahikina and other HART officials have repeatedly stated that their fixes are solid. 

Morton on Wednesday said he further anticipates that the state will provide its own, necessary approvals in order for the service to begin.

“By and large we’re ready to go,” he said.

Fares on the train will be the same as those for TheBus, according to Jon Nouchi, the deputy director at the city’s Transportation Services Department. Transfers between TheBus and the rail line will be treated the same as transfers between bus rides, he added.

The city’s daily and monthly price caps will also apply to rail, Nouchi said. Under those caps, riders are charged no more than $7.50 for using transit in a day and no more than $80 during a calendar month.

Under this initial limited service the rail line will operate 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. on  weekdays, and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends and holidays, city transit leaders said. As the city opens more of the system for use it will run the trains later into the night, probably until 11 p.m. or midnight, Nouchi said.

If the passenger service launches as city officials hope it will occur approximately 15 years after city voters approved the project, in November 2008.

“Some people measure this from 2011, when (federal) money was available” for the project, Morton added at Wednesday’s event. “Myself, I go back to 1968” – that’s when city leaders first officially included the concept for a rail system in the Oahu Transportation Plan to help serve the island’s westside commuters, he said. 

Those leaders realized that simply adding more freeway capacity would not handle the growing demand, Morton said.

DTS spokesman Travis Ota confirmed the city plans to call the rail line “Skyline.” It’s still developing the branding and logos, and plans to make a formal announcement of the name sometime in the coming weeks, he added.

Nouchi, meanwhile, invoked a traditional Hawaiian proverb on Wednesday to tout Skyline’s imminent opening:  ʻAʻohe hana nui ke alu ʻia,  meaning “no work is too big if we all work together.”

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