Proposals for an elevated rail system on Oahu date back to the 1960s. Now, at least part of a modern-day rail line is finally about to open to the public.

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It was an alluring vision for the future of America’s newest state: A sleek elevated rail system that could transport commuters from Koko Head to Pearl Harbor in 12 minutes or whisk tourists from the airport to Waikiki in a jaw-dropping six minutes. 

The best part about building an elevated rail system on Oahu was how affordable and cost-effective it would be, the manager of a railway design company told Hawaii officials in 1963.

“What most people don’t realize is that a monorail system is so easy to build,” George W. Cantelo told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, in what would prove to be one of the most laughably incorrect statements in Honolulu city planning history. “The tracks are prefabricated and the system can be built on existing roadways. And it pays for itself out of fares.”

Proposals for an elevated rail line in Honolulu became a heated political issue in the 1960s. By 1975, when this rendering appeared in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, residents of the state had been listening to arguments for and against rail for more than a decade. (Screenshot/

Hawaii newspapers have been printing stories about high speed trains since at least 1907, when the invention of a monorail system in Europe was hailed as a modern wonder. But talk of developing a high-speed rail system to alleviate traffic in metro Honolulu started gaining traction in the early 1960s, when a boom in development resulted in previously unseen levels of car traffic.

“Peak hour driving here is hell on wheels,” proclaimed a Honolulu Advertiser story in 1959. “Is there any solution to the maddening traffic jams that clog the main streets in town?” 

Just how feasible would it be to build a commuter rail system on Oahu? Simply answering that question would prove to be a difficult and costly undertaking that would drag on for years — the first of many controversies in the long saga of Honolulu rail. That story will reach a milestone Friday with the opening of a first 11-mile phase between East Kapolei and Halawa.

For nearly as long as Hawaii has been a state, politicians and residents have been arguing about the viability of rail, the ballooning costs and missed deadlines associated with it, and whether the entire idea was a “boondoggle or a boon.”

Modern Transportation Needed

Oahu’s rail history dates back to the 1880s, when King David Kalakaua granted a railroad charter to businessman Benjamin Dillingham to improve transportation to the island’s growing plantations. The Oahu Railway and Land Co. ferried freight and passengers across a large swath of the island until 1947, when it ceased operation.

A 1925 advertisement for the OR&L railway, which was in operation until 1947. (Screenshot/

In the 1960s, proponents of an elevated rail system on Oahu tried to dissuade naysayers by pointing out Dillingham’s success in building a system that ran all the way up the Leeward Coast and across the North Shore, as well as up into central Oahu.

At the time the railway charter was granted, many people thought such a feat was impossible, referring to the railway as “Dillingham’s folly.”

“Honolulu, built along a coastal ribbon, lends itself admirably to rail transit development,” wrote the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1962, “and the day may not be far off when a bold entrepreneur, disregarding jeers which may sound like those which greeted ‘Dillingham’s folly’ when the first railroad was built on Oahu, will install a rail line that could in time, serve commuters from Koko Head to Waianae.”

In 1963, the federal government awarded Hawaii a $340,000 grant to study transportation needs on Oahu, including the possibility of a monorail system.

The study was expected to cost around half a million dollars in total and take 20 months, but problems quickly arose.

After multiple delays and requests for additional funding by traffic consultants, the Oahu Traffic Study became a hot-button political issue. (Screenshot/

The first project director for the Oahu Transportation Study resigned months into the project and “refused to say why he quit,” the Star-Bulletin reported. By 1966, the study had endured multiple delays, the cost had ballooned to more than a million dollars and the project had become “a massive controversy” the paper said in a four-part series on the study and its delays.

One alternative to rail floated by the Oahu Transportation Study in the 1960s was expanding the Ala Wai Canal and transporting commuters from Waikiki to Pearl Harbor by hydrofoil crafts “which ride above the water on a cushion of air” the Honolulu Advertiser reported. (Screenshot/

Amidst the delays, opposition to a rail line in the city began to to grow. Rail wasn’t economically feasible on Oahu, the board chair of Honolulu Rapid Transit — the city’s bus operator — said in 1966. What Honolulu needed was a dedicated bus lane.

“Give me a lane and I’ll get you there” Harry Weinberg said. “Don’t spend all that money on subways or monorails for just an hour and a half of peak traffic.”

The first official proposal for rail was put forth by outgoing Mayor Neal Blaisdell in 1968, after the long overdue transportation study was finally completed. Blaisdell called for building a 29-mile rail system by 1978, but left it to his successor to figure out how — or if — to proceed.

Frequently Changing Routes

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the need for a mass public transit system to deal with traffic woes was a recurrent theme of news coverage.

It was not question of “if” Honolulu needed a better mass transit system, newspapers reported over and over, simply a question of what kind of system.

A 1962 advertisement from Hawaiian Electric Co. imagines what a monorail transit might look like in downtown Honolulu. (Screenshot/

And then of course, there was the question of where a rail system would go.

For more than a decade, study after study was commissioned to answer those questions.

Initial proposals called for an elevated rail line that went from downtown through Moiliili and Kaimuki, with a feeder route to Waikiki. An alternative route proposed for a privately funded rail system would have gone from the airport to Waikiki.

In 1971, transit consultants hired by the city recommended the main route traverse downtown Honolulu, Kapiolani Boulevard and Waikiki, because the initial route going through Moiliili and Kaimuki wasn’t expected to generate enough passenger demand anymore.

A year later, the same planners recommended that Aloha Stadium to the University of Hawaii be the first phase of construction for a 22-mile elevated rail system that would run from Pearl City to Hawaii Kai.

As political fights over planning and funding a rail project dragged on, the proposed route continued to shift. In 1976, state lawmakers threw their support behind an initial 14-mile segment that would run from Aloha Stadium to Kahala Mall.

In the mid-70s newspapers shifted to referring to the proposed rail route as a “fixed guideway” system. The route continued to shift. (Screenshot/

In 1980, Honolulu made the decision to reduce plans for the first segment to an 8.8 mile-stretch from the airport to UH Manoa. In 1988, the proposal du jour was a light rail system that would travel 15 miles from Leeward Community College to Date Street.

A 1977 political cartoon makes fun of the already decades-long debate over building a rail system in Honolulu. (Screenshot/

‘A Billion Dollar Boondoggle’

In 1971, transit planners estimated that it would cost about $279 million to build a rail system that included three miles of subway running under downtown Honolulu. Such a system, they said a year later after finishing yet another study, could be up and running by 1979.

Five years later, when city officials submitted multiple proposals to the federal government seeking funding for a 14-mile system that would not include an underground segment, the projected cost had grown to $583 million.

At the time, the federal government was funding up to 80% of public transit projects, but local officials had to come up with a funding plan for the remaining 20% first. And that’s where things stalled.

A 1976 Honolulu Advertiser story lays out some of the barriers to obtaining federal funding for an elevated rail system in Honolulu. (Screenshot/

The ballooning estimates for building rail were a constant source of contention among politicians.

In 1977, Ben Cayetano, then a state legislator, “blasted the myths of a ‘slick public relations program’ by the City to win public acceptance of a proposed fixed guideway rapid transit system,” the Honolulu Advertiser reported.

Citizens were getting frustrated too.

A 1980 letter to the editor published in the Star-Bulletin highlighted public frustrations over rail financing. (Screenshot/

“Current talk about a fixed guideway rapid transit system for Honolulu staggers me — especially when it comes to the billion dollar price tag,” a reader of the Star-Bulletin wrote in a letter to the editor in 1976. “Isn’t it ironic that our State and City bureaucrats seem confident that they can find the money and real estate for this complex project but can’t manage to produce something as simple and relatively cost-free as a safe bikeway system for the city?”

By 1980, the city still hadn’t come up with a funding plan for rail. Then the Reagan administration announced a halt to all federal funding for new rail projects. The final nail in the coffin was the election of a new mayor who was anti-rail.

But rail plans didn’t stay shelved for long. By the mid-80s, longtime rail advocate Frank Fasi was once again mayor of Honolulu, and new plans were being made for an elevated rail line.

A satire columnist for the Honolulu Advertiser took aim at the continued resurrection of rail plans, already dubbed Honolulu Area Rapid Transit in the early 1980s. (Screenshot/

All the while, costs continued to rise. In 1988, plans to build 15-mile rail line carried an estimated price tag of $850 million to $950 million. By 1991, the cost had grown to $1.8 billion. A decade later, when plans were resurrected yet again, it was to the tune of $3 billion. By 2010, when Civil Beat first started publishing stories on rail, the figure was $5.2 billion. Now, on the eve of rail’s opening, it’s nearly $10 billion.

A 1991 column in the Star-Bulletin voiced concerns about the cost of rail. (Screenshot/

How Much Will It Really Help?

As projected costs grew and planned routes continued to change, so did estimates for how many people would take advantage of rail — and how much of an impact it would have on the island’s traffic problems.

The Ala Moana-Kakaako Neighborhood Board voted to oppose rail plans in 1979, pointing out that consultants had “recently admitted their earlier estimates of ridership for the proposed rail system were too high.” Perhaps only 69,000 daily riders could be expected by 1995, not 89,900.

In 1988, a statistician accused the city of eliminating his job after he spoke out about overly rosy projections for rail ridership.

Two years later, city officials insisted that a projection of 260,000 rides a day was “conservative.”

In 2010, the estimate was that around 110,000 people would be riding rail on an average weekday by 2030.

Last year, rail officials were hoping for 84,000 daily riders on a shortened line that ends at the Civic Center.

Today’s news coverage, meanwhile, continues to echo stories from 60 years ago. Traffic is terrible. Rail costs are rising. Ridership projections are uncertain. And there are plenty of people who worry, as Cliff Slater did in 1990, that rail will be a “fiscal black hole that we and our children will regret for years to come.”

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