The Honolulu Authority for Ridiculously-expensive Transit (HART) has submitted a recovery plan to the Federal Transit Administration seeking to release $1 billion in federal funds for the project. You know you are in trouble when you have to write a recovery plan for a project that isn’t even half built. Billions of dollars of cost overruns had led the FTA to question whether HART could even finish the rail line, much less operate it, and this plan seeks to answer those doubts.
The 20-mile rail line was originally projected to cost less than $3 billion, but now even HART admits that it will cost $8.2 billion ($9.0 billion including finance charges). For perspective, that’s considerably more than the projected cost of Denver’s 110-mile FasTracks program–a program that many think will never be completed because Denver Regional Transit District lacks the funds to extend one of the lines to Longmont. The Denver-Boulder area has more than three times as many people as the Honolulu urban area, so the per capita cost of Honolulu rail is several times greater.
To cover the cost overruns, Hawaii’s governor called a special session of the legislature. After rancorous debate, the legislature agreed to raise a variety of taxes to help fund the rail line. Most importantly, if you stay in a hotel in Hawaii–even if it is in Kaui, Maui, or the big island and you never visit Oahu–about 1 percent of your hotel cost will go to support the rail line, which is another good reason to try Airbnb.
In addition to the high capital costs, HART projects that it will cost $127 million a year to operate the rail line. That’s about two-thirds as much as Honolulu currently spends subsidizing all of the city’s 110 bus routes.
In projecting operating costs, HART assumes that it will get a discount on electrical rates. In fact, there are considerable uncertainties about where the electricity to power the trains will come from, as Oahu gets more than 80 percent of its electricity from burning fossil fuels that must be imported. The Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) says its resources are already “stressed,” and as near as I can tell, HART still doesn’t have a source of electricity.
Meanwhile, Honolulu is no exception to the rule that transit ridership is declining in every major urban area except Seattle. Between 2010 and 2016, Honolulu bus ridership fell by 10 percent, and ridership in the first half of 2017 was 11 percent lower than the first half of 2016. This has caused some to question whether HART will have any riders at all when it opens the rail line in 2025.
The FTA needs to carefully review this plan before agreeing to give HART more money. Will HART find the electrical power to run the trains? Are HART’s revenue and cost projections overly optimistic? Will anyone even ride the trains that are likely to have to compete against driverless ride-sharing? If the FTA turns HART down, Honolulu should either turn the lines that have already been built into bus lanes or, better yet, tear them down as eyesores.