Honolulu Boondoggle Recovery Plan

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.


6 thoughts on “Honolulu Boondoggle Recovery Plan

  1. prk166

    It’s interesting to see them count on this tax at the very time the public is talking about limiting tourism.


    Hawai’i’s natural beauty, rich culture, and hospitable people, set the islands apart from other tourist destinations. But quantifying the adverse impacts to these assets remains a problem. We often don’t see a destination’s threshold for tourism until we’ve passed it.

    “So you see it in places like Barcelona and Venice. And it’s happening in Iceland, and you can make the case that Hawai’i is on its way there,” says Bolan.

    Recent protests in Barcelona and Venice forced local governments to address the negative impacts being felt by residents in those destinations. Iceland, which has seen a boom in tourism over the past five years, is considering limiting the number of visitors.

  2. prk166


    A judge ordered a preliminary injunction Wednesday to protect Valley Isle sand dunes from being mined for export and construction, but allows some work at Maui Lani to continue if properly supervised.

    Always Investigating had previously reported on the sand being mined for years to be shipped off-island to be used for things like concrete for Honolulu rail.

    The community group Malama Kakanilua sued alleging historic preservation laws were being violated putting iwi burials at risk.

  3. prk166


    Critics of the bill to fund rail felt it was cobbled together without enough input from other lawmakers and the public — and its fate had been decided before it was heard publicly. They also said the five-day special session was rushed.

    Some lawmakers shared those concerns, but others noted public hearings were held prior to and during the special session, and public input was heard on other rail bailout bills during the regular session.

    Many neighbor island leaders were upset their hotel taxes would also be raised to help clean up Honolulu rail’s budgetary mess.

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