Lessons for Hawai’i from Puerto Rico

The Honolulu City Council is determined to spend billions of dollars on a ridiculous rail-transit line in Oahu. State Representative Marilyn Lee happened to visit Puerto Rico and came back gushing about that island’s new Tren Urbano in Honolulu’s leading paper.

“There are many similarities between Hawaii and Puerto Rico,” says Representative Lee. “We must proceed with our scheduled plan to build transit — our sister island state has shown it can succeed.”

San Juan’s Tren Urbano.
Wikipedia photo.

There are so many fallacies in Representative Lee’s column that it is hard to know where to begin. Needless to say, Puerto Rico is not a state. Further, Honolulu rail proponents have a nasty habitat of calling rail transit “transit,” implying that Honolulu doesn’t have mass transit because it doesn’t have rail transit.

In fact, there are lessons that Hawai’i can learn from Puerto Rico, just not the ones that the apparently innumerate Representative Lee learned. As Honolulu rail skeptic Cliff Slater has noted, far from showing that rail transit can succeed, the Tren Urbano is just one more rail disaster.

Start with the cost. It was supposed to cost $766 million to build. After more than a decade of planning and construction, it ended up costing $2.25 billion. Even after adjusting for inflation, Northeastern University researchers found, that was a 113 percent cost overrun.

Next, look at ridership. Representative Lee admitted that “ridership is lower than projected.” And how. The Tren Urbano was projected to carry 80,000 people per day. In its first year, it carried less than 25,000 people a day.

In 2005, the Puerto Rican Transportation Authority spent $43 million operating the Tren Urbano and collected slightly less than $600,000 in fares. Granted, 2005 was the first year of operation, but even in the first year you expect farebox recovery to be a little more than 1.4 percent. The agency collected far more from its bus riders, on whom it spent far less.

Puerto Rico was lucky: most of the cost of building the Tren Urbano was paid by U.S. taxpayers. Honolulu plans to impose most of the cost of its rail line on its own residents.

If Hawai’ians want to look at a successful transit system in Puerto Rico, skip the Tren Urbano and look for the públicos, or public cars, that range up to 17-passenger vans. These are sometimes described as shared taxis and the operate a lot like airport shuttles in other U.S. cities. Públicos have fixed routes, but they will deviate from those routes for an extra charge.

In 2005, the públicos carried more than 20 times as many passengers (and passenger miles) as the Tren Urbano. The público‘s farebox recovery rate? An amazing (for American transit) 98 percent. That’s because they are really a form of private transit that is regulated by the local Department of Transportation.

While Honolulu might benefit from something like públicos, it already has (despite the claims of the rail nuts) one of the most heavily used mass transit systems in the U.S. It carries nearly 4 percent of urban travel, more than all other major urban areas except New York, San Francisco, and Washington. It also carries 8.7 percent of commuters, more than Portland, San Diego, or many other regions with supposedly successful rail transit systems.

Plus Honolulu has numerous private bus operators and a competitive taxi system that caters to tourists and really is very close to the públicos in many ways. But Honolulu’s transit agency does everything it can to hamper its competition, such as forbidding private buses from taking tourists to popular beaches served by the public bus system.

The only reason Honolulu needs a rail transit line is so local politicians can award fat contracts to rail contractors and engineering firms. For transit riders and auto drivers, rail transit can only be bad news, draining away funds from transport systems that really work to feed the egos of local officials.

It is too bad that so many urban planners have jumped on the rail transit bandwagon. To justify their support of rail construction, they have to twist the data, bend their ethics, and betray the taxpayers they are supposed to serve. That’s just one more reason to be an antiplanner.


2 thoughts on “Lessons for Hawai’i from Puerto Rico

  1. Kevyn Miller

    I get the impression that many planning departments exist for just one reason. So that politicians have somewhere to pass the buck when their “monumental” plans go awry.

    Back in the 1950s and 60s New Zealand’s tranport planners did a remarkably good job of predicting the urban traffic growth that would occur with population growth. They got caught out by two things. The baby boom ended so they were a couple of decades early with the predictions of when gridlock would occur. The petrol tax that funds roading was being periodicly adjusted for inflation in the 1950s but that stopped in the 1970s. Thus they are still twenty years away from completing motorways that they though would be needed twenty years ago. Worse still, they recommended modest extensions to the existing railways to properly connect them with the CBDs. Railways were a government department. Politicians decided there were better things to spend public works loan money on, such as low income housing, so they didn’t provide any money for the rail improvements. Then, to influence marginal electorates they interfered with the land use planning so that housing and industry and airports were built with no regard to the transport plans. Who are the politicians blaming for the resulting mess? Planners and drivers!

  2. the highwayman

    The sad thing is Honolulu at one time had a very good local rail system, but it like so many others was trashed by politics.

    A light rail system would be great for Honolulu!

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