Designed to Fail

Are American cities competing to see which can come up with the most ridiculous transit proposals? If so, Honolulu will probably win, hands down. The nation’s 52nd-largest urban area has only about 950,000 people, yet it is spending $5.3 billion, or more than $5,500 per resident, to build a single 20-mile rail line. That’s probably a greater cost per person than any rail system ever built–and it is just for one line, not a complete system.

The line will be entirely elevated, yet they plan to run just two-car trains, each “train” being about the length of a typical light-rail car (just under 100 feet). This means it will have the high costs of heavy rail and the capacity limits of light rail.

One of the many deceptive claims about the project is that it is “high-capacity transit.” In fact, the two-car trains were planned to have only 64 seats. The city says it will ask the railcar builder to increase this to 76 seats, a change order that will no doubt add to the cost. As the Antiplanner’s colleague, Wendell Cox, says, “the number of seats is the least of their problems.”

Minimizing the number of seats maximizes railcar capacity because you can fit more than two or three standees in the space of a seated person. But planners expect the average rider to travel 9.3 miles on trips lasting more than 20 minutes (nationally the average heavy-rail and light-rail trips are both less than 5 miles). Many Honolulu bus riders question whether people will be willing to stand for 20-minute trips.

With 64 seats, the two-car trains supposedly have room for 254 standing passengers. But that’s at “crush capacity,” which is far more crowded than Americans are willing to accept. Assuming the city increases the seating to 76 seats, actual loads are likely to be limited to a total of about 150 to 200 people per train. At a maximum of 20 trains an hour in each direction, the line will be able to move about 3,000 to 4,000 people per hour inbound in the morning and a similar number outbound in the afternoon. By comparison, a highway lane can easily move 600 buses per hour, and at 40 seats per bus that represents 24,000 people per hour, none of them having to stand.

However, it is not likely that the rail line will often be filled to capacity. The line will connect East Kapolei with Honolulu. East Kapolei today is basically a few small businesses surrounded by farm land. The original plan was to go to Kapolei, which has about 35,000 people, but the city decided it didn’t have enough money to go that far. Between East Kapolai and Honolulu the rail line will pass through Waipahu (33,000 people), Pearl City (48,000 people), and by Pearl Harbor Naval Base (which houses about 20,000 people most of whom work right on the base and won’t be riding the train to work). The rest of the rail line goes through light industrial and commercial areas.

In other words, the rail line will serve, at most, about 15 percent of the residents of Oahu and probably no more than 20 percent of the jobs. That means no more than about 3 percent of workers will both live and work on the rail line.

Planners’ ridership projections are questionable. They estimate the line will attract 116,340 riders per day in 2030. Since they are planning to run 488 trains per day (244 in each direction), that represents an average of 238 riders per train trip. Given an average trip length of 9.3 miles, that means an average of 110 passengers on board the two-car trains at any given time. Since the American light-rail cars carry an average of 24 people, and the most crowded (in San Diego) carry just 37 people, 110 is highly optimistic.

By 2015, the city hopes to complete and begin operating a segment between East Kapolei and the Aloha Stadium. In other words, it will go from a place were few live to a place that has only a few events per year, mainly high school football games and weekend swap meets. Even when major events take place at the stadium, the rail line will be of little use: the stadium holds 50,000 people, but at 4,000 people per hour in each direction it would take more than six hours to empty the stadium via the train.

The full rail line won’t be open until 2019. By that time, the first driverless automobiles will probably be on the market, eventually eliminating the need for transit of any sort. (Ironically, the Honolulu trains themselves will be driverless, similar to the driverless trains in Copenhagen.)

Honolulu requested bids for railcars from several different companies and asked the bidders to include the cost of operating and maintaining the system for 10 years in the bid. The high bidder was the Italian firm Ansaldo, so naturally the city picked that company. Honolulu city councilman Tom Berg argues that the city should have picked someone else, not only because the other bids were lower but because Ansaldo has had trouble meetings its contractual obligations in other cities and is losing so much money on railcars that it is thinking of getting out of the business completely. The city rejected Bombardier’s bid because it supposedly included an “inappropriate condition,” but Bombardier says it was not a condition but merely a request for clarification.

In order to pay for this and other rail contracts, Honolulu’s city manager quietly “suspended” the city’s debt limit without consulting the city council or, apparently, the mayor. As Wendell Cox points out, the city faces billions of dollars in expenses fixing its sewer, water, and other infrastructure, and spending $5.3 billion on rail, which at best is a luxury (and at worst a curse) will make it harder to do anything else.

Rail proponents argue that the project will relieve congestion, but even the final environmental impact statement says that, at every place evaluated, congestion will be worse in 2030 with the project than without it (see page 3-51). One reason congestion will be worse is because the city is moving to approve large new housing projects at East Kapolei with the expectation that people living there will take the train to work. But, as Cascade Policy Institute CEO John Charles told audiences in Honolulu, 70 to 95 percent of travel from transit-oriented developments in Portland is by auto, so those new housing projects are likely to further increase traffic congestion.

Nor will the project save energy: at 2,020 BTUs per passenger mile, Honolulu’s bus system already uses less energy than almost every other light-rail and heavy-rail line outside of New York City. By 2030, under the Obama fuel economy standards, the average car on the road will also use only about 2,000 BTUs per passenger mile, and cars in Hawaii (where gas prices are higher than the rest of the U.S.) will probably use even less.

The Antiplanner wonders if employees at Parsons Brinckerhoff and other consulting firms who helped plan this and so many other expensive rail projects sit around laughing at the gullibility of city officials. Once people adopt the “we need a rail line at any cost” mentality, they are all too likely to be victimized by projects like this one.

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38 thoughts on “Designed to Fail

  1. Southeasterner

    Doesn’t Hawaii attract 8+ million tourists per year? Not sure how many end up in Honolulu or if they would be willing to take public transit or how strong the taxi drivers are in local politics but it seems like any kind of rail investment should focus on those without cars? Im assuming with more and more tourists originating from Asian countries who have a generally higher acceptance of public transit they would be willing to take a rail system but it would have to target the tourist attractions, hotels/resorts, airport. It seems like taking a few thousand taxis off the roads may be a better investment then trying to connect a bunch of lower density industrial and residential zones, if the goal is to alleviate congestion? You may then be able to derive additional private funding from hotels, attractions who would want to be located on the “tourist” line? Not saying rail is the right answer but maybe they are going after the wrong market?

    bennett Reply:

    Rail transit projects have never alleviated congestion in the U.S. (outside of NYC) in any substantive way. As long as we transit advocates try to use congestion as a pillar in which rail transit can flourish, we will be scoffed at by those with the data.

    If we want rail transit, we need to be honest as to “WHY” we want it. I would prefer that rail advocates used the argument that the desire is to have a functional multi-modal interconnected system of transit, automobiles, bicycles and pedestrian users that provides choices (and yes most of those choices will have some subsidies attached to them).

    If we choose to argue that transit will solve a problem that it has never actually solved we’re setting up our opponents to squash us.

    p.s. Rail transit & congestion is no different than Interstate capacity increases & congestion. It doesn’t solve the problem.

    C. P. Zilliacus Reply:

    Rail transit projects have never alleviated congestion in the U.S. (outside of NYC) in any substantive way.

    Correct. And New York City (and especially New York County (Manhattan)) benefits from employment and population densities not found elsewhere in the United States.

    Related article from the N.Y. Times: Everybody Inhale: How Many People Can Manhattan Hold?

    As long as we transit advocates try to use congestion as a pillar in which rail transit can flourish, we will be scoffed at by those with the data.

    Agreed.

    Jardinero1 Reply:

    Bennett,

    I agree and disagree. I start to disagree when you say “yes most of those choices will have some subsidies attached to them”. The subsidies are the problem, with rail and roadways. We are at the end of an era as far as what we can do with politically determined funding mechanisms. In the era of unsustainable deficits and bankrupt municipalities, suggesting subsidies is not an answer.

    Removing all the subsidies would go much further to provided a sustainable multi-modal system since a totally unsubsidized system for roads and rails will only develop what people, individually, not as members of interest groups, are willing to pay for. The last mulitmodal era, prior to the great depression, abounded with privately funded buses, trolleys, trams and tollways. It ended with the great depression and the advent of taxpayer subsidized “free” highways. Get rid of all the subsidies and you would return to some analog of the status quo ante.

    Dan Reply:

    If we want rail transit, we need to be honest as to “WHY” we want it.

    When gas is 8.00/gal, they will curse us for not thinking ahead. And in the future, they will curse us for lots of reasons for not thinking ahead, wishing that we were rational, thinking creatures.

    DS

    Jardinero1 Reply:

    When gas is eight dollars a gallon we can readily add more buses. With fewer cars on the road buses will be even more effective than they are now. In fact, the best kind of buses to add will be small buses and jitneys so as to provide more routes and more destinations.

    We can only hope that when we reach that juncture, transit agencies and municipalities will end their legal ban on jitneys. I find it unlikely that that will happen. The last thing most transit agencies desire is cost effective competition.

    panos.prevedouros Reply:

    Gasoline is over $8 per gallon almost throughout the EU. If the US fleet average mpg is 20 and the EU is 40, then their effective gas price is $4 per gallon. In other words … people there have found a way for affordable independent travel (e.g., using small cars) rather than transit. The same trend is rapidly developing here thanks to CAFE and gas pricing.

    bkmick Reply:

    First, let me say that yes we do have a lot of tourists, and although the system currently would terminate at Ala Moana shopping center, the EIS was purposely done to cover spurs into Waikiki (where the tourists are headed) and the University of Hawaii. By serving those two ‘populations’ and keeping them out of cars the residents that are still in cars will benefit by reduced congestion and reduced competition for parking.
    Secondly, let me say that if you start with the premise that cars are the best invention of the past 200 years, your always going to be against rail (or buses) for that matter.
    If you talk to the head of the bus service in Honolulu (which for some reason no one seems to do), he will tell you that its almost impossible to currently expand bus service in a meaningful way – there is a physical limit. They will also tell you that building an elevated bus expressway that would have comparable ridership numbers to rail will actually be more expensive over a 20 year period. Ironically, one of the best commutes Oahu has had in the past 20 years was when the buses drivers went on strike and we didn’t have giant buses clogging up lanes of travel on our surface streets.
    And finally let me say that the funding situation on here is grossly misinterpreted. Of the 5.3, the feds are going to kick in 1.5. Of the remaining amount, it is being funded via a GET tax surcharge of which 1/3 is paid by tourists.

  2. LazyReader

    20 minutes, that’s like a whole episode of Seinfeld it takes you a whole f@#$ing episode of Sein-F#$@ing-feld to ride a train. Hawaii may get 8 million visitors annually, that works out to just over 21 thousand daily, still even if they took the train, wouldn’t the just rob the residents of the very transit solution the city promised to them. For every tourist passenger on board is one residential passenger that wont have a ride today. It might save energy (doubtful as assessments do not include energy in construction or inevitable reconstruction after years of abuse) but how much energy does it take to get 8 million people a year across the Pacific to Hawaii in the first place; it’s just a pointless debate.

  3. LazyReader

    Speaking of Hawaii whatever happened to that Superferry that was supposed to carry hundreds of passengers across the islands so they didn’t have to fly from island to island.

    The Antiplanner Reply:

    Shut down by an environmental lawsuit. Very sad as it was boosting the economies of the islands it served.

    LazyReader Reply:

    From what I heard the ship would use various measures to limit environmental harm. Namely cleaner low-sulfur diesel engines and feature pump jet propulsion instead of propellers (to not strike whales, they have the same problem in Florida where propellers strike and scar manatees). Special paint on the hull to prevent the accumulation of invasive marine organisms like barnacles or mussels. Zero discharge waste policy. All garbage is unloaded on shore, and bio waste is handled via septic systems near the dock. Controversy also concerned that the vessels might be used in Hawaii as a form of military sealift. (Austal USA that built the vessel also builds warships for the U.S. and Australian navies)

    C. P. Zilliacus Reply:

    Was “induced” demand for the ferry service cited as a reason by the opponents?

  4. gman5541

    This whole story is stupid. The light rail would be 100% elevated. This means that no matter how bad the traffic gets, anyone that takes that light rail will get to where they need to go, unimpeded by said traffic. Moreover . . . Wendell Cox!? REALLY?! He’s the guy that helped setup Los Angleles’s light rail system yet he hasn’t been a reliable anti-light rail guy.

    The Antiplanner Reply:

    Yes, anyone who takes the light rail will get to go from where they aren’t to where they don’t want to go all at the fantastic speed of 30 mph. Just why are a handful of rail users (less than 0.3 percent of all daily trips are projected to go by rail) so deserving subsidies of at least $20 per ride (more likely $50 to $100) so that they can avoid traffic that everyone else has to deal with?

    C. P. Zilliacus Reply:

    Yes, anyone who takes the light rail will get to go from where they aren’t to where they don’t want to go all at the fantastic speed of 30 mph.

    A quip by a personal hero of mine, the late Moe Howard of the Three Stooges, is appropriate here:

    “We’re goin’ noplace fast.”

    the highwayman Reply:

    O’Toole, you and Cox are both frauds.

    Roads are there regardless of economic conditions, though you don’t think the same should apply to rail lines.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Having it all elevated jacks up the construction costs, private right of ways on the surface would be easier and cost less.

  5. FrancisKing

    “With 64 seats, the two-car trains supposedly have room for 254 standing passengers. But that’s at “crush capacity,” which is far more crowded than Americans are willing to accept. Assuming the city increases the seating to 76 seats, actual loads are likely to be limited to a total of about 150 to 200 people per train. At a maximum of 20 trains an hour in each direction, the line will be able to move about 3,000 to 4,000 people per hour inbound in the morning and a similar number outbound in the afternoon. By comparison, a highway lane can easily move 600 buses per hour, and at 40 seats per bus that represents 24,000 people per hour, none of them having to stand.”

    This is a fundamental misunderstanding. You can get 800 buses/hr down a lane of traffic (the equivalent of 1600 cars/hr), without any problems with capacity – this corresponds to LOS ‘C’. But if you want the buses to stop and pick people up, you are looking at only 4 to 6 buses per hour, not 800 per hour.

    The idea of getting so many buses per hour along a road comes from the Lincoln tunnel. But there are no bus stops on the Lincoln tunnel roadway. There is the Port Authority bus station on one end, and a multitude of different routes on the other.

    http://www.transportpolicy.org.uk/PublicTransport/LincolnTunnel/LincolnTunnel.htm

    Antiplanner is out by two orders of magnitude. That is why no bus company or organisation runs buses as he suggests.

  6. FrancisKing

    Notwithstanding Antiplanner’s miscalculation, there is a simpler and cheaper way of providing the capacity. That is to put a light-rail line down a toll lane. The toll is set at a level to remove the congestion. Then no expensive elevation is required. It is bizarre that, just as mainland USA realises just how bad elevated rail is, Honolulu wants to build it. Epic fail.

  7. FrancisKing

    “Planners’ ridership projections are questionable. They estimate the line will attract 116,340 riders per day in 2030. Since they are planning to run 488 trains per day (244 in each direction), that represents an average of 238 riders per train trip. Given an average trip length of 9.3 miles, that means an average of 110 passengers on board the two-car trains at any given time. Since the American light-rail cars carry an average of 24 people, and the most crowded (in San Diego) carry just 37 people, 110 is highly optimistic.”

    Not questionable, just quite mad. Bath UK has a population of 84,000 people, equivalent to Waipahu and Pearl Harbour. We have buses, not even light rail. That should worry the planners of this system.

    C. P. Zilliacus Reply:

    Not questionable, just quite mad. Bath UK has a population of 84,000 people, equivalent to Waipahu and Pearl Harbour. We have buses, not even light rail. That should worry the planners of this system.

    It’s called (by some) “faith-based” transportation planning.

    FrancisKing Reply:

    Indeed. For those of faith, a mosque, temple, church or synagogue would be cheaper.

  8. FrancisKing

    “The full rail line won’t be open until 2019. By that time, the first driverless automobiles will probably be on the market, eventually eliminating the need for transit of any sort. (Ironically, the Honolulu trains themselves will be driverless, similar to the driverless trains in Copenhagen.)”

    I don’t understand the fascination with automatic cars. Airbus is the European equivalent of Boeing, and builds very nice airplanes. One of their test pilots demonstrated one of these airplanes. One of the features of these advanced aircraft is that you can’t stall them. To demonstrate this, the brought the aircraft to effectively a halt, with the computer controlling the controls. At this point, the computer realised that the airspeed was now too low, and ploughed the aircraft straight into the ground, killing the aircrew.

    PRT is another clever system with gaps of a fraction of a second between each vehicle, and astronomical capacities. Then the authorities stepped in and required a two-second separation. That’s what will happen with these cars.

  9. C. P. Zilliacus

    I have not recently looked at its ridership data, but in many ways this project reminds me of the Los Angeles MTA Green Line, much of which is elevated in the median of I-105 (Century Freeway) in L.A. County.

    The Wikipedia article I hyperlinked above says daily ridership on the Green Line in 2011 was 45,259.

  10. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    (Ironically, the Honolulu trains themselves will be driverless, similar to the driverless trains in Copenhagen.)

    Don’t forget the Docklands Light Railway in Greater London, England, which has run without motormen (“drivers” in British English) since it was opened to traffic in the 1980’s.

    FrancisKing Reply:

    It does, however, have a control area on the train, and the guard can drive the train when the automatic system stops working.

  11. Sandy Teal

    The nation’s 52nd-largest urban area has only about 950,000 people, yet it is spending $5.3 billion, or more than $5,500 per resident, to build a single 20-mile rail line. That’s probably a greater cost per person than any rail system ever built–and it is just for one line, not a complete system.

    The Antiplanner needs to be more careful in his verbiage. The urban area is NOT spending $5,500 per resident. Undoubtedly the urban area doesn’t even collect $5,500 per resident for all local spending.

    A huge reason local areas have any support for such projects is that it is paid for by OPM (“other people’s money”). The Antiplanner needs to consistently make this point.

  12. Dan

    panos.prevedouros Reply:
    March 6th, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    Gasoline is over $8 per gallon almost throughout the EU. If the US fleet average mpg is 20 and the EU is 40, then their effective gas price is $4 per gallon. In other words … people there have found a way for affordable independent travel (e.g., using small cars) rather than transit. The same trend is rapidly developing here thanks to CAFE and gas pricing.

    Your conclusion doesn’t follow from your argument, but thanks!

    DS

    the highwayman Reply:

    Panos Prevedouros is a blatant highway lobbyist!

    MJ Reply:

    A college professor and a highway lobbyist? Must be a pretty busy guy. I can prove that he is in fact a professor. Can you prove that he is a highway lobbyist?

  13. Sandy Teal

    I enjoy reading how all-knowing planners can foresee the future and create an “intelligent design” economy that they are convinced will clearly be better than the “randomness” of an evolving free market. After all, there is no way the random selection of a free market could ever evolve into a sophisticated global economy.

    If we had just listened to President Carter and the planners back in the 1970s, we would have spent trillions of dollars to overhaul our entire way of life, living in tiny houses barely heated to 50 degrees in the winter, no air conditioning, and only the wealthy having even tiny cars. Are we sorry that we didn’t listen to the expert planners in the 1970s?

    C. P. Zilliacus Reply:

    If we had just listened to President Carter and the planners back in the 1970s, we would have spent trillions of dollars to overhaul our entire way of life, living in tiny houses barely heated to 50 degrees in the winter, no air conditioning, and only the wealthy having even tiny cars. Are we sorry that we didn’t listen to the expert planners in the 1970s?

    It was President Carter’s USDOT that questioned the massive spending and massive cost overruns associated with construction of the Washington Metrorail system. Reagan’s administration happily created a “dedicated” source of money from motor fuel taxes for transit, and happily provided as much federal funding as WMATA asked for to keep building rail. As did “Poppy” Bush, Clinton, Bush 43 (even though his administration did question Dulles Rail, his USDOT eventually forked-over $1 billion in federal funding) and Obama.

    Sandy Teal Reply:

    Most nations in the world are city-states. The US is not. But the elites of Washington DC have a dream that DC should be the city-state capitol of the US. Thus, the pen** envy of London, Paris, and Berlin, and the desire to have a “metro” system just like the older capitols do.

    The funny thing is that Washington DC is one of the most racially segregated cities in the world. The metro train ridership turns from 2% black to 99.9% black in just a few stops as the trains go into the black ghetto that is 3/4 of DC.

  14. WAKibby

    There is a peception in Honolulu that someday one or one’s children will be able to ride continuously from the West end of Honolulu’s proposed elevated rail system to the University and possibly Waikiki, both major destinations, because that was the plan in the 90’s when the proposed system was defeated. Since then a major Shopping Center has added a floor creating a nearly impossible challenge for engineers to design a way for the tracks to climb 100 feet or more over the center. The current design will terminate short of the buildings at nearly ground level. The center is close to three quarters of a mile across. Passengers will find it necessary to transfer and navigate this distance probably on foot to board another train or transit system. Most will continue to drive rather than put up with the inconvenience. Transit public relations wont comment.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Well it would have been nice if the Oahu Railway wasn’t trashed in the first place.

  15. Scott

    Here’s a picky-ooney detail about stats in the OP:
    As an UA, isn’t Honolulu ranked about 48 or rather than 52?
    And isn’t its population a little more than 700,000, w/the dif being in measuring it as a CDP (its not a city) on about 90 sq.mi versus the whole island (~600 sq. mi.), which is the same metropolitan.

    Of course that doesn’t take away from the main points — the rail is too expensive & will not deliver a profound benefit.

    Sidenote:
    Regardless of “emissions” being irrelevant because of the fake AGW,
    To all you authoritarian, warmist planners, how will more transit help?
    For all energy consumption, the private vehicle uses <15% (about 40% of all oil).
    The energy per passenger mile is not greatly reduced.
    Ya know the approximate break-even point compared to a car?
    About 10 passengers/bus & 20 for LRT.

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