Hawaii Scrambles To Keep Train Project From Going Off Rails
By Cathy Bussewitz
Los Angeles Times
26 August 2017
Photo courtesy of Skift
Train tracks supported by concrete pillars snake through Oahu neighborhoods and across its lush scenery, ending abruptly in an empty, overgrown field. They're part of a planned $9.5 billion rail transit project - one of the most expensive per capita in the United States.
But the commuter line, in the works in and around Honolulu for more than a decade, is less than halfway complete and facing a budget shortfall of up to $3 billion. If lawmakers don't agree on how to fill it, the giant columns could end up as nothing more than expensive eyesores.
Legislative leaders have tentatively agreed to a bill, but whether it will pass is unclear. If no solution is found by September 15, the federal government could demand that Honolulu return more than $800 million it has already spent and withhold the rest of a promised $1.5 billion funding package.
Experts say U.S. rail projects often run over budget, but Hawaii's situation is among the worst they've seen.
"Right now it's probably a race between California and Hawaii of who's going to get their projects built or have the biggest boondoggle in the country," said Keith Millhouse, a transportation consultant and national expert on mass transit issues, referring to a $64 billion bullet train planned between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Both projects have faced funding issues and lawsuits.
But the Honolulu project stands out because of spiraling costs that have pushed its price tag to nearly $10,000 per person, thousands more than other U.S. rail lines. The proposed 20-mile (32-kilometer) route stretches from suburbs west of Honolulu into downtown and stops short of the tourist mecca Waikiki.
Transit experts around the country say the project makes no sense given Honolulu's size and the fact that materials must be shipped to the island state. They warn spending so much on rail could divert funding from other sources, including buses, which could limit schedules and lose riders.
"The capital cost is way too high, and the expected ridership is way too low," said Dan Chatman, Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning at the College of Environmental Design. "It's pretty simple."
Yet the rail line has its ardent supporters, who say it's a matter of fairness to Oahu's sprawling west side.
That part of the island - with its fast-growing suburbs, affordable homes and a rural stretch that is home to many Native Hawaiians - has lower incomes than other parts of the island and has only one route in and out. Residents there deserve an alternative route to Honolulu to save them from crushing traffic that consistently rates among the nation's worst, the supporters say.
Critics counter the rail line would do little to help. By 2030, Oahu traffic is expected to increase 24 percent from 2007 conditions, an estimate that falls just 2 percentage points if the rail line is built.