Traffic in Hawaii’s capital is terrible, but construction on a rail system may now cost as much as $13 billion while alleviating road congestion by as little as one percent.
Despite a famously laid-back culture, Honolulu’s traffic is about as bad as it gets. In a bid to unsnarl its highways a bit in 2011, the city embarked on a $5.2 billion Honolulu Rail Transit Project. At the time, the planned 20-mile elevated electric train line was expected to ease traffic congestion on Hawaii’s most densely populated island by 18 percent, with the first trips planned for 2017.
Fast forward six years and the still-sputtering project looks very different. The city now estimates that the rail will cost $10 billion—almost five times the city’s annual budget and twice the original project cost estimate—while civil engineering specialists forecast a price tag closer to $13 billion.
Per capita, the Honolulu rail could become the most expensive transit project in U.S. history, according to the conservative public policy think tank Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. What’s more, the funding source of at least $3 billion in projected costs remains unseen. Meanwhile, the city’s traffic problems have worsened and state lawmakers are left divided and scrambling to craft a plan to pay for the cash-strapped project. All told, 75 percent of the contracts needed to bring the project to completion have been awarded, and the first planned trips along the full track are no longer expected to run before 2025.
So when is it too late to quit a major public-infrastructure project gone awry?
“The project is objectively terrible,” says Panos D. Prevedouros, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Hawaii, whose two failed campaigns for mayor embraced an anti-rail platform. “It reminds me of some proclamations that Trump makes with the beautiful wall he wants to build. Well, in this case, it’s the beautiful train. But it is not beautiful. It’s useless for our population.”
Honolulu city officials predict that traffic congestion will spike by 23 percent in 2030 if the rail is not built. With the rail, a 21 percent increase in traffic is projected, so long as rail ridership reaches the city’s forecast of 116,000 daily passengers—a number widely criticized as inflated. An independent review of the project ordered under former Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle found that the rail would likely garner a substantially smaller number of daily riders—too few to keep the project in operation.
“We are told it will reduce traffic by one percent,” says Ann Kobayashi, a member of the Honolulu City Council. “To spend $10 billion to reduce it by that little, does that make sense? If you’re asking me, no, it doesn’t. There’s something wrong here.”
With five miles of track left to build and billions of dollars in funding left to find, some city leaders are proposing that the city abandon the beleaguered railway. Kobayashi has joined several other city leaders in saying that it's time to consider nixing the project or shortening the rail line to make it more affordable. She supports a proposal that would outfit the elevated rail line with electric buses, which are less costly to operate.
“If we were a business I think this would have been abandoned because businesses won’t keep throwing good money at bad, they want to stop the bleeding,” says Kobayashi.
After failing to forge a deal to foot the bill for the project by the close of the 2017 legislative session, the Hawaii state legislature is scheduled to convene a special session in late August to hammer out a plan to fill the multi-billion dollar funding shortfall.
Community outrage over cost overruns and the ensuing political stalemate have quickly become palpable at public hearings and on the pages of local newspapers. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser recently referred to it in a headline as an “epic fail on rail.”
The situation prompted former Hawaii Governor Ben Cayetano to take out a full-page ad in the Washington Post last April, calling on President Donald Trump to axe the federal government’s plan to help fund Honolulu’s rail. The feds have chipped in to the project $1.6 billion, about $800,000 of which is unspent.
“Honolulu’s rail project does not deserve a single dollar more from the federal government,” reads the ad by Cayetano, a Democrat and harsh critic of the transit plan:
It has become a poster boy for how politics, incompetence, disinformation and outright lies are at the root of wasteful rail projects which do little for the public except raise taxes… If built, this will change the beauty and ambience of the city forever.
A half-century long debate over the elevated rail line’s viability ostensibly concluded nine years ago when voters in Hawaii approved a referendum to green light construction. But concerns persist and the cries of opponents have only become emboldened by the project’s string of missteps including gross spending increases, damning audits, rusted support columns, and faulty track pads that needed replacing years before the rail is ready for service.
The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation has since engaged in several cost-control measures, including the hiring of a new chief financial officer and more rigorous reviews of change-order requests from contractors. However, on top of concerns over cost and infrastructure, naysayers remain unsettled by how the mammoth platform of steel and concrete might reshape the identity of this isle of golden beaches and, undeniably, jammed highways.
“I just think our island is too small for a railroad,” says Kobayashi.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell supports the completion of the $500 million-per-mile elevated rail line through a 10-year extension of a state general excise tax hike to 2037. The alternative, city officials warn, would be a property tax hike of up to 14 percent. The prospect of trimming costs by shortening the rail system, Caldwell’s office says, is unfeasible because it would lead to decreased ridership and thus place more of a burden on the city for operation and maintenance costs.
“It will be completed,” Caldwell’s Chief of Staff Gary Kurokawa says.
But if it isn’t, it will only be the latest in a string of mass transit projects cut off from government funding. In 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie scuttled a project to alleviate commuter travel delays between New York City and the Garden State by building a new rail tunnel underneath the Hudson River, citing concerns that taxpayers would be socked with $5 billion in cost overruns. A Government Accountability Office report later disputed those numbers, finding that the $8.7 billion project would cost, at most, $10 billion. The cancellation of the tunnel, then the largest public works project in the nation, forced the state to abandon $3 billion in earmarked federal dollars. A half-billion dollars already spent on construction was called a loss.
Baltimore’s $2.9 billion Red Line, which was scrapped by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan in 2015, provoked legal challenges from the ACLU and the NAACP because the rail line would have helped African Americans in low- and middle-income neighborhoods gain access to more options for jobs, housing and school. Hogan, who criticized the project as too costly, instead launched a program to improve the city’s bus service. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Transportation into whether the project’s termination posed possible violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act closed this month without finding.
Meanwhile, on an other U.S. island, Puerto Rico’s 11-mile Tren Urbano has now been in operation 11 years but only attracts a third of the rides it needs to break even. After years of planning, the rapid transit system was built at nearly 80 percent over-budget. It continues to lose about $50 million a year. This financial drain has intensified Puerto Rico’s massive debt crisis, triggering warnings from U.S. government officials that failure to keep Tren Urbano in operation could mean that the territory would lose federal funding.
Prevedouros points to the Caribbean's mass transit boondoggle as a cautionary tale.
“It checks all the boxes of compatibility,” says Prevedouros. “There are a lot of interesting parallels between San Juan and Honolulu, but I think we’re going to hit it out of the park with this one. Honolulu is going to be beyond platinum and gold level of failure.”