How Honolulu’s Rail Compares to Other Federally Funded Projects

It’s common for rail projects to have cost overruns, but few are as large as Honolulu's.
Rail How Honolulu's Rail Compares To Other Federally Funded Projects
A Link light rail train at Pioneer Square station in Seattle in 2009, 7 days after opening. | Photo: Steve Morgan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These numbers come from a July 27, 2021, policy brief, “Cost Overruns and Ridership Shortfalls,” written by Randal O’Toole, a rail critic and senior fellow specializing in land-use and transportation issues at the Cato Institute. O’Toole is also the author of The Antiplanner blog. His brief contains a list of 75 federally funded urban transit lines that were completed between 1986 and 2015. We asked O’Toole which projects would be the best to compare Honolulu with.

To download a PDF of the full list, click here.

Table of How Honolulu HART Rail Project Compares To Other Federal Projects

* The cost numbers do not include finance charges, and the predicted costs were adjusted for inflation by the FTA to the year projects were built.
** Ridership numbers are the average weekday trips in the first year after opening. This was not predicted for some projects. When it entered preliminary engineering, Honolulu’s rail was estimated to make 116,000 trips on the average weekday by 2030. Joey Manahan, HART’s director of government relations and public involvement, says it’s now projected that there will be over 100,000 passenger boardings every weekday in 2031 when the line is expected to be fully operational.
*** The Federal Transit Administration categorizes Honolulu’s rail as “heavy rail,” but Toru Hamayasu, HART’s first interim executive director, says this is not entirely a fair description. He writes in an email that HART preferred to call Honolulu’s system a “light metro rail” to fit its image of something that is in between light and heavy rail systems: “Light rail by definition is a system where one car can operate on its own while heavy rail requires several cars with dedicated functions to make a train,” he writes. “HART needs two cars to operate. FTA also defined a heavy rail to have a third rail for power and that’s what HART has too. So for the functionality, HART is more likely a heavy rail. But heavy rail cars are usually longer and consist of more cars. HART cars are about 16 feet shorter than typical heavy rail cars and one train is no longer than four cars. So to avoid the image of a big train running overhead through the shores of Honolulu, it calls itself a light metro rail. Similar systems are in operation internationally, such as in Vancouver, Copenhagen and Milan.”

O’Toole pulled the cost numbers from Federal Transit Administration analyses, which used different predicted cost numbers. Earlier analyses looked at the cost projections when agencies were comparing alternatives, like rail versus bus or highway improvements. More recent analyses took estimates made at the beginning of preliminary engineering, a much later stage, when other alternative modes have already been discarded.

He writes in his brief: “The only alternatives to be considered are different routes. With no competition from other alternatives, costs can be higher without overtly admitting that bus or some other mode might be better. Thus, one of the reasons why cost overruns appear to have declined in recent years is that the FTA is using cost projections made at a later stage in the process.”

Honolulu’s $5.057 billion predicted cost was the estimated amount when the project entered preliminary engineering.


Read More

It’s been a long journey for Honolulu’s rail project to get to where it’s at today. The next two sections of this story look at that journey and identify some of the project’s major milestones. Later, we’ll tell you why some of the rail columns have engravings.

11 21 Rail Increasing Pricetag Text

Up Next: We tracked some of the project’s major milestones, including cost increases, funding deficits, lawsuits and voter input. Click here to read more >>

A Look at the Rail's Increasing Price Tag and Pushed Back Completion Dates

Honolulu has talked about building a rail system since 1967. Click here to read more >>

Honolulu Rail Columns Tell Stories

Engraved columns depict legends and unique elements of each station area. Click here to read more >>

How the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Got to $12.45 Billion and What’s Next For Honolulu, Hawaii

Back to the Beginning: We sorted through more than a decade of cost overruns, audits and reports to explain how the price soared and why completion fell behind schedule. Click here to read more >>

The Three Largest Rail Contracts

Go Back: We looked through the project’s publicly available documents to identify the biggest contracts and how much they cost. Click here to read more >>

Interested in how the writer put this story together?  Read “Inside My Reporting on Honolulu’s Rail Project” to learn about her process.



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