How Rail Got to $12.45 Billion and 11 Years Late
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.
At the intersection of Kualakaʻi and Keahumoa Parkways in east Kapolei, the rail guideway stands out among green farmland, nearby homes, a school and the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center.
Some columns supporting the rail’s westernmost station are embossed with depictions of hala trees and harvesting and fishing seasons – a design that celebrates Pu‘u o Kapolei’s importance to Hawaiian agriculture. Above, canopies shelter the station’s platform. Sometimes trains run tests between here and Aloha Stadium.
O‘ahu’s rail was supposed to carry commuters from West O‘ahu’s suburbs to urban Honolulu by now. Instead, the 20-mile, 21-station project is only about 63% complete. Its costs have more than doubled since the City and County of Honolulu signed an agreement in 2012 with the Federal Transit Administration to build the project for $5.122 billion, and it’s now estimated the full system won’t be operational until March 2031 – 11 years later than promised in that agreement.
The rail project has been the subject of multiple state and city audits that identified fiscal waste and poor management, plus lawsuits, calls for a forensic audit to investigate whether criminal activity occurred, and U.S. Department of Justice subpoenas. Concerns about the project’s problems have caused the federal government to withhold $744 million since 2015.
Today, the project faces an estimated $3.5 billion deficit – a shortfall between the latest estimate of the final overall cost and revenue expected by 2030, when the tax increases that are funding most of the construction expire.
Part of that deficit stems from lower-than-expected tax revenue during the pandemic. The bigger part stems from a higher cost estimate that the Honolulu rail authority argues is more realistic because it reflects the project’s known risks and contingencies, plus industry pricing of the 4-mile, 8-station City Center segment as well as costs of further delays.
Critics of the rail project argue the project should pause at Middle Street to give officials a chance to reassess the rest of the route, but the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation maintains it must finish the project all the way to Ala Moana Center. HART is developing yet another updated plan to do just that.
Rail advocates say the project will cause traffic congestion to grow more slowly than without it, support development of homes and commercial properties near the rail stations, and offer an alternative, consistent mode of transportation that won’t be affected by accidents or traffic jams on the roads. They also say HART and the city need to rebuild public confidence in the project.
Roger Morton is director of Honolulu’s Department of Transportation Services, which will operate and maintain the rail line. Before the pandemic, commutes from West and Central O‘ahu into town could take hours. Morton says rail will be essential as thousands of new housing units are built in those areas.
“Can you imagine what that would do to our freeway?” he asks. “It would make the delays we have today look like fast transportation. So what are our options? Can we add 10 more lanes of freeway to H-1? If we did, how would we deal with that? Would we take out a portion of Farrington High School to widen the freeway? I mean when you think about it, it’s so impossible to even contemplate how we would accommodate all of the growth we expect if we relied upon that.
“Those are the big benefits I see for rail. And rail’s really not for me. I’m at the tail end of my career and probably my life. But for my keiki and my children and my grandchildren, we’re trying to preserve the island and keep it the way that folks want to keep it here.”
It’s a good bet that Honolulu would already have a fully operating rail system if City Council member Rene Mansho had not surprised everyone by changing her support for rail to a single decisive no vote in September 1992. Her change of heart reversed a 5-4 City Council majority in favor of rail and killed the project.
That failure was a key factor in a new funding strategy when Mufi Hannemann helped revive the rail dream more than a decade later.
Hannemann served as Honolulu’s mayor from 2005 to mid-2010 and is often considered the father of the current rail project.
“It has been around for a long, long time, the idea of having this kind of system built on O‘ahu,” says Hannemann, who spoke with Hawaii Business Magazine through emails and a phone interview.
As mayor, he was encouraged by then- Gov. Linda Lingle to take up the project and convinced the 2005 state Legislature to let O‘ahu enact a 0.5% general excise tax surcharge to help pay for rail.
Frank Fasi had tried a different strategy when he was mayor: He secured federal funding first. He was also on track to get City Council approval for a 0.5% GET rail surcharge to pay for the county’s share of rail’s cost when Mansho changed her vote, which killed the local funding and derailed the project.
Hannemann says that’s why he sought local funding for rail first. “To restore credibility in this project in D.C. amongst federal transit officials and, of course, in close consultation with Sen. (Daniel K.) Inouye, who had always been a strong supporter of rail, I told them we had to reverse the strategy by showing what we were prepared to do upfront and demonstrate there is local support this time around,” he says.
From 2005 to 2008, Honolulu completed studies to analyze possible traffic solutions and then chose the specific rail system to build: a fixed guideway between Kapolei and UH Mānoa.
Honolulu later agreed it should stop the line at Ala Moana Center because the longer route would cost more than the GET surcharge revenue would bring in, along with any funds expected from the federal government and other sources. In 2008, Honolulu voters agreed the project should proceed and authorized a steel-wheel-on-steel-rail system.
“As I’ve said before, rail was not on my priority mayoral agenda at that moment,” Hannemann writes. “But with the governor expressing her support, and the Legislature promptly agreeing to adopt a measure permitting the county governments to add a half-percent general excise tax surcharge for transportation projects, I decided there couldn’t have been stronger signals to proceed.”
He adds that many county officials in his administration worked on the original project under mayors Fasi and Jeremy Harris, so the expertise was in place to begin planning.
The city’s goal for the “shovel-ready” 20-mile elevated rail project was to be on time, on budget and on schedule, Hannemann said during his “State of the Rail Transit” speech on Oct. 29, 2009 – one week after the city awarded the project’s first construction contract.
Those objectives were never reached. A January 2019 state audit reported that the speech “was only the beginning of a pattern of rail officials pledging the Honolulu Rail Transit Project would be built cheaper and faster than was reasonably foreseeable at the time.”
“We found that, from the beginning, unrealistic deadlines and revenue projections resulted from a desire to demonstrate that the project was progressing satisfactorily and to minimize public criticism, which could have eroded support for the project,” the state audit reported. “As the project progressed, the information disclosed to the public often contradicted internal projections, obscured the extent of the project’s financial problems, or was disclosed much later than known to rail officials. As a result, the costs have increased and the completion date has been delayed, and public confidence in the Project has deteriorated.”
The state’s largest public works project is now estimated to cost about $12 billion – 136% more than estimated when the full funding grant agreement was signed in 2012. These numbers include the project’s base cost, plus contingency and Federal Full Funding Grant Agreement finance charges. That agreement says those finance charges should be paid by HART before the project is finished or before all federal funds are paid to HART – whichever occurs later.
The first contracts were awarded just as Hawai‘i was coming out of the Great Recession. Hannemann writes one reason for the higher costs stemmed from a year-and-a-half delay starting in 2012 due to a lawsuit over the project not completing an archaeological study of the project’s entire route before starting construction. That pause meant construction labor and material costs had increased significantly by the time construction resumed. From 2012 through the fourth quarter of 2016, Honolulu had the highest construction costs among major U.S. cities, according to HART’s 2019 recovery plan. Land values also climbed, resulting in increased right-of-way acquisition costs, Hannemann adds.
Procurement, contract administration and execution inefficiencies also added to higher costs, Hannemann writes. For example, the contract to build the nine westernmost rail stations was originally put out as one large procurement. But because bids came in significantly higher than expected, it was canceled and repackaged into three smaller contracts, which added more time to the project and increased costs.
Project Status as of July 31, 2021
|Overall project status:||62.8%
|Guideway in place:||76.5%
(15.34 of 20.05 miles)
|Stations substantially complete:||9 of 21
|Vehicles delivered:||68 of 80
|Funding shortfall:||$3.5 billion
The difference between projected revenue and costs
What the Rail was Expected to Cost vs. What it Costs as of July 31, 2021
The rail was forecast to cost much less when the City and County of Honolulu and the Federal Transit Administration signed a Full Funding Grant Agreement in December 2012. Today, the project’s cost has more than doubled, and the completion date has been pushed back 11 years.
Were the True Costs Underreported?
Joe Uno, a former HART board member, says one of the biggest problems has been that HART has consistently underreported the true cost of rail in its budgets for political reasons.
“One thing I’ve said a number of times, one of my observations, is that … this is not a transportation project, it’s not an engineering or construction project – it’s a political project,” says Uno, president and founder of J. Uno & Associates, a construction cost-consulting firm. He served on the HART board from July 2020 to August 2021.
“So sometimes objective reality, like the actual cost of a segment of concrete, isn’t reported properly because it’s a political thing to say it’s $12 billion and it’s also a political thing to say it’s $8 billion. It’s a political thing to say it’s $12 billion and ‘don’t worry we’ll find the money.’ To me, there’s not a whole lot of reality to that.”
He adds that he’s not saying that people are lying: “I haven’t been presented with that information yet.”
Lori Kahikina, HART’s interim executive director and CEO, says the project management oversight company hired by the Federal Transit Administration worried that earlier cost estimates may have been too low. So, when she and first deputy executive director and COO Rick Keene joined the rail authority at the beginning of 2021, they asked HART’s project management team to include every known risk and contingency in an updated cost estimate.
That estimate came to $11.37 billion, plus another $1 billion in estimated finance costs. At the end of 2020, before the update, the HART estimate was $9.13 billion with about $800 million in estimated finance costs.
“It didn’t just balloon in the three months – because we announced it in March – that Rick and I came here,” she says. “I think the numbers prior were too aggressive, and maybe our numbers are too conservative. But I did not want to keep coming out to the public and saying, ‘Oh, it’s not 9, it’s 10.’ ‘Oh it’s not 10, it’s 11.’ And I just didn’t want to do that.”
Evaluating the Estimates
Not everyone agrees the earlier estimates were off. Toru Hamayasu had a 40-year career in city transportation, beginning in 1972 as a civil engineer. He also established the city’s rapid transit division and oversaw the rail project until retiring in 2012 after a year as HART’s interim executive director. He and Hannemann believe the original estimates were done correctly.
They say the proof is that the Federal Transit Administration’s independent consultant conducted its own cost and schedule estimates and concluded that Honolulu’s were within 1% of its own estimates, on the low side. The Federal Transit Administration would not have approved the Federal Full Funding Grant Agreement “if they were not completely satisfied with our work,” Hamayasu says. The FTA agreed to commit $1.55 billion in federal funds to the project.
Other reasons for the higher cost reported in March 2021 include the addition of industry pricing of the City Center segment and its projected delays. In 2020, HART and the city tried to have a public- private partnership build the guideway and stations from Middle Street to Ala Moana Center and operate and maintain the line for 30 years. HART thought the work could be done for $1.4 billion, but industry bids came in a little over $2.7 billion. The public-private partnership contract was canceled in November 2020.
Uno says he encouraged HART to provide more realistic cost and schedule estimates while he served on the board. HART now knows how much it actually costs to build a station and other vertical elements, so those numbers should be used in cost estimates. The cost of horizontal construction elements are harder to define, he says. Underlying geology can cause difficulties, and underground utilities may not be accurately documented, which is what HART is experiencing as it tries to relocate utilities along the City Center segment.
That section is probably the most challenging part of the project, Kahikina says. Nan Inc. was awarded a contract in 2018 to complete that relocation work, which was originally expected to cost up to $400 million. But work stalled in 2020 when city officials expressed doubts about the designs and requested variances; HART is working now on those redesigns. HART also reported that it underestimated how much it would cost to relocate utilities along the 4-mile segment.
The Nan contract was canceled in 2021 after the company completed about 8% of the work in the City Center segment at a cost of $100 million, Kahikina says.
She adds that utility designs for the area between Ka‘a‘ahi Street in Iwilei and Kona Street by Ala Moana Center are now complete – an accomplishment she credits to the relationships between HART, city departments, third-party utilities and other partners. HART had previously spent 10 years trying to finish the utility relocation designs. Now it has started to solicit bids for the relocation work in that area.
Designs for the Dillingham Boulevard section are still being developed as HART prepares to shift the guideway mauka of Dillingham Boulevard, a move that is estimated to save $150 million.
Nathaniel Meddings, HART’s director of project controls, says the biggest risk to whether rail meets its 2031 completion date is the design and construction of the utility relocations on Dillingham Boulevard.
“That is almost a four-year construction duration,” he says. “So the efficient execution of that is very, very important to the HART project, and any days saved on Dillingham and design and construction is a day saved on the project.”
Rising Costs of the Rail’s City Center Segment
This segment consists of eight stations and four miles of elevated guideway.
April 2015: $912 million for the City Center Guideway.
May 2016: $1.3 billion for the City Center Guideway and Stations.
September 2018: $1.4 billion for the City Center Guideway and Stations, plus the Pearl Highlands Parking Garage and Transit Center. The HART board approved this month the solicitation of a public-private partnership to help pay for this section. HART set a cap of $1.72 billion for what it was able to pay for this work.
November 2020: $2.3 billion HART told its board of directors that it would cost $2.3 billion to build that section. HART ultimately decided to cancel the P3 procurement.
December 2020: HART reported that it received bids from two private-sector teams: $2.775 billion by City Center Connection Group (Dragados, Hawaiian Dredging Construction Co. and Obayashi Design Group) and $2.730 billion by Imua Transit Honolulu (Tutor Perini Corp., Parsons Construction Group, Granite Construction Co. and Traylor Bros.). The two teams were made up of 30 companies, including subcontractors and financing firms. The bids included financing costs that the teams would have to pay on top of the base design and construction price.
Opponents of the project worry that costs will continue to rise.
Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who runs The Antiplanner blog, says cost overruns under 10% are reasonable and anything over 50% is “quite substantial.” Earlier this year, he published on his blog a policy brief that looked at 75 federally funded transit projects, comparing their predicted costs with their costs at completion.
“Frankly, I don’t think any rail projects in the U.S. should have been built in the last 40 years. … None of them should have been built,” he says. “The cities would have been better off without them, the transit riders would have been better off without them. So the fact that there were cost overruns, to me, only indicates the sneakiness and malevolence of the people who were planning these projects because they know there were going to be cost overruns. And they deliberately underestimate to get people to support them.”
Panos Prevedouros, who retired in October after a long tenure as a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UH Mānoa, expects the Honolulu project will exceed $13 billion by the time it’s finished. He ran for Honolulu mayor twice on an anti- rail platform.
“The big amount is that essentially the cost has doubled or further than double, and that’s a big failure,” he says, adding that he thinks fraud and incompetence are the reasons for the project’s cost overruns.
In 2019, the Honolulu City Council approved a resolution to have the city auditor’s office conduct an independent forensic audit of HART and the city’s procurement, contract awards and administration. According to the resolution, the council believed it could be possible that a “HART employee, consultant or contractor exploited internal control weaknesses to misappropriate public assets or commit other illegal actions and that these illegal actions may have contributed to the increase in the estimated costs of the rail project from $5.163 billion in 2012 to $9.181 billion in 2018.” Plans for this forensic audit were scrapped in 2020 because of the pandemic.
Joe Kent, executive VP of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a nonprofit policy research organization that led calls for the forensic audit, says the examination is still needed because it might find things that can help residents reassess whether the project is still worth it.
Middle Street Option
Prevedouros and Randall Roth, a retired UH law professor, have advocated for the project to pause at Middle Street. From there, they say, the rest of the route can be reassessed.
Roth, one of the plaintiffs in a 2011 federal lawsuit that attempted to halt the project, says he’s talked with many elected officials about rail and has encouraged them to consider opportunity costs when deciding rail’s future. For example, he’s said that other transit needs and improvements would probably be affordable only if rail ends outside the city’s urban core. Those improvements could include things like modernizing the city’s existing bus services and building a rail terminus that also serves as a state-of- the-art transfer facility.
“If our elected officials decide rail’s future based on an independent expert analysis of the viable options, that’s probably as good as it’s ever going to get,” he writes in an email. “I may not like their choice, but at least the process will be reasonably transparent and future accountability will be conceivable.”
HART has assessed the pros and cons of 27 other alternatives to its original plan, according to a rail report made public in spring 2021 through an open records request by the Grassroot Institute. Two alternatives included stopping rail at Middle Street and then switching to either bus rapid transit or to a lighter rail system to Ala Moana.
HART chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa adds the board discussed stopping at Middle Street at a June 2016 meeting when the project’s projected revenue was $6.8 billion and the projected cost was $7.97 billion. This was during her first stint as a HART board member and chairwoman. The board discussed its options for building for HART’s existing budget. Three of the options were to build to Middle Street and then either have a “guideway only” to the Ala Moana Center station (saving the construction of seven stations for later), continue with bus service, or continue with a street-level rail system. The other options included issuing public-private partnership solicitations for all 21 stations, changing the rail’s alignment from Dillingham Boulevard to Nimitz Highway, or constructing the project only as far as funding allows.
Transparency and Oversight
State Sen. Kurt Fevella, who represents ‘Ewa Beach and nearby areas, recalls being shown rail plans when he was ‘Ewa Beach Neighborhood Board chairman in the mid-2000s. He thought the project was a great idea because many of his constituents took public transportation to get to their jobs in hotels, at the airport or in other parts of the tourism industry.
He still supports the project but says more transparency and oversight are needed after seeing the rising costs and schedule delays, plus cancellation of the public-private partnership and ousting of HART CEO Andrew Robbins in 2020, and the firing of nearly half of HART’s staff. He also cites the offer to Hanabusa this year of a nearly $1 million multiyear consulting contract that looked like it was written specifically for her. Hanabusa declined the contract and accepted an appointment to HART’s board this summer.
“The community, especially my constituents, lost all trust in the project,” Fevella says. “So no matter what I say now it’s really hard because I’m battling with entities and things that are just pulling the rail project down, and it’s only raising the cost. And that’s the sad thing.”
Earlier this summer, Fevella called for the FBI, Federal Transit Administration and state attorney general’s office to investigate whether HART violated procurement laws while soliciting the consulting contract, as well as “possible criminal acts” by former HART chairman Toby Martyn while requesting approval for the city to issue and sell general obligation bonds to fund the project. He also wanted the agencies to look into possible Sunshine Law violations by Martyn and other board members, and has called for the resignation of some of the agency’s top officials.
Other project supporters agree HART needs to rebuild public trust, especially as it looks for ways to fill the $3.5 billion funding shortfall.
“Once the public loses that confidence or the public loses any belief the project serves a specific purpose, then its future becomes very difficult,” says Hanabusa, who was also a 2020 Honolulu mayoral candidate and a former U.S. congresswoman and state senator. “So I’ve always thought the most important thing they have got to build is public confidence.” The way to do that, she says, is by sharing accurate information.
She adds: “We’re trying to get to the point where we can answer and be more transparent with a lot of these issues for the public because they’re the ultimate people we have to convince that this is a good project. We haven’t lost sight that that’s our responsibility and where our duty lies, but it’s a matter of us getting to the point where we understand who does what, what is the board’s responsibility, what is the HART agency’s responsibility.”
Joey Manahan, director of government relations and public involvement at HART, writes in an email that Kahikina is committed to transparency and the elimination of silos internally within the authority and externally with stakeholders.
“Kahikina recognizes that many pre-existing issues were self-inflicted by HART, which has earned HART a negative reputation,” he writes. “Under Kahikina, legal disputes, cost overruns, mistakes and delays are being addressed head on.” He adds that Kahikina has pared down redundant and costly staff and contracts, which will save millions of taxpayer dollars over the long run.
Hannemann, who unsuccessfully ran for Honolulu mayor in 2020, writes that he doesn’t think there’s a magic solution, but HART should work “tirelessly with new Honolulu Mayor (Rick) Blangiardi to re-establish its credibility and standing for the rail project, in the community and the halls of government at all levels.”
He says HART will have difficulty getting additional financing from the city until residents actually start riding the train and benefiting from it. Because of that, he says HART should focus on opening the first 10-mile segment as soon as possible.
Fevella agrees. “I mean even though that’s a lot of money, at least their money is being spent and they can see that there is productivity on the project,” he says. “Right now, all they see is in the news, money is switching here, oh we don’t have money for the project but then we’re offering big million-dollar contracts for consultants and all these kine pilikia, all these kine problems. They don’t want to see that.”
Some supporters compare rail to the H-3 Freeway, which was formerly the state’s largest public works project at a cost of $1.3 billion and completed in 1997. Developer Stanford Carr, who has built two affordable housing projects and one mixed-use condo near the planned rail line in Kaka‘ako, says a lot of people opposed the H-3 when it was being planned and built. Yet today, he says, many O‘ahu residents can’t live without it. He argues it’ll be the same for rail– it just needs to demonstrate its ability to help improve people’s quality of life. Carr is also the chairman of Move O‘ahu Forward, a coalition of local business and community members who support rail.
How the Rail is Being Paid For
Most of this project’s funding comes from local sources. The City and County of Honolulu began collecting revenues from the 0.5% general excise tax surcharge in 2007. That surcharge was supposed to expire at the end of 2022, but in 2015 HART asked the Legislature for a five-year extension. In 2017, the Legislature granted a second extension of the GET surcharge, plus a 1 percentage point increase in the state transient accommodations tax. Both surcharges now expire at the end of 2030.
Amount Spent on the Project as of July 31, 2021
◼ $2,909,020,697 on construction
◼ $1,499,408,941 on professional services
◼ $193,232,329 on right of ways, land and existing improvements
◼ $171,807,265 on vehicles
◼ $79,879,282 on finance charges
Filling the Funding Gap
Construction on the project continues to push ahead and yet a big question remains: How will HART fill that $3.5 billion funding shortfall?
Most of the project’s money comes from general excise tax and transient accommodations tax surcharges that expire in 2030. HART first deputy executive director and COO Rick Keene says the pandemic’s economic downturn has reduced the project’s tax revenues, though the loss isn’t as bad as initially thought. When the pandemic started, HART expected those revenues to fall about $435 million below pre-pandemic forecasts. Hawai‘i’s economy proved more resilient than expected, so when HART updated its forecast over the summer the decrease was $270 million.
“We have seen a bounce back on that,” he says. “But all in all, we will be impacted somewhat by revenues. That’s frankly a small portion of the funding gap that we’ve been talking about. The biggest impact on us and our look forward as we look at costs, it’s really the cost side that’s driving that more so than the funding side.”
HART is working with the city’s administration and council chairman Tommy Waters to see what it can afford with the funds it has now and what other sources of funding could be used. These discussions are also happening at the federal and state levels. Earlier this year, HART received $70 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to help it cover some of the lost tax revenue.
A new state law lets the county levy its own 3% transient accommodations tax, or TAT (sometimes called the hotel room tax), and HART hopes part of that goes to rail, Keene says.
Hannemann argues that HART should do a better job of making the case to extend the GET surcharge beyond 2030 or have it available for rail’s operation and maintenance in the future, as other cities have done.
HART has asked the city several times to borrow money on its behalf to help finance the rail’s construction. The city has done that through bonds and tax-exempt debt, which will need to be repaid by HART’s GET and TAT revenues, plus its federal grants. At the end of July 2021, the rail project had about $1 billion in outstanding debt – all of it in general obligation bonds.
“The sunset date on GET and TAT is at the end of fiscal 2030, so some of the funds probably won’t actually come into HART until early 2031, but they sunset into 2030,” Keene says. “Therefore, all of our debt has to be repaid by that point.”
He adds this is unlike other cities and other countries that do long-term, expensive and complicated infrastructure projects. Most of those projects are funded with long-term financing.
“We’re paying for it completely, right now anyway under the current scenario, we’re paying for it by 2030,” he says. “So it’s a very expensive project being paid for on a very short-term basis, which is one of the issues in trying to get enough funding to cover it in a short time frame.”
Not everyone is convinced the project has a $3.5 billion shortfall. Hanabusa says she’s made it clear since she’s been back on the board that she thinks that number is “overly conservative.”
If the actual deficit turns out to be less than $3.5 billion, she says, it will be hard to convince people that is true.
The project has so far incurred almost $5 billion in spending, she says, yet the project’s current contingency is comprised of $1.6 billion. This is money built into the budget that covers unexpected expenses, like change orders that occur after contracts are awarded. She questions whether the $1.6 billion in contingency spending is needed when the project has already made so much progress and almost three-quarters of the construction contracts have been awarded.
“What I tell people is if we can’t build rail with more accuracy than that, then there’s something wrong with us,” she says.
As early as April 2022
When interim service between Kapolei and Aloha Stadium is currently projected to start. Roger Morton, director of the city Department of Transportation Services, says whether that projection is met depends on Hitachi, the core systems contractor, completing three months of nonstop continuous field testing and certification. That testing is scheduled to begin in January 2022.
For rail operations and maintenance of the rail segment from East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium in FY 2022, according to DTS. Of that amount, $16,255,000 is for electricity to power the rail.
Morton, the city’s transportation services director, says one rationale for rail is that Honolulu’s current public transportation system has been hampered by increasing traffic congestion on the roads.
And while Honolulu had the fifth-highest per-capita transit ridership in the country before the pandemic, the number of people riding TheBus system has declined over the last 10 years, following a national trend. He expects rail will help improve those numbers once the line is fully built to Ala Moana Center.
Jon Nouchi, deputy director of the city’s Department of Transportation Services, writes in an email that the city’s bus system has historically focused on bringing people to and from downtown Honolulu. But since the 2000s, the department has pivoted the bus system to allow travel within communities outside of downtown Honolulu and Kapolei, while also maintaining heavily used long-distance routes. “
As we prepare for rail opening in phases, we will see continuous change in our supportive TheBus network,” he writes. “First changes will come as rail opens between East Kapolei and Aloha Stadium; many new mauka-makai circulators will be implemented to bring passengers to and from the rail alignment.”
He adds in a Zoom interview that discussions about rail often degrade into arguments about rail versus other modes of transportation. He says that’s the wrong argument. Because the trains will run on an elevated guideway, passengers will have certainty about their travel times, something they don’t have with the bus or a car. Rail also adds a transit option so people can mix and match. For example, if there’s an accident on the highway, commuters who normally drive can take the rail instead.
“We have park ’n’ rides that are being built to this project that we want people to be able to drive their cars to the rail station, take it to wherever they got to go, but they come back, they have their car, they can run the same errands, they can pick up their same children, they can do everything that they need to, but the worst part of the journey has been made certain,” he says.
Hamayasu, the former HART interim executive director, says that while he is disappointed with the project’s increased costs and delays, it should still be completed, but with a much closer eye on what HART is doing. And the public should demand accountability.
“We are in a difficult situation with the cost and schedule overrun, but if we think about the future of the island, there’s no turning back or cutting short of what we are trying to achieve,” he says. “There’s no other workable alternative.”
When It’s Done
When the full 20-mile line is built, the rail is expected to take 100,000 passengers across Honolulu. Here are some other facts about the finished rail project.
|42 minutes||How long it will take to travel from the Kualaka‘i Station in East Kapolei to the Kalia Station at Ala Moana Center. This includes the time spent at the stations for passengers to board and deboard the trains.|
|40,000 trips||The number of estimated car trips the rail will eliminate from Oʻahu’s roads.|
|Hālaulani Station at Leeward Community College||This is the only at-grade (ground level) station along the rail line. The rest will be elevated.|
|4,100 parking spaces||The number of parking spaces that will be provided at four park-and-ride facilities along the rail.
|30 mph||The average speed trains will have, including time spent stopped at stations.|
|More than 100,000||The estimated number of passenger boardings every weekday in 2031 when the rail is expected to be fully operational.|
|55 mph||The top speed trains will have.|
|80 train cars||Number of train cars in the rail’s fleet. About 17 four-car trains will be in operation during peak travel periods.|
|4 a.m. to midnight||Trains will operate daily and arrive at stations every 5 minutes during peak travel times and every 11 minutes during other times.|
|800 passengers||Number of passengers that can fit on a four-car train. This is equivalent to the capacity of 10 city buses.|
|$3 fare||The cost of a one-way fare to ride the rail as of July 1, 2022. Roger Morton, director of Honolulu’s Department of Transportation Services, says fares for the bus and rail will be the same.|
There’s more readers should know about Honolulu’s rail project. The next section will tell you about the three largest rail contracts, the companies making the most money from this project and the impact that change orders have had on the project’s cost.
Later, we compare Honolulu’s cost overrun to a handful of other federally funded transit projects, walk you through some of the project’s major milestones and tell you about the designs on some of the rail columns.
Up Next: We looked through the project’s publicly available documents to identify the biggest contracts and how much they cost. Click here to read more >>
It’s common for rail projects to have cost overruns, but few are as large as Honolulu’s. Click here to read more >>
We tracked some of the project’s major milestones, including cost increases, funding deficits, lawsuits and voter input. Click here to read more >>
Honolulu has talked about building a rail system since 1967. Click here to read more >>
Engraved columns depict legends and unique elements of each station area. 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.
Sources for Infographics
We pulled information from many sources to create these infographics. They include:
- Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project Alternatives Analysis report, October 2006
- Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project Draft Environmental Impact Statement, November 2008
- Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project Final Environmental Impact Statement, June 2010
- Honolulu City Council Records Collection
- Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation website and online collection of publicly available documents
- Monthly progress reports
- Financial updates
- Contract agreements
- Project Management Oversight Consultant reports
- Recovery plans
- State and county audits of the rail project
- Interviews with former and current HART and Honolulu Department of Transportation Services officials, lawmakers, HART board members and others knowledgeable about the rail project
- Archives of Hawaii Business Magazine, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Honolulu Advertiser, Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Honolulu Magazine, Hawaii News Now, Pacific Business News and Honolulu Civil Beat