» Front runner in mayoral contest opposes rail project. But it’s already under construction.
In 2008, Honolulu’s citizens approved the construction of a new high-capacity rail line that would provide quick public transportation along the city’s coastline. The $5.3-billion, 20-mile project is one of the largest in the nation, but it is backed by a steady source of local revenues and the almost definite promise of a federal New Starts capital grant that will cover about a third of costs. Moreover, it has held the support of the city’s leaders consistently since 2005, when pro-rail Mayor Mufi Hannemann entered office. The project broke ground last year.
After the mayoral primary earlier this month, however, the project’s future is decidedly up in the air. Current mayor Peter Carlisle, a major supporter of the project, received only 23% of the vote and will not make it to the second round. On the other hand, former Hawaii Governor Ben Cayetano received 45% of the ballot; he has made his opposition to the rail project one of the primary arguments of his campaign; he has promoted the implementation of a bus rapid transit system instead. In the second round this November, Cayetano will face former city manager and rail supporter Kirk Caldwell, who received 29% of the vote.
Caldwell faces an uphill climb in his effort to convince the city’s citizens to vote for him and keep the rail project going. Not only did he receive a small percentage of the vote (though the low primary turnout might be a factor), but the city council is wavering on its support for the line. A lawsuit raising questions over environmental reporting is in court this week. The rail line’s elevated guideways — which have been a point of criticism for the project for years — continue to raise public fears about the project’s suitability to the city’s natural beauty. And recent polls have showed than about half of the population thinks the program should be stopped.
Mayor Carlisle, now a lame duck, says he will “do everything [he] can to get rail far enough along so that it cannot possibly be stopped,” but Cayetano election would certainly raise questions about whether the line has the local support necessary to finalize federal grants — particularly if anti-rail former Governor Linda Lingle becomes the state’s newest U.S. Senator this fall. Cayetano claims that he will use construction contract termination clauses to cancel the program. The whole situation is a reminder of the paralyzing indecision and backtracking that too often marks U.S. politics. Will Honolulu’s rail project replicate the story of the ARC tunnel, New Jersey’s new rail connection to New York that was cancelled in 2010 by Governor Chris Christie after construction had begun?*
There are two problems standing in the way of cancelling the rail line, though: One, the project will provide dramatically improved transit service in a city that arguably is perfect for a major fixed-guideway transit line of this sort; and two, the project is already under construction and billions of dollars have already been committed — more even than had been for the ARC project.
Honolulu’s geography, in which a relatively dense population is mostly packed up in a two-mile wide strip against the sea, makes it ideal for a fixed guideway route of the sort being proposed. The 20-mile, 21-station automated rail project will allow people to get from Kapolei, on the west side of Oahu, to downtown in roughly 45 minutes, faster than is possible today at rush hour on the congested highways serving the island. Trains will serve Waipahu, Pearl Harpor, and the city’s airport. Honolulu expects the project to serve 116,300 daily passengers by 2030.
That may seem like a lot for a relatively small city (fewer than 400,000 inhabitants), but Honolulu’s bus services already attract more than 200,000 daily riders and the metropolitan area features the fourth-highest transit trips per capita in the country according to a recent study, after New York, San Francisco, and Washington — and before very transit-oriented regions like Boston and Chicago. The Census notes that around 13% of workers already use transit. Thus there is a rich base of potential riders for the new rail network.
The likely success of the system has encouraged the city to complete it as quickly as possible. As can be seen in the recent photograph at the top of this article, there is already significant construction underway, including $429 million already expended. $905 million in local funds have already been collected, about 25% of the total needed to build the line. In the context of a potential cancellation, however, the figure that stands out most prominently is the $2.029 billion already committed to construction contracts. The first segment of the system is expected to be ready for service by 2015, with an additional extension opening in 2017 and the full line completed two years after that.
There are thus many unanswered questions about the feasibility of simply cancelling the project, even if Cayetano wins the election. Will the city simply tear down the sections of the line that have already been completed? Can the money already committed to construction contractors be refunded? More importantly in terms of getting people around the island, will a replacement bus rapid transit system — running in existing “zipper” lanes on the city’s freeways — be able to attract nearly as many new passengers as the rail line would, let alone have the capacity to carry them? And is there even money available to fund such a BRT project in a reasonably short amount of time?
We don’t know. That’s the question Honolulu voters face: Is their disapproval of the current designs for the rail project strong enough to risk abandoning improved transit service for years or even decades? Are they willing to sacrifice hundreds of millions of dollars of already spent money for naught?
* For the purposes of other research, I happened upon the following quote from 1975 that I found relevant to the Honolulu situation. Clearly, matters haven’t changed much in forty years:
“The “fickleness” or inability of local governments to behave with any degree of constancy and long-term commitment raises important questions about the viability of a program of this kind under our system [i.e., the American system]. The inability of one group of elected officials to bind their successors is… complicating attainment of the Act’s objectives.”
Source: Report of Panel on Title VII New Communities Program. A Report Prepared at the Request of the Honorable Thomas L. Ashley, Committee on Banking and Currency, U.S. House of Representatives. Columbus, OH: Academy for Contemporary Problems. June 1975.
Update, 21 August: In the original version, Mr. Caldwell’s name was in the place of Mr. Cayetano’s in two places.
Image at top: Construction underway on Honolulu rail project in West Oahu, from Honolulu Rail Transit