Elections Honolulu Metro Rail

Honolulu’s Rail Project Back in the Crossfire This Fall

» 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

Honolulu Metro Rail

Rapid Transit Closer to Realization as Honolulu’s Rail Project Breaks Ground

» $5.5 billion, automated rail corridor is expected to attract 100,000 daily riders once it is completed in 2019.

A week after the Federal Transit Administration recommended it for New Starts funding, Honolulu’s rapid transit project took a step forward today with a ceremonial groundbreaking. The massive scheme, which will extend 20 miles from downtown to East Kapolei once construction is finished in 2019, will radically redefine transport on Oahu, offering residents a true alternative to traffic-plagued surface streets and highways.

Honolulu and the surrounding municipalities — incorporated into Honolulu County — are hemmed in by a geography whose natural barriers make the tropical metropolis practically ideal for fixed-guideway transit like the system that is now being designed. With mountains to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south, there is little room for the city to expand, so the only place it can go is up. The “Manhattanization” of downtown and nearby Waikiki over the past few decades is representative of this trend. And transit is a popular way to get around — The Bus, the local transit agency, carries 236,000 daily riders, and the city has a transit work commute share of more than 10%, which is the highest of any major city without rail in the United States and about the same as the City of Portland.

Honolulu is not enormous: The city (officially, the Census-designated place) has about 375,000 residents while the island as a whole has 900,000. But the deficit of space means there is no room for expanded roads infrastructure, and the lack of adequate public transit infrastructure operating in its own guideway poses a serious threat to the health of the region. Without better transportation, the city will not be able to densify further. Current decentralization trends, pushing habitation into previously untouched parts of the island, will be unstoppable.

Thus the likely commitment of the federal government to the rail project sometime in the next year or so is good news for Honolulu and Hawai’i as a whole, since the city serves as the state’s economic engine. Of $5.5 billion in construction costs to cover the 20 miles and 21 stations, Washington proposes to contribute $1.55 billion ($250 million in Fiscal Year 2012) — as long as the New Starts program continues to be funded. The city, which introduced a 1/2¢ sales tax in 2005, will cover the rest. Real construction activity will not begin for several more months.

The alignment, which roughly parallels the curve of the south Oahu coast, hits most of the major destinations in the metropolitan area, including downtown, the airport, and two institutions of higher learning (including one now being built). Especially when considering already high ridership along similar routes, the 2030 estimates of 116,300 daily riders do not seem impossible. And relatively short extensions west into Kapolei, northeast to the University of Hawaii-Manoa, southeast to Waikiki, and north into the Salt Lake neighborhood would make the line even more desirable if they are ever funded and built.

Despite the clear need for improved transportation systems in Honolulu, however, the project’s gestation has been difficult. Previous rail transit proposals were cancelled in 1981 and 1992 and a planned bus rapid transit line was abandoned in 2004. The arrival of Mufi Hannemann in the mayor’s office in early 2005, though, brought significant political support for a new rail line. The mayor pushed through the transit tax and won a hard-fought election against a rail opponent in 2008, as well as a voter endorsement of the project. A fight with Governor Linda Lingle, who argued that the project was too expensive to justify its costs, ensued.

Yet the recent election of Governor Neil Abercrombie and Mayor Peter Carlisle, both of whom assumed office in 2010, represented a major step forward, as each have been solid defenders of the project. As construction moves forward, the city will benefit from this show of support from the municipal and state governments.

It is true that the project remains under debate on both aesthetic and land use grounds.

The elevated nature of the system has a number of advantages: It will allow trains to run much more quickly between the ends of the island (at almost 30 mph on average) than would be possible with an at-grade light rail corridor running through intersections, and it will offer automated trains, allowing high frequencies even off-peak (6 minute maximum) and lower labor costs because of the lack of train drivers.

Nonetheless, the elevated guideway will not be a particularly beautiful addition to the Hawai’i landscape, and in some places it could represent a barrier between the city and its waterfront. The alignment will require 20 residences and 66 businesses to be bulldozed. It is also expensive: A ground-level light rail line or a busway could probably be built for fewer funds. Yet neither would provide the kind of mobility benefits the automated rail line would.

Moreover, opponents of the project suggest that its appeal — fast transit times from downtown to the far west side of the island — will encourage sprawl in areas around the planned university and in Kapolei. Indeed, there are already proposals on the books for a giant project with thousands of homes that will shift patterns of house-building activity to this area. Is it worth paving over now-agricultural land for the purposes of building park-and-rides with the assumption that in the future these areas will become transit-oriented cities of their own?

But Doug Carlson, writing on his site, poses a different question: Does Honolulu have any choice? Given that the city will continue to increase in population, the number of automobiles running up and down its highways will only ramp-up as well. Assuming that growth is inevitable, the city might have no option but to promote new communities designed for commuting by public transit. In that case, this rail project seems completely justifiable.

Honolulu Metro Rail

It’s Governor Lingle versus Mayor Hannemann on Honolulu Rail Project

» The recession pushes the Governor to argue for changes, including a conversion from heavy rail to light rail; the Mayor of Honolulu stays the course.

At $5.35 billion, it was bound to provoke a fight.

Honolulu’s planned heavy rail transit system, which would run 20.2 miles between East Kapolei and Ala Mona Center by 2019, is expected to serve more than 100,000 daily riders along its 21-station elevated guideway. That is, if the city is able to secure a federal New Starts Full Funding Grant Agreement as planned in 2011, and as long as it is capable of maintaining adequate tax revenue to pay for the line.

That’s where Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle (R), now in the last year of her second term, and Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann (D), in the second year of his second term, strongly disagree. Whereas Mr. Hannemann is a strong proponent of the rail system and has campaigned repeatedly on behalf of the multi-billion-dollar project, Ms. Lingle — whose approval for the line is ultimately necessary for construction to begin — has become an opponent, arguing that it will be a top-heavy burden for the city’s taxpayers.

Though the line has been under consideration since the 1970s, Honolulu’s combined city/county council finally approved a financing mechanism and an alignment in 2005, with a 0.5% sales tax to pay for the project going into effect in 2007. Voters affirmed the project’s construction in a special referendum in November 2008 just as they were reelecting Mr. Hannemann. The Federal Transit Administration moved the project into preliminary engineering in summer 2009; construction is to begin later this year.

Yet Governor Lingle, who supported the project earlier in her career, is now making the rail line a political issue. With more than 70% of Hawaii’s population living in Honolulu County (co-terminus with the Island of Oahu), Ms. Lingle made clear last week that it is in the state’s best interest to move the project forward in a way that reflects the effects of the current recession, specifically a lower tax base. To support her position, the Governor is planning to play host next week to a conference by the American Institute of Architects’ Honolulu chapter, which is opposed to the project in its current form. She will also visit Washington in February to discuss the project with the FTA because of her conviction that Mr. Hannemann’s administration has been advancing a scheme for which the city will ultimately be unable to pay.

Ms. Lingle’s cost-cutting position is informed by the proposals being put forward by the AIA: Move the planned elevated rail line to ground level and convert from automated heavy rail technology to a light rail system powered by overhead catenary.

Mr. Hannemann has laughed away the term-limited Governor’s suggestions, but the Mayor will need to solidify his position if he intends to get his project off the ground. The FTA has repeatedly questioned whether the city will be able to fund the project. Because Honolulu is expecting New Starts grants, however, to cover only 29% of total costs (about $1.55 billion), the federal agency has continued to push forward the program with a “medium” cost-effectiveness rating. Despite falling tax revenue, the city has not had to adjust the project’s size significantly because of lower-than-expected construction contract costs.

As a result, the Mayor’s ambition for a rail line whose first phase would go into service in 2012 seems likely to be fulfilled, unless Ms. Lingle is able to raise enough concern at the FTA to put a halt to plans. For the sake of the mobility of Honolulu’s population, one hopes that she fails.

Indeed, it has become increasingly obvious that Ms. Lingle’s objections have as much to do with the project’s design as they do with its financing; the FTA has gotten better in recent years in getting transit project costs under control, and the Honolulu line does have more than $1 billion in contingencies built in already. The Governor’s support of a light rail alternative over the elevated heavy rail line planned would result in a far less-used project that would do far less to affect the island’s commuting patterns.

With the majority of its residents and workforce concentrated along its curved southern coast, Honolulu has an almost ideal population distribution for a major grade-separated transit line. As shown in the map below, density follows a thin corridor paralleling the coastline, a result of the protected mountain reserves north of the city center. The H-1 highway, the only major arterial that runs in the area and therefore the road that carries the majority of island automobile movement, is perpetually traffic-clogged. It would be very difficult to either expand the road or add bus rapid transit lanes because of the built-up nature of the areas around the road. The rail line would follow that linear density.

Ms. Lingle’s solution, which would transfer the elevated line to an on-the-ground light rail corridor, would potentially reduce the price of the line by more than half. But the street-running system promoted by the AIA would eliminate most of the time-saving advantages of the train. The planned system would reduce average transit commutes from Western Oahu to the urban core from 95 minutes today to 65 minutes, a massive improvement due to the 3 minute peak headways to be offered by the fast automated trains unaffected by interfering traffic. Light rail operating in the street, even with its own right-of-way, would be far slower; for example, the 20-mile Phoenix light rail system takes 1h05 to complete its journey, versus the 42 minutes projected for Honolulu’s slightly longer line.

If Honolulu’s estimates of 116,000 daily riders by 2030 seems unrealistic considering that the Phoenix line only attracts about 40,000, the 23-minute (35%) difference in travel time to be offered by the Hawaiian system may indicate that those numbers are too low; Vancouver’s heavy rail Canada Line, only 12 miles long and operating in a less dense area, is already attracting about 100,000 daily riders just a few months after opening. The fact that Honolulu’s population is heavily concentrated in single corridor that is expected to have 760,000 residents and 500,000 jobs by 2030 can’t hurt. Fourteen miles of planned extensions into Waikiki and to the University of Hawaii-Manoa will make the project all the more valuable.

A repeat of the situation in Miami and San Juan, the most recent American cities to build single-corridor heavy rail systems, seems unlikely, meaning that Honolulu shouldn’t hesitate in pushing forward its program. In each of those cities, lines were built at huge prices, but ridership has fallen significantly below expectations.

But the differences are substantial: neither of those projects managed to reach the urban core, significantly limiting work-based ridership; meanwhile, both Miami and San Juan are spread out in several directions from downtown, meaning that one transit line won’t solve many commuting problems. Honolulu’s uniquely linear development will make its rail line useful for a huge percentage of commutes, especially because trains will be substantially faster than automobiles following similar paths on congested roadways.

But those speeds will be only possible with a completely grade-separated line. Mayor Hannemann has to ensure that his vision of a truly rapid transit line is realized. Similarly, he must fight for the construction of all of the project’s 20.2 miles; since the line will only enter downtown in the final planned phase in 2019, it will not acquire its full utility until then. Once it does, however, the advantages of a grade-separated heavy rail line will be made manifest by the large number of commuters switching from their cars onto the train.

Of course, the AIA’s concerns about the visual impact of the line have some merit; there is little beautiful about the planned elevated structure (though the stations should be interesting). There are still plenty of ways to improve the project. As Jarrett Walker notes, elevated lines can add to the urban landscape, but as currently designed, the Honolulu project won’t do much.

Even if Honolulu does build the rail line with its ugly concrete pillars and guideway, though, it will offer far more benefits to the daily lives of Hawaiians than the at-grade light rail project Governor Lingle is now advocating, which will attract far fewer passengers because of its slower speeds. One hopes her objections are a simply a distraction before construction begins.

Images above: Planned Honolulu Rail Transit Map, from City of Honolulu; Population Density per Square Mile in Southern Oahu, from Social Explorer


Still in Planning, Ambitious Honolulu Rail Transit Project May be in Financial Trouble

Honolulu Rail Transit MapTax revenues fall short in paying for 20-mile system, connecting downtown with Kapolei.

Yesterday, the Honolulu Advertiser revealed that in May the city had reviewed the costs of its planned transit system and realized that revenues over a 13-year period would be short $500 million compared to previous estimates. The news came as a bombshell for proponents of the rail line, who have worked hard in recent months to defend the credibility of the project. It gives additional ammunition to opponents who still hope to prevent the project’s construction, and were able to harp on the city’s secrecy as evidence of corruption. Honolulu’s experience, however, is little different from that in most other American cities today suffering from the consequences of the recession.

Honolulu’s rail transit line, which was approved by voters last November, will connect East Kapolei with the airport and downtown on a 20-mile elevated route that will take 40 minutes to traverse. Serving the majority of the city’s major job and residential centers, the line will attract almost 100,000 daily passengers by 2030 and cost $5.3 billion to build; it will fully open in 2019. Around 30% of the project’s costs are expected to be covered by the Federal Transit Administration through the New Starts program, with the rest being paid for by a local 1/2¢ sales tax that was introduced in January 2007.

It’s on the revenue from that tax that the city’s transit troubles lie.

In the May document, the city acknowledged to the FTA that revenues were coming in far lower than initially assumed — $12 million a month, rather than the $16.5 million originally planned. This shortcoming is primarily the result of the recession; it has hurt Hawai’i particularly badly. By 2022, when the tax is to expire, the city will likely collect $500 million less than the $4.1 billion foreseen — that’s a huge chunk of the total needed for the rail line’s implementation.

The city has yet to admit that it lacks the funds to complete the rail line on time. The Advertiser report has been dismissed by both the local authorities and the FTA as out of date and inaccurate. The city has so far refused to update its financial plan, though construction will begin in December.

But all evidence suggests that Honolulu’s project will be significantly affected by the drop in sales tax returns currently being noticed by municipalities everywhere. Denver and Charlotte, among others, have had to delay or cancel elements of their capital plans. Honolulu will undoubtedly have to find new revenue sources or cut back on the size of the line. The report’s suggestions for solving the problem included increasing the federal share, reducing expenditures on buses, asking the airport or private investors for funds, creating a new tax, or extending the tax past 2022. The first and last options seem the most reasonable.

While the project itself is a good one — it will serve Hawai’i’s population well, and based on initial station designs, it will be a handsome addition to the cityscape — the local administration must be more transparent in its operations. It is not the city’s fault that sales tax revenues have come in below expectations. But it is the city’s fault that it has kept that fact secret from the citizenry. Looking for reasonable solutions to the problem, such as asking Washington for more money or delaying completion by a year or two, is the next step. But any advances should be made in public, not in secret reports.

Image above: Honolulu rail transit corridor map, from Honolulu Rail Transit


Is Elevated Acceptable?

Elevated Rail Guideway in HonoluluHonolulu debates the look of its future transit system.

Is a new high-capacity transit system worth the visual encumberments it will cause? Should the views of a beautiful tropical city be obstructed for the benefit of passengers on public transportation? That’s the question now being debated in Honolulu, which is planning an elevated rail line that will run throughout the city.

Hawaii’s biggest city is planning a 20-mile transit line, running from Kapolei in the west to Ala Moana Center downtown, via Waipahu and the airport. Honolulu’s density is high enough to require a rail system with a fully independent right-of-way; the city’s The Bus transit system already carries an average of 225,000 riders a day, and the new line is expected to transport a full 95,000 of those passengers by 2030. The first phase of the system is expected to be completed by 2018 at a cost of $5.8 billion, with construction possibly beginning late this year.

Yet, while the elevated alignment has been set in stone for more than a year now, the city’s chapter of the American Institute of Architects is now asking the city to run the system at ground level downtown so as not to obstruct views in that dense waterfront area. The architects argue that Honolulu’s landscape will be decimated by the concrete guideways. The elevated route would run on an aerial viaduct 30 feet off the ground (visualized in the before-and-after pictures above). An underground subway isn’t an economically realistic option.

The negative consequence of moving the trains to ground level would be significant: overall trip time would increase by 10 minutes and automated operation would be impossible. If current plans play out, on the other hand, Honolulu’s system would probably operate like Vancouver’s SkyTrain, which has driverless vehicles running on third rail electric current. More standard light rail lines require drivers and overhead catenary, both of which increase operating costs, but which allow for street-running trains.

There’s no doubt that the elevated guideways aren’t going to be pretty — nobody likes huge concrete bridges spanning neighborhoods, which may find themselves plunged into occasional daytime darkness depending on the position of the sun. In addition, stations will be more difficult to access because they’ll be elevated over the sidewalk.

But the advantages of overhead rails come in the form of speed, because a SkyTrain-like system never encounters traffic, whereas LRT lines are all too frequently delayed by vehicles getting in the way. Driverless systems also have higher and more stable acceleration rates. Transit’s travel time benefits over automobile commuting is debatable, reducing public transport’s attractiveness to potential riders. Any effort to increase the speed of transit offerings would likely increase the number of people switching modes.

It’s a wash, then.

Are there potential compromises? One option is opting for extensive viaduct treatments downtown that would make the elevated line look less imposing and sinister. If the city invested in exciting artwork and lighting treatments along the bottom of the guideway, an aerial track might be something of an attraction. Similarly, a ground-level line could function well if fully separated from automobile lanes and given traffic signal priority at every intersection, modifications that would eliminate at least some of that 10-minute gap between the two alignment options. On the other hand, that would require a significant drop in the level of service offered to car drivers in areas near the line, something that’s not the easiest thing for which to advocate.

No matter whether an elevated or ground line is picked, though, the city would do well to consider seriously about how to minimize its respective drawbacks. Without that thinking process, Honolulu won’t get as good of a transit corridor as it deserves.

Image above: from Honolulu Star-Bulletin