Honolulu rail a ‘political project’ that’s ready for a remake

The commentary below was Keli’i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for April 16, 2021. If you would like to have his columns emailed to you on a regular basis, please call 808-864-1776 or email info@grassrootinstitute.org.

When will Hawaii’s leadership acknowledge that it’s time for new thinking on the Honolulu rail boondoggle?

In 2006, we were told the rail would only cost about $2.5 billion. Fifteen years later, we’re being told that it’s still 10 years from completion and likely to cost $12.4 billion or more.

We’re at the point where we could have constructed multiple public works projects, renovated the airport and helped local workers deal with the fallout from the coronavirus lockdowns — all for the cost of one unfinished mass transit system.

Earlier this week, I spoke with professional cost estimator Joe Uno, a board member of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which is in charge of the Honolulu rail project. As the guest on my Hawaii Together program on ThinkTech Hawaii, he spoke with me in his personal capacity as a concerned citizen who has a unique insight into the issues with the rail.

Uno, appointed to the HART board in July 2020, has been familiar with the rail’s budget problems for years. In 2008, he testified to the City Council Transportation Committee, informing its members that the then-estimated rail cost of $3.6 billion was less than half what it should have been. At the time, he expected the rail to cost more than $7.5 billion. The committee’s response?

“Thank you, Mr. Uno. Next?”

Uno said he has come to the conclusion that the rail is neither a construction project nor a transportation project. Instead, it is “a political project” — one in which all concerns about costs, waste and transparency are subordinate to political goals.

“Right now,” he said, “it’s all about politics. And when you turn it into a political project, it loses any semblance of reason that one might use as a metric to chart the progress or make decisions — decisions based on cost-benefit ratios, decisions based on true, updated ridership projections and the like. … It’s all about people’s political ambitions, I think, and as such, it has a completely different metric now.”

Uno said he believes HART is partly to blame for the lack of trust in the city government, and that the rail project needs more transparency.

“The public deserves to know the truth about the rail,” he said, “about how it’s financed, about what our future indebtedness is going to be.”

Uno also noted the many changes that have occurred during the past year. The state’s economic collapse has put incredible financial stress on the rail and the state as a whole, and the increased cost estimate is made worse by the fact that there will be a $3.5 billion shortfall unless additional revenue sources are found.

Plus, things have changed since the rail was first conceived. Technology is changing mass transit, and that will affect the system’s ridership projections, which some believe were inflated to begin with.

Perhaps most important, “We don’t have any design or construction contracts beyond that east of Middle Street at this point,” Uno said. “It’s a perfect storm — things that just come together, the pandemic, the slowdown in the money, and the riderships. Those are all coming together at the same time,” giving us “a real inflection point” to pause and rethink the rail.

“I think that this is a real opportunity,” said Uno. “We at HART should take the position that we are trying to build a multimodal public mass transit system,” one that includes buses, autonomous vehicles and “the rail up until Middle Street, perhaps.”

There’s already a transit station at Middle Street, he said, and, “There may be opportunities there at Lagoon Drive also. That’s a nice, opportune place to get on the freeway and go down Nimitz.”

Uno said some people still want the rail to go all the way to its original end point at Ala Moana Center, claiming it is necessary if we are to receive the balance of $755 million in promised federal funds — and not have to pay back $800 million that we’ve already used.

Uno countered that he believes the federal government probably would be willing to work with Honolulu officials to develop a true multimodal public mass transit system.

“I don’t think that they’re going to sue us and get all the money back,” he said. “I characterize that as the boogeyman that [is brought] out all the time to scare people into thinking that we have to go all the way to Ala Moana or else.”

And even if the federal government did want to get all its money back, Uno said, the math would be in Honolulu’s favor.

“If you, say, stop at Middle Street, and you had to pay back the $800 million, wouldn’t that be a better solution than going into debt another $3.5 billion? That’s over four times the loss. The math just doesn’t work out very well.”

As Uno made clear on my program, the Honolulu rail is ready for a “Plan C,” featuring transparency and accountability and an end to pouring taxpayer dollars into a project that has completely jumped the track.

Better to stop for a moment and formulate a solution that serves Hawaii’s mass transit needs without running us into endless debt.

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