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Why we need to press ‘pause’ on the Honolulu rail project

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Another year, another interview about Honolulu’s seriously troubled rail system — the problem that won’t go away!

But for a change, we seem to be at a moment when hitting the “pause” button on the most expensive megaproject per capita in the world makes a lot of sense.

Hawaii’s most popular morning radio host, Michael W. Perry, leader of “Perry & The Posse” on KSSK 92.3 FM, invited Grassroot Institute of Hawaii President Keli’i Akina on his show recently to talk all about it.

The starting point for the conversation was a formerly secret document obtained by the institute that shows the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation has been looking at 27 route, station and technological alternatives to the current rail plans: a steel-on-steel elevated train system running from Kapolei to Ala Moana. Currently way over budget and way behind schedule, it has made it as far as the Middle Street area, while the most difficult portion of the route, Dillingham Boulevard and Downtown Honolulu, looms ahead.

In addition, the train still isn’t operational; the latest problem is its wheels are too thin for the tracks. Also, a new report shows ridership projections have been revised downward, but so far the HART chief, who recently talked about it publicly, has not made the details of that report public.

Enjoy the interview anyway. A full transcript is below.

Michael W. Perry: KSSK radio. And, you know, we try to bring some of the smartest people in Hawaii onto this program. We’ve got one for you. This gentleman has been on the show many times: Dr. Keli’i Akina from Grassroot Institute. Dr. Akina, how you doing?

Keli‘i Akina: Michael, aloha. It’s great to be with you on a Friday always.

Perry: Fridays are just terrific by themselves, actually. You don’t even need to be here. You’ve been making waves all over the place. I saw an article in Travel Weekly that featured your quotes about our pathetic cruise ship industry and how the various dumb laws that are still on the books have affected us in Hawaii and Alaska with cruise ships. The tsunami you created, the big wave, however, was about rail, our wonderful choo-choo train. It wasn’t that Hanabusa’s juicy contract is now no more; it was, you swatted some sort of a wasp’s nest because you got a hold of a secret document from the HART people, the people who run rail. What’s that all about?

Akina: Michael, we filed an open records request and made HART hand over a document marked “Confidential, not for distribution.” We read it and it really surprised us. The document analyzed the pros and cons of the original rail plan and to get Ala Moana that everybody knows about. But it mapped out 27 alternative plans that people haven’t heard about. And here’s the irony. HART has publicly been saying that we have to stick with the original unaffordable plan of going to Ala Moana, but all along, it’s been looking at other options.

Perry: Well, why should something that we’re paying for be secret from us?

Akina: Well, that’s a great question. Obviously, there’s something they didn’t want us to know. The document takes a look at a wide range of alternatives. Some of them involve some big changes, like moving the guideway, building subway lines or incorporating different technologies. Michael, here’s some of the most interesting: Terminate the rail at Middle Street and switch to an elevated automatic people mover. Kind of turning Honolulu into a Disney world or …

[Laughter]

Akina: End at Middle Street and switch to the bus system, which, by the way, we actually have. Or shift the guideway to Nimitz to avoid going down Dillingham. Here’s one that’ll cost a little bit more: Dig a tunnel under Dillingham to avoid the utilities. Finally, one of the more interesting ones is to change the technology completely and switch from traction power to maglev.

Perry: Oh my gosh. Setting aside the secret part of it, which is just mind-blowing to me, why were they looking at different plans in the first place? Was it [lack of] confidence in what they had originally?

Akina: Now, that’s easy to figure out. The project is out of money. The costs have risen from $2.5 billion back in 2006 — remember that? — to over $12.4 billion today and they keep rising. So it makes sense, actually, that HART is looking at different alternatives to save on the cost.

Perry: Right now there’s a government thing where we have to pay back $800 million or something to the federal government if we don’t do Plan A, which I guess is the Middle Street thing. What does the document say about that, if anything?

Akina: Well, there are a lot of politicians who are saying that if we don’t complete the project according to the original plan all the way to Ala Moana, we’re going to have to pay back the government $800 million to the federal government. The document says that’s a possible risk, but the fact is, nowhere does the document show that the federal government has told Hawaii we can’t change our plans. And when you think about it, Michael, spending another $3.5 billion just to save $800 million doesn’t make a lot of sense. What the document shows is that HART is aware of other alternatives to Plan A and is looking at them seriously.

Perry: As well they should, because even the lady who’s running rail now admits the ridership calculations that are now, what, a decade old, are no longer appropriate. In the post-pandemic era, nobody’s expecting ridership to be what it used to be. 

Dr. Akina, by the way, is the head of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. It’s a think tank, and it’s a think tank that really does some great independent thinking. What do you guys think we should do?

Akina: Well, this is a perfect moment to press the pause button on rail and reevaluate the project. Take a look at the situation and the changing options. We actually need a lot more transparency and accountability from HART on the rail. The public, Michael, really deserves to know what’s happening based on good analysis. So maybe we should get an independent analysis and look at the new data on construction costs and ridership and just make that available to people so they can weigh in on it. I think the bottom line is this: Too much has happened secretly behind the scenes with HART. It’s time to put everything on the table and let the public weigh in.

Perry: Isn’t that amazing that we have public transportation at stake here and they don’t want the public to know anything about what’s going on in the background?

Akina: Well, the time has come for sunshine. Let the rail bring the sunshine.

[laughter]

Perry: Let’s open the blinds. By the way, Grassroot Institute now has David Swann, who for years was our favorite cartoonist in the state of Hawaii with a newspaper. He belongs to them now. David is, he’s just great. He’s got a brand new cartoon that we just put up on our website. Where else, Jimmy?

Jimmy: ksskradio.com and our Facebook page.

Perry: ksskradio.com and Facebook. It’s in full color. You’ll see the top secret HART plan and what’s really in there. 

Dr. Akina, thank you so much. We appreciate your help.

Akina: Michael, happy Friday to you and all the posse. 

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