Kent questions wisdom of running half-completed rail

The first segment of the Honolulu rail opened for service just last month, but Grassroot Institute of Hawaii Executive Vice President Joe Kent says it may be time to shut it down — at least for now. 

In a conversation that aired on Monday, Kent explained to Hawaii Public Radio’s Catherine Cruz why operating the rail, which is only halfway complete, doesn’t make sense. 

Kent said that based on current ridership levels and the project annual operating cost of $85 million, he calculated the rail’s per-passenger cost is about $54

“That’s a huge amount of money,” said Kent. “It would almost be cheaper to just give everyone Uber or Lyft rides for free.” 

Rail officials have been saying that ridership will increase when the project is complete in 2031. But in the meantime, Kent said, taxpayers will bear a burden of over half a billion dollars to operate the half-completed portion. 

“Opening the rail when it’s finished would be the best way to figure out how to get more riders on and to actually use the taxpayer dollars well,” he said. “But it just seems funny to run it nearly empty for the next seven years.” 

With talks of the rail route expanding to and beyond Ala Moana Center — even taking the train underground — Kent said it is important to ask: What else could the money be spent on? 

“We have to remember the hundreds of millions, billions of dollars that have been taken out of the economy for this,” he said.

If you would like to hear the entire 20-minute conversation, click on the image below. A complete transcript follows.

7-14-23 Joe Kent with host Catherine Cruz on Hawaii Public Radio

Catherine Cruz: The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii released its take on the cost of rail following the grand opening over the Fourth of July holiday weekend. 

Rail critics have expressed concerns about the high cost of construction and the high operating costs that we’ve placed on our children and our children’s children. 

The Institute’s analysis points to the low ridership numbers. It says for every $3 ride, taxpayers will be subsidizing the cost by $51. 

Joe Kent is vice president of the institute. He shared his reaction to his ride on Skyline. He joined us in studio last week, Friday. 

When did you jump on?

Joe Kent: Oh, I went on yesterday actually and went all the way out to Kapolei from the Aloha Stadium and there were very few people on it, though. I was surprised. It was only 10 or 20 people most of the time. And at times, I had the whole train all to myself. 

So, I was thinking, you know, “What are we running these trains for, if there’s so few people riding them right now?”

Cruz: What time of the day was that?

Kent: That was 5 p.m. So, you know, 4 or 5 is rush hour time, and just a few people on there. I was kind of scratching my head wondering, “Is this like some sort of fluke or anomaly? Is it a holiday?” But it wasn’t. 

And so, if so few people are riding them, my concern is the cost. You know, think about last year. We wouldn’t have opened the trains last year because we would’ve had so few riders.

Well, this year’s the same thing. We have so few riders, and the cost to run these things are $85 million every fiscal year. And so if you divide that by the riders, it’s about $54 per passenger. That’s a huge amount of money. It would almost be cheaper to just give everyone Uber or Lyft rides for free.

Cruz: And you calculated that based on the initial ridership?

Kent: Yeah, they were saying it’s around 4,000 on the weekend. So I took the highest number that they have and assumed, projected that out for the year, and that is about $54 per passenger, which if you compare to the mainland — light rails on the mainland — it’s way, way, way higher. It’s the highest in the nation. The next highest are Cleveland, San Jose and Seattle, which are at $19 per passenger.

Cruz: You just want taxpayers to understand the implications of going forward?

Kent: Yeah. We are about to run the rail nearly empty for a few years. Could be maybe seven years before they finally finish the rail to the city center. 

And every year, presumably, that’s another $85 million, and this cost is racking up. That could be half a billion dollars that we spend on running the train nearly empty.

And for taxpayers, this project has been painful. You know, $10 billion and over-budget and, you know, over schedule. But now we’re running it even more over-budget with these $85 million costs every year. 

So, I’m just wondering if it might be smarter to just not run the rail until it’s finally completed. And supposedly, when it is completed, the numbers will go up and so, you know, that would justify a lower cost per passenger. 

But taxpayers have been already paying through the nose on this, and now we’re just paying more.

Cruz: Well, the rail has to work for you as an individual. You know, does it make sense? Is it going to be faster, is it less stress? And I think, you know, the taxpayers have to really make an effort to figure that out. Where do I park? Do I get dropped off in the morning? Do I get picked up? Is that doable?

But, you know, it’s maybe not gonna work if you have a family and you’ve gotta take kids to sports things in the afternoon, you know, that kind of stuff. So, yeah, it’s gonna really take some effort.

Kent: Yeah, I think everybody wants everyone else to ride the rail. [chuckles] But for their own lives, you know, they don’t always want to go on the rail stops. They don’t wanna ride a bus to the rail and then ride a rail to another bus and then take a bus to where they’re going. 

You know, we’ve changed the bus routes now to go towards the rail, so that just for the very fact of trying to get the numbers up on the rail system. And so, now, some people may find a quicker route, but some people might actually find their route to take longer because they have to take all these stops. 

And they’re trying to get Department of Education [DOE] students on. I heard yesterday about a plan to try to give DOE students a free rail ride. But that just pushes the cost even more onto the taxpayer, of course. So, there’s no way to hide the cost of this, you know. Someone has to pay for the $85 million every year, and that’s taxpayers. 

Now, of course, into the future, they’re talking about going beyond the city center and going to Ala Moana and maybe UH, and even Waikiki we’re hearing about. The rail officials are talking very confidently about this, like, “This is the plan. This is what we’re gonna do.” 

But in the public, I don’t think that the conversation is really happening. No one else is talking about going beyond — and that “beyond” also includes costs. So, the only way they could go beyond is by extending the surcharge, increasing taxes somehow. 

And we have to remember the hundreds of millions, billions of dollars that have been taken out of the economy for this. The question we always have to ask is: What else could the money have been spent on?

I’ve had train rides, the trains all to myself, basically. It’s a nice ride. You get the train all to yourself, almost. But what else could the money have been spent on?

Cruz:  What else do you think the city could be doing to increase the ridership if we wanna make this work? We paid out so much already; I doubt they’re going to tear it down. [chuckles]

Kent: Yeah.

Cruz:  But what else can we do to make it work?

Kent: We’re at a point where we’re just trying to cut costs as much as possible because it’s been kind of an embarrassment that the costs have run over so much. You know, we are now the poster child in the U.S. for over-budget boondoggles. And so, cutting costs should be the priority. 

Opening the rail when it’s finished would be the best way to figure out how to get more riders on and to actually use the taxpayer dollars well, per person. But it just seems funny to run it nearly empty for the next seven years.

Cruz: I know there is a concern about the [Pearl Highlands Center] parking structure because the central Oahu people who might want to jump on this thing from Mililani — they don’t have anything yet. You know, the concern about not enough parking rides. It is startling to see that image of where it ends in the [agriculture] field out on the west side. It’s almost like the image — it starts nowhere and it goes nowhere.

Kent: The rail leaders right now are, in a sense, hatchet men. They’re trying to cut back on the costs. You know, the rail was $12.5 billion for a time, and now they’ve cut that back a couple billion by stopping short and cutting the parking garage and other things. 

That’s a good thing that we’re cutting back; we’re saving taxpayer money on a questionable project. And at the same time — on the flip side of that — is when you ride the rail, it’s not as good as it could be.

You know, we don’t have the Pearl Highlands garage. It doesn’t go all the way to the mall. And so, the complaints are valid. But the flip side of that is we are saving taxpayers’ money, and that money hopefully can stay in their pockets so they can spend on other things. I mean, who is better at spending your money: you or an official somewhere?

Cruz: And we did see a lawsuit filed against HART over the delays, and that’s a concern because you’re just wondering, you know, ka-ching, ka-ching with the legal fees and trying to have some kind of settlement there between the contractor and HART?

Kent: Yeah, there has been a lot of lawsuits over the years. Sometimes I wonder if people suing HART are doing it out of a practice of HART paying out a lot of money for these lawsuits, so they might as well sue. But on the other hand, HART might be negligent somewhere. 

But the big lawsuit that I’m watching is the Howard Hughes one down at Ward Warehouse — Ward Centre there — where they’re trying to build a building right where they want to build a rail stop, and they’re suing. And presumably, that’s why we can’t get all the way to Ala Moana because trying to get through that would just be too expensive. 

So, I guess, now I hear the rail leaders talking about tunneling under to get to Ala Moana, which, I mean, if you remember the word “Big Dig” [chuckles] — if that comes to mind — that would probably explode the costs if we did that. 

So, yeah, lawsuits are par for the course. We are now entering the city core in one of the most litigious cities in America. So, that $10 billion is questionable, even now that they’ve stopped short.

Cruz: Anything else that you want to underscore?

Kent: I like the rail ride. You know, I had fun riding it. It’s a nice ride for my toddler and my wife. Sometimes we go on it just for fun, you know, and the views are nice. But I always think in the back of my mind, “What else could the money have been spent on?” 

You know, at $50 or more per passenger ride, you know, we could afford a plane ticket to a neighbor island. We could afford an Uber somewhere. We could save up for, you know, a down payment on a car, or they could have fixed the roads in a different way or had some other sort of less expensive solution to the transportation problems. 

So, this is a very expensive, very nice- looking, very nice-ride, solution, but what else could it have been spent on?

Cruz: And that was Joe Kent with the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii sharing his concerns about our train, which is costing $10 billion to build — not including the additional burden to maintain and operate the system.


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