Running the rail is costing even more than originally estimated

Ridership on the half-completed rail has been steadily falling, causing the per-passenger taxpayer subsidy to go even higher

It was a heady first few days for Honolulu rail officials in early July when more than 70,000 people showed up to take free rides on the city’s new half-completed “Skyline” rail system.

But once passengers had to start paying for their rides, ridership tanked. This means taxpayers are having to pay even higher subsidies for the train’s per-passenger operating costs than the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii originally estimated.

In the first five days of paid use, daily ridership peaked at 4,312 on Sunday, July 9, when Oahu residents were still curious about the new theme park-style attraction.

Ridership from July 15 to July 20 never broke 4,000 per day, with some days not breaking even 3,000. Ticket sales for this past week are not yet available.

This means that the Grassroot Institute’s original estimate of $54 for the rail’s per passenger operating cost — by far the most expensive in the nation for light-rail systems — is now starting to look overly optimistic.

Meanwhile, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser published a letter to the editor this past Sunday (July 23) by Joe Kent, Institute executive vice president, regarding the basis for the Institute’s per-pasenger calculations. Said Kent:

“Reporter Dan Nakaso seemed to suggest that the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii’s comparison of Skyline’s operating costs per passenger to other U.S. light-rail systems was flawed because “COVID-era 2020” data was used (“Now running, Honolulu Skyline’s operating costs in doubt,” Star-Advertiser, July 16).

“But using 2019 data makes the comparison even more stark. In 2019, the next-highest per passenger cost — compared to Honolulu’s fiscal 2024 cost of $54 — was $15 in San Jose, versus $19 for 2020.

“Long story short: The Skyline still has the highest per-passenger cost of any light-rail system in the U.S. — by far — and Hawaii taxpayers should still question why it is being operated when it is only half completed and so few people are using it.”

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