"Rising Rail Chaos" in Honolulu

That's what the Honolulu Star Advertiser calls it in an April 8 editorial entitled "Rising Rail Chaos Bodes Ill for Us All." Honolulu’s urban rail project has experienced a host of problems, which were described by University of Hawaii professor Panos Prevedoros in January, who called the project “the nation’s largest infrastructure fiasco by far” on a per capita basis.

Things continue to deteriorate, as the Star-Advertiser editorial indicates. The Star Advertiser reported that city Council chairman Ernie Martin called for both Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) Board Chairman Don Horner and chief executive officer Dan Grabauskas.

In a letter, Martin expressed concern that: “With mounting evidence of mismanagement and out of control costs … it is clear that we need a leadership team capable of moving this multibillion (dollar) project forward.”

In its editorial, the Star Advertiser noted: “HART officials acknowledged new misgivings that the recently approved extension of the funding mechanism — Oahu’s 0.5 percent general excise tax surcharge — would cover the bills.”

Martin called it a “stunning about face” that Horner could not promise Council members that there would be enough cash to finish the project. Previously, according to Martin, Horner had said that the tax extension would be sufficient to finish the 20 mile line.

Martin went on to say that “we need to go in a different direction” to help “stop the bleeding.” He added: “We’re at the tourniquet stage right now,”  “If we don’t apply more intense scrutiny, then we’re likely to lose limbs.”

Meanwhile, Honolulu is not alone. There has been plenty of bleeding with respect to expensive urban rail projects. In Los Angeles, $16 billion has been spent to build a massive new urban rail system and yet, transit ridership languishes below the levels of three decades ago, despite population growth. In Toronto, the new airport express train has been such a failure in ridership that it is routinely called a “fiasco” by the media.

Of course, all of this is predictable. Often, urban rail costs more and carries fewer riders than projected. are higher than projected ridership lower than projected, and virtually never high enough to reduce traffic congestion can be characterized as routine, as the international research led by Oxford professor Bent Flyvbjerg has indicated.

But Honolulu is a special case as well. There may have never been so intense a volunteer campaign to stop what was perceived as a boondoggle is in Honolulu. The Star-Advertiser, usually a cheerleader for the project, concluded by saying: “Reports of this dysfunction just adds to the strain taxpayers feel right now, and it’s the last thing they need. The price tag on the state’s largest public works project is past the $6 billion mark and rising, with the most complicated part of the work still looming.”