Dan Stringer

navigating the convergence of faith, culture and the common good

(Still) Waiting to Ride Honolulu Rail Transit

March 14, 2012

The Honolulu Star Advertiser published my letter to the editor today. For those without an online or print subscription, here’s what I wrote:

There’s a great irony in Honolulu’s decades-long public debate over rail transit: Those who claim to be most concerned about the cost of the project are the ones driving up the price tag through lawsuits, political theatrics and other scare tactics that delay its completion.

Even though this project has been discussed ad nauseam, thoroughly scrutinized at every step, placed on the ballot in 2008, approved by the majority of Oahu voters and given a green light at the city, state and federal levels, it’s unfortunate that some rail opponents will stop at nothing to undo years of planning and progress.

To those who claim they will never ride the rail, I ask: How can you be certain of where exactly on Oahu you, your children or grandchildren will be living 20 or 30 years from now? How do you know your loved ones will not make use of a more reliable, efficient and sustainable public transportation option? What’s good for our economy, our environment and our descendants is good for all of us.

For more details on Honolulu’s rail transit project currently under construction, you can visit the project’s website. If you’re new to the topic or are still undecided as the local political season heats up, you can get a taste of the history behind this chronic debate from my 2008 list of 99 reasons why rail transit is a good fit for Honolulu’s urban core (and the common good).

Does anyone remember when rail transit was placed on the ballot 4 years ago at the request of rail opponents, only to see the majority of Oahu voters support it? Did we expect that vote to actually decide something? I suppose we could always vote on it again… and again… and again. Or we could simply allow the builders to finish building what we asked them to. And hope for the chance to ride someday.

  • Matt U

    I used to be adamantly for this rail project but now I have changed sides, I have just seen too many problems with this plan. I still think Honolulu needs rail very badly but not in this form.

    * We did not get to vote on whether we wanted rail or not, we only got to vote on what type of rail we want. That is not a green light, that is like asking someone whether they want to be punched or kicked.

    * The cost is very high compared to many mainland rail systems. I understand being in Hawaii means everything is more expensive but it seems disproportionaly expensive. It seems already that we are going overbudget on the project. So what will the true price of the rail system be when they are done?

    * The photos make the train system seem like a set two car system. A system needs to be in place so additional cars can be added to carry more passengers. Perhaps I am mistaken though and more cars can be added… as long as the train stations are built big enough.

    * They plan to build starting in Kapolei, Why? If you build in Honolulu first and something goes wrong stopping more building at least a train running from Kalihi to Waikiki area could be used. Few will ride from Kapolei to Aiea everyday.

    * There are too many issues with the spending. Already controversy has come up regarding costs and how who got what contract. Are we paying for a good rail system or are we paying for friends to get jobs?

    I rather wait for a good rail system than pay too much for a substandard one now.

    • Thanks Matt for stopping by. This reminds of 2008 all over again. A few responses to your 5 points:

      1) Actually the 2008 vote was a simple yes/no for steel-on-steel rail (the most reliable and cost-effective technology according to most transit/engineering experts) with the majority voting yes. If it had been a yes/no on rail in general, the margin of victory would have been even greater because the yes votes were limited to steel-on-steel with everyone else voting no. But even with all the other types of ‘no’ votes added to theirs (a clever political strategy that ended up backfiring), the anti-railers still lost the vote as they attempted to “Stop Rail Now.”

      2) The fear of going over budget is speculation at this point. In reality, the project is ahead of revenue projections and the updated cost of the project is lower than originally projected because contracts came in more than $300 million lower than estimated. Plus there’s a contingency fund of over $800 million which more than covers the additional costs incurred due to project delays.


      3) If the ridership demand is higher than expected by the time the rail is up and running (which is entirely possible with gas prices only escalating), they can always add more cars or increase their frequency (i.e. once every 3 minutes during rush hour).

      4) The point isn’t to build half a system but a whole one. So it makes sense to start construction where there is more open space for a baseyard and less logistics involved. Out of curiosity, are you suggesting you would support rail if the construction began in the city heading west? Why does this matter on the larger question of whether Honolulu needs a rail system or not?

      5) Controversy shouldn’t be a rationale for inaction. Of course there’s controversy. Anything related to government, taxes, jobs and economy will be controversial during campaign season. The H-3 freeway was very controversial and took over 30 years to complete. The question is, how do we make decisions on controversial things? In a healthy democracy, we discuss, we vote, then we follow through. We discussed rail plenty for 30+ years, took plenty polls, voted on it, obtained federal funding and started construction already. Let’s finish the job.

      Every delay only adds to the cost. Anti-railers have always said ‘wait,’ but they really mean ‘never.’ So there is no ‘waiting for a better rail system.’ Let’s make this one the best it can be.