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Honolulu rapid transit
Honolulu rapid transit (simulation)
[Graphic: Honolulu Rail Transit Project]


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Honolulu's Elevated Rail Rapid Transit Project Moves Forward

Susan Pantell With Light Rail Now Project Team • February 2010

The city of Honolulu is planning to build a 20-mile (32-km) elevated metro line, called the Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor project (HHCTC), that would extend east from downtown to the Ala Moana Center and west from downtown to East Kapolei. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) considered three alternative but similar routes – via Salt Lake Blvd., via the airport, and via the airport and Salt Lake Blvd. – all of which would be elevated except for a section near Leeward Community College that would be in an exclusive guideway. [DEIS, Executive Summary, 10 Nov. 2008] The city hopes to open the first section of the line in December 2012, and the remainder in 2019. [Progressive Railroading, 22 Oct. 2009]

[Map: Honolulu Rail Transit Project]

In October, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) released $39 million for preliminary engineering for the project. The city awarded a contract to Kiewit Pacific Company to design and build the first 6.5 miles (10.4 km) of the line between Kapolei and Pearl Highlands for $482.9 million ($74.3 million/mile), which was $90 million below the city's estimate. The contract includes construction of an elevated guideway, installation of tracks, and restoration of road surfaces, but not construction of stations, which will be bid under a separate contract. The next phase of the project will be 3.9 miles (6.3 km) between Pearl Highlands and Aloha Stadium. [Progressive Railroading, 23 Oct. 2009]

The city had hoped to begin construction in December 2009 or early 2010, but the FTA must issue a Record of Decision (ROD) on the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) before construction can begin, and that process has been delayed because of controversy over whether the rail line should be elevated (see discussion below). In addition, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the state Historic Preservation Division said that the city needs to revise its plan for dealing with historic sites. Along the route is a Native Hawaiian burial area that most likely contains human remains. Some project delay and expense will result from moving the remains, but Mayor Mufi Hannemann says that they are not planning to alter the route. Any substantive change to the Historical Impact Plan must be approved by the City Council. [Honolulu Advertiser, 27 Oct. 2009]

Project design & cost

The system, as described in the DEIS, would have approximately 30-foot high guideways in most areas, and the city would install sound barriers along the whole route. They intend to build 21 stations, with escalators and elevators at each station. Bike parking is planned for each station, and four park-and-ride-lots would be built, with a total capacity of 4,100 spaces. [City and County of Honolulu, Department of Transportation Services web site, "Honolulu Rail Transit" and DEIS, Chapter 2, 2 Nov. 2008]

According to the DEIS, the trains will be "industry-standard steel wheel on steel rail powered from a third rail system", and could either be manually operated or automated. [Chapter 2, 2 Nov. 2008] The trains will be able to travel over 50 mph, but average speeds, including dwell times in stations, will be 30 mph. Trains will run every three minutes during rush hours.

simulationMulti-car trains will be about 200 feet long, and each train will hold at least 300 people, for a peak capacity of at least 6,000 people per hour per direction. [City and County of Honolulu, Department of Transportation Services web site, "Honolulu Rail Transit"] The city plans to purchase a fleet of 60 to 67 railcars.
[Graphic: Honolulu Rail Transit Project]

The Locally Preferred Alternative approved by the City Council includes three planned extensions – to West Kapolei, University of Hawaii Manoa, and Waikiki – which would include about 9 additional miles and 12 additional stations. [DEIS, Chapter 2, 2 Nov. 2008] Ridership is expected to reach 95,000 a day by 2030. [City and County of Honolulu, Department of Transportation Services web site, "Honolulu Rail Transit"]

The project's total cost is projected to be $5.3 billion, and the city will request $1.5 billion in federal funds. The city will need to approve, by a two-thirds supermajority, the issuance of General Obligation Bonds to provide local funding. The bonds will be funded by the state's 0.5 percent General Excise and Use Tax (GET), which is expected to generate $4.1 billion through 2022. Operation and maintenance costs are estimated at $68 million a year for the airport route, about 30% of which will be covered by fares. [City and County of Honolulu, Department of Transportation Services web site, "Honolulu Rail Transit"] The city would like to form a semi-autonomous agency to construct and operate the rail line and is planning to put a ballot measure before the voters to ask for approval of this entity.

Controversy over rail technology

The Notice of Intent (NOI) for the DEIS listed five alternatives: light rail transit (LRT), rapid rail transit (steel wheel on steel rail), rubber-tired guided vehicles, magnetic levitation system, and monorail system. Comments were solicited from the public and from transit vehicle manufacturers and were reviewed by a panel appointed by the mayor and city council. In February 2008, the panel voted 4-1 for steel wheel on steel rail technology. While this technology certainly includes LRT and at-grade rail systems, the DEIS only considers an elevated rapid rail system. The "alternatives" considered, other than No Build, are slight variations on the route but with the same technology.

Skytrain Proprietary Skytrain rapid transit technology – such as the train seen here in Vancouver – has been the exclusive focus of designers planning the Honolulu system.
[Photo: Railway Technology]

In April 2009, City Councilmember Duke Bainum (who subsequently passed away the following June) stated the case for LRT in a major commentary in the Star Bulletin:

If the city would consider an at-grade rail system, particularly for downtown segments of the proposed route, we could have incredible cost savings on construction, significantly reduce the visual blight from pillars of concrete blocking our viewplanes, build the system more quickly, extend the system to areas like the University of Hawaii and Mililani sooner, better integrate the stops and stations into our neighborhoods, and save on future operating costs. The system would also provide better connectivity, flexibility and increased accessibility – and fit better into our neighborhoods.

Our community supported a steel-on-steel transit system in November's vote. As a rail supporter, I am concerned that the city's handling the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) process will jeopardize the project and its financial viability.

Not only is the DEIS deficient in addressing significant issues such as the cost and impact of future extensions to the University of Hawaii and Waikiki, the city's willingness to commit enormous amounts of taxpayers' money, without assurances of repayment, is worrisome. If we are not careful with how we spend our money – even the local money – the cost per mile of the rail project skyrockets and the city jeopardizes our chances of receiving federal funding due to lack of cost-efficiency per rider.

What's also troubling is the method by which the city single-handedly chose to build an above-grade rail system and the lack of transparency in the process.

For at least the last year, the city has told organizations like the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Honolulu, that "it's too late" to participate in the discussions about the system. Ironically, the rail system and technology are supposed to be made based on an analysis of factors which includes comments received during the DEIS comment period; the DEIS comment period ran from November 2008 to February 2009.

As a community, we need to continue to monitor this project so that smart financial and policy decisions are made so we have the best system for the right price. Asking the hard questions will not kill rail – rather, it's not asking the hard questions that could kill rail. [27 April 2009]

In June, Councilmember Bainum and Councilmember Charles Djou wrote to the Department of Transportation to say that the DEIS was flawed because it only considered rapid rail technology, not the other four alternatives, including light rail, that were included in the Notice of Intent. The FTA responded that it would not be proper for them to interfere before the EIS process was completed. Councilmember Djou told the Honolulu Weekly that the City Council never voted to approve an all-elevated system. "When we voted on the Locally Preferred Alternative, at-grade or elevated wasn't the question. It was, 'Should we do a fixed-guideway system, and the answer there, of course, was 'Yes, we should.'" [18 Nov. 2009]

The Kamehameha Schools, which own a large portion of the property along the project's route, commissioned a study to consider an alternative to elevated rail. The consultant, Phil Craig, who has 50 years of experience working on transit systems worldwide, recommended that about half of the line be built at grade, including all of the downtown portion, and concluded that the modified proposal could take 1.5 years less time to construct and save $1.7 billion. The Honolulu chapter of the American Institute of Architects came out in support of the findings of the report. [Honolulu Weekly, 28 Oct. 2009] The City Council voted 5-4 to have a public hearing on the report, but they have not yet been able to hold one. [Honolulu Weekly, 18 Nov. 2009]


[Chart: Based on Duke Bainum data, adapted from Honolulu Star-Bulletin graphic]

The city's consultant, Parsons Brinckerhoff, wrote a critical response to the report, questioning the accuracy of the data and saying that it did not represent a realistic option for the local conditions. Toru Hamayasu, the city's general manager for the project, also criticized the report, saying that the road patterns in Honolulu were not amenable to surface rail, and that the costs of moving burial sites and utilities for an at-grade line were underestimated in the report. [Honolulu Weekly, 18 Nov. 2009]

University of Pennsylvania Professor Vukan Vuchic reviewed the report and told the Honolulu Weekly he agreed with the findings that an LRT line could meet the projected capacity of 8,100 passengers per hour and that the additional 12-minute travel time would not be a problem. He said that any extensions of an elevated line in the future would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and the city should carefully evaluate all of the alternatives before making an investment of this nature. [18 Nov. 2009]

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) likewise expressed concerns about the consideration of alternatives in the DEIS, commenting that

Finally, while we believe that most of the alternatives eliminated prior to the DEIS are documented sufficiently, we have remaining questions about why light rail or bus rapid transit in an exclusive right-of-way were not considered as reasonable alternatives in the DEIS. Additional information should be included in the FEIS explaining why these technologies were not considered to be reasonable alternatives and were therefore not reviewed in the DEIS. . . .If these technologies may have resulted in fewer environmental impacts, further justification is warranted to substantiate why those less damaging alternatives were not carried through for consideration. [Letter to FTA, 12 Feb. 2009]

According to the Honolulu Weekly, the city spent $5.6 million on public relations for the elevated rail proposal between August 2005 and September 2009. [18 Nov. 2009] Following the City Council's vote for a public hearing, the city spent $10,000 on air time for a speech by Mayor Hannemann, which was an attempt to garner support for the project as currently configured. [The Honolulu Advertiser, 30 Oct. 2009] That use of public funds is considered questionable, since the government can educate and inform the public, but should not use public funds for propaganda.

The Honolulu Advisor ran an editorial on October 14th that said that the recent FTA advancement of the project to the preliminary engineering stage indicates that they approve of the project as is, and the City Council should proceed without re-evaluating whether an elevated line is the best option; otherwise, they could put the federal funding at risk. On the other side of the issue, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin ran an op-ed article by Larry Geller, arguing that a street level light rail system would be better for local businesses. [1 Dec. 2009]

In November, Governor Linda Lingle announced that she would not sign off on the FEIS for the project until her staff has looked into the review of alternatives and the city's plan for financing the project. The Governor must sign off on the FEIS before it is sent to the FTA for a 45-day public comment period and final approval. The Governor said that she is revisiting both issues because lower tax revenues, down 30% from the previous year as a result of the downturn in the economy, means that the less expensive at-grade option should be considered. The Governor also wants more certainty on the federal contribution to the project, but FTA is not planning to announce how much it will give until the spring of 2011. [Honolulu Advertiser, 29 Nov. 2009]

Regarding the Governor's review of the document, State Transportation Director Brennon Morioka told the Honolulu Advertiser, "We all know there's a very good possibility of the rail project being taken to court, so I think the more credibility the document has, the better chance it has in standing up in a court of law." The city is anticipating that the project will be challenged in court because of critics' claims that it did not adequately consider alternatives, and has already approved $300,000 to fight legal challenges to the project. [29 Nov. 2009].

It is not too late to change the design of the project since it is only in the conceptual engineering phase, and the city can amend the design-build contract. Council Chairman Todd Apo told the Honolulu Advertiser that there are provisions in the contract to allow them to cancel it if that is necessary. [23 Oct. 2009]

The only other all-elevated metro line within US jurisdiction is the Tren Urbano in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The project cost $2.2 billion for an 11-mile (17.7-km) route, and ridership has been below forecast levels since it opened in 2005, in part because fares are too high for the largely low-income population.

Project history

The idea of a modern rail line for the city was first raised in 1967. Ten years later, the city received some federal money for a fixed guideway rail line, but then Mayor Eileen Anderson ended the project. In 1992, a federal allocation of $618 for a rail project was rescinded after the City Council failed to approve a general excise tax to pay for the local portion. In 2003, Governor Linda Lingle proposed some type of light rail for the city, but it was opposed by members of her party and did not move forward.

In 2005, the state legislature approved a bill that allows counties to pass a half-percent general excise tax to finance transit projects, and the Honolulu City Council approved the tax. The city completed an Alternatives Analysis in October 2006, and in December, the City Council selected a fixed guideway rail line as the preferred alternative. In 2008, an independent panel of transportation experts recommended steel-wheel-on-steel-rail as the preferred technology.

The city put a measure on the ballot in November 2008 that asked voters whether the city should build a steel-wheel-on-steel-rail transit system. Rail opponents gathered signatures for a measure that would have asked voters whether all rail projects in the city should be prohibited, but their measure was not approved for the ballot. The city's measure received approval by 53 percent of voters. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement was completed in November 2008. [KITV, 29 Oct. 2009]

Original research and narrative for this article were provided by LRN Research Associate Susan Pantell; additional information and analysis, and final editing, were provided by others on the Light Rail Now Project team.

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2010/02/05

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