In Defense of Rapid Rail Transit for Honolulu

In Defense of Rapid Rail Transit for Honolulu

December 8, 2010—The National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) – the nation’s oldest and largest advocacy organization for users of passenger trains and rail transit – strongly supports the Honolulu elevated rapid transit project.  It is an essential investment in the city’s economic vitality and livability.  The analysis commissioned by outgoing Gov. Linda Lingle (R) misrepresents rail transit’s costs and benefits. The Lingle Administration had no legal requirement to generate this report, for which Hawaii’s taxpayers paid $350,000 .

One of its principal authors, Tom Rubin, is an avowed opponent of rail.  He began a 2004 lecture this way: “Bus is good. Rail is bad.” He is on the executive committee of the American Dream Coalition , whose website bizarrely cites transit among “the greatest threats to American mobility, affordable housing, and freedom today.  ”The American Dream Coalition is closely aligned with the Reason Foundation, which in 1999 counted major oil companies, automakers and airlines amongst its largest benefactors. The inflated cost projections in a study led by an anti-train ideologue should not dissuade the people of Hawai’i from taking advantage of this extraordinary opportunity to make a great American city even greater.

The report Rubin helped write says the rail line will likely cost $1.7 billion more than stated in the current financial plan.  A host of similar projects completed in the U.S. in the past 25 years, however, have come in at or under budget, including a 9-mile Denver-Littleton line and Salt Lake City’s TRAX light rail system.  Recently-built American rail transit lines have sustained high ridership levels, including those in Denver, Salt Lake City and Dallas.  Honolulu’s population density is greater than that of these other cities, which should support higher ridership projections.

While the rail line will have higher initial costs than bus rapid transit, the enhanced ride comfort, greater passenger capacity, higher ridership potential, superior energy efficiency, and capacity to spur transit-oriented economic development make rail well worth the additional cost. Honolulu’s train stations can become the focal points of lively town centers with high-quality places to live, work, shop and play all within walking distance. Such places give people a real choice in how to get around and promote a healthier, more physically-active lifestyle.

A study by the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute finds that—compared with bus-only cities—those with rail transit have fewer traffic fatalities, an average annual savings of $448 per resident in consumer expenditures on transportation, and lower transit operating costs for each mile each passenger travels compared to bus-only cities.  Rail transit can provide billions in cost savings from reduced congestion and public parking needs, reduced roadway construction and maintenance, and savings to each consumer – more than enough to cover their annual operating costs.  Rail transit is particularly important for large, growing cities.

Honolulu has produced a well-thought-out plan to build something that will be a valuable asset for decades.  Rail transit should produce and maintain more than enough economic activity (and the resulting tax revenue) to cover its costs. 


  5., see comment by Howard Sloane