Picking Your Candidates? Don’t Forget The Train, The Train, The Train, The Train

Covid-19 is, understandably, #1 on the news cycle in Honolulu these days. But we have a Primary election coming Saturday and I wonder if everyone will forget and forgive about the train cost and delay.

The local gadfly Panos Prevadouros — who’s probably a much better civil engineer and professor than a would-be politician — got some of it strikingly right in his long fight against the elevated train project.

When the cost was just $5 billion, he showed that even if it served 7% of Oahu travelers (the City figure) it would be an irresponsible expenditure.

Little did we guess that the final cost might be $10 billion and the finish date so far in the future that we might all be traveling by air cars or rocket packs by then!

And to think that we embarked on this project with just 50.6% of those who voted saying yes to it. Not exactly a resounding huzzah.

Yes, I supported it. Large cities need such mass transit. But I foolishly thought it would be $5 billion, much paid by the feds, and open while we still hadn’t built out Kapolei. We’d have affordable housing projects — not developers’ retail stores — by the stations. And a main station in Kapolei center, not in a field far, far away.

What happened? Everything that was not thought out, like the cost of relocating utility lines and what it would cost and how long it would take to acquire by condemnation the pass-through land coming into west Honolulu town.

Then there were the messed up contracts, the additional archeological surveys, the lawsuits, the arguments with contractors and the realization that the train could not possibly go through the airport to pick up some of our 10 million  (at that time) visitors.

Then people started favoring stopping at Middle Street. In other words, Kapolei riders would come halfway to town on a train they caught by driving their cars to “Kapolei station” and then taking a bus into downtown.

Mufi Hannemann, who wants to be mayor again , was interviewed earlier this year by the Wall Street Journal and said: “I thought it was prudent to move quickly,” partly to show the Federal Transit Administration, which would provide part of the funding, that Honolulu was committed. “We needed to send a very strong positive message that the project was good to go.”

None of us understands why about 100 contracts for the project had to be redone. Why the design put the elevated guideway too close to power lines and required relocation of those lines.

The cost overruns are among the largest that transportation experts say they’ve ever seen. The cost has led to an extra excise tax on businesses, which can affect the price of goods and services, and it has hit tourists through an expanded hotel tax. Now, we don’t have that many businesses left in operation and only a handful of tourists. So away goes the excise and tourist accommodation tax.

Just the landscaping, moving those utility lines and grading some access roads cost $2.5 billion. It began to seem that many smart contractors were soaking in our excise tax and tourist tax dollars.

Even the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office apparently wonder if there was some illegal collusion with politicians or city projects chiefs, and we’re waiting for that shoe to fall.

Project supporters such as Hannemann, Neil Abercrombie and Mayor Kirk Caldwell put some of the blame on people who got a federal judge to halt the work for 13 months while more archeological work was done. But I’d ask why those burial concerns weren’t more of a red flag when this whole thing was still on a drawing board?

And with so many unanswered questions and “what ifs”, why did the Federal Transit Authority officials so quickly pledge us money for the train? Don’t they read blueprints and projections?

Why didn’t anybody here think to ask Hawaiian Electric about those power lines that would dangle dangerously close to the elevated guideway and have to be moved?

HART’s executive director, Andrew Robbins, vows to complete the project by the end of 2025. He said costs won’t exceed the current projection of $9.02 billion.

I don’t believe him. Not a single projection so far has been on target and a lot of invoices for work and expenditures seem to be missing. So the feds project only a 65% chance of the 2025 opening date.

And what former project chief planner Toru Hamayasu told the Wall Street Journal intrigues me:

“If we were out of step, you’d think the FTA would stop us, or the legal advisers within the city would stop us. And that never happened. Every step we made [was] with the acceptance and approval of the agencies who were watching over the project.”

Now the state wants to build a new stadium complex in conjunction with some private operators.

Watch for somebody to assure us this will be “on budget and on time.”

Published by Bob Jones

Journalist since age 19. St. Petersburg Times, Noticias y Viajes in Madrid, Overseas Weekly in Frankfurt and Paris, the Louisville Courier- Journal, the Honolulu Advertiser, KGMB-TV, NBC News foreign correspondent in Africa and Southeast Asia, and MidWeek columnist. LL.B LaSalle University Law. 3 years in the U.S. Air Force. Covered: Biafran War in Nigeria (1968) Vietnam War (1969-73), Iraq in 1991. George Foster Peabody Award for distinguished journalism for reporting in China. 2 Emmys for documentaries. Married to journalist Denby Fawcett; one daughter. Brett Jones, foreign service officer, State Department.

7 replies on “Picking Your Candidates? Don’t Forget The Train, The Train, The Train, The Train”

  1. Unfortunately, there is so much you simply don’t understand and don’t make any effort to figure out. You should either make that effort or stop pretending and pontificating. There have been big problems with the rail project but this lazy crap column full of baseless assumptions sheds no real light on any of it. You clearly don’t even understand the basics. For example, there is no “Federal Transit Authority.” Stick to what you know and stop calling this blog a “report.” You make yourself look silly.

  2. The whole train project smells of corruption! Will there ever be a true investigation? Where are those investigative reporters? Naming more! Tearing up downtown to go to Ala Moana? So appalling just like the rest of the project!

  3. Bob good thing your daughter moved away from Honolulu. Now my grandchildren will have to pay for the mess of this rail project. What a failure I have been, I didn’t vote in favor for rail, i felt no one would give up their cars to ride it, only the unions benefit from the project, and the amount the Feds are giving don’t cover the cost, Who voted for this? So Bob only a few people benefited from this, but we all pay to play for generations to come.

  4. Once the rail is completed, people will love it. I remember people complaining about the construction of the H-3 freeway, but we all love it now, especially when the Wilson Tunnel is closed for various reasons. I love the rail station next to the Aloha Stadium. It looks nice and is developing very well.

    1. I don’t think most people will love it, because it will be so expensive to operate.

      A lot of people will also remember the pandemic we are in, and not want to spend large blocks of time in small, enclosed rail cars in close proximity to a bunch of other people.

      The pandemic will also have a lasting impact in more employers allowing, or even encouraging, their employees to work from home, as our current experience has showed that in many cases productivity does not suffer, and employers can save the costs involved with maintaining offices. This will also reduce potential train ridership and impact on traffic.

  5. As mentioned, H3 was among Hawaii’s most controversial public works projects. It also had the highest overrun — 20 times higher than the initial projected cost.

    The southern transit corridor on Oahu is likely to get ever more congested with more construction projects in Leeward Oahu and all the way toward Diamond Head. This means having to move thousands of commuters on freeways that can’t be expanded without displacing more homes. And even if they were expanded, with a second deck, there’s still going to be problems with adding and increasing the capacity of on-ramps and off-ramps.

    As it is, H1 removed a large number of homes in the old neighborhoods it cut through, from Kaimuki to Middle Street, and through parts of Aiea. The rail project displaced a fraction of that, but at a high cost due to the increased value of real estate.

    Rail solves a problem that other modes of transportation can’t solve: How to move thousands of people, independently of traffic, without adding cars to the traffic flow.

    Rail riders won’t need parking in downtown Honolulu except to have a place to lock up their bikes or scooters. Riders can save a huge amount for their daily commute. At 50 cents per mile to drive a car, a typical 30-mile round-trip for someone living in Mililani has a real cost of $15 per day to drive. That’s $3600 a year if they’re commuting 48 weeks a year. Plus parking, which runs roughly $300 per month.

    It also provides a much-needed service for those who can’t drive. Anyone who has tried to use the City’s HandiVan can attest to long delays, making it hard to do simple things like run errands or to get to work. Star-Bulletin reporter Murry Engle used to catch a cab on a daily basis to and from her home in Aina Haina.

    And theBus can hardly be called “rapid transit”. I remember spending two hours just trying to get from UH Manoa to Pearl City. When I commuted on my bike from the News Building on South Street to Waipio Gentry, about 15 miles, it took me half that time.

    So some of us are looking forward to this. Because I know there’s going to come a day when I, too, can’t drive. Maybe self-driving cars, driven by artificial intelligence, would become a safe alternative by then. Elon Musk is a smart and creative guy. But I’m not going to bet on it just yet. Because artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity. 🙂

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