Thursday, June 16, 2011

Big Projects in Hawaii - Why Are They Stuck?

Big projects are complex. So the question why big projects get stuck can generate enormously complex responses. However, the answer boils down to a simple bottom line: Because they don't make the grade!

There are 10 basic dimensions that account for the reasons that big projects succeed or fail. Each project has its own complex set of technical, legal, institutional and financial requirements but 10 basic reasons cover the fundamental requirements.

A project needs to fulfill a major need (or mitigate a major problem), at a low cost, with a large share of it paid by outsiders, and with minimal environmental impacts and implementation risks. It is also important that a project has a strong local advocacy and a weak opposition, and some political support at all levels. A project has a better chance if it utilizes advance technology or is ahead of its time based on proven engineering (e.g., maglev trains, fiber based structural components, etc.) A sound business plan means that a scenario of reasonable adversity keeps the project's balance sheet solvent and subsidies are kept to a minimum even for government projects.

Table 1 presents the 10 fundamental requirements and theoretical scores using a scale where 5 is best and 1 is worst. As a result, a project that garners 50 points is “excellent” and would likely be built at a breakneck speed. Thirty or more points are needed for a project to be deemed “good,” therefore worthy of serious consideration for implementation. Projects with less than 30 points are deemed to be fair or bad and should be avoided.

There have been many high scoring projects such as the successful establishment of Costco and Wal-Mart in Hawaii in less than 10 years, the H-Power and AES power plants on Oahu, the 10 miles of Tampa’s reversible toll lanes built in less than 7 years for less than $400 Million, and the I-35W bridge replacement in the Twin Cities costing $234 Million (completed 3 months early and is Light Rail-ready,) just to mention a few.

Job creation is not a factor. While privately funded projects typically generate new jobs, several taxpayer funded projects tend to be make-work projects. In addition, the job creation aspect is partly accounted for by the Local Advocacy and Political Push factors.

Table 2 presents a sample of 8 big projects in Hawaii and their scores for the 10 basic requirements based on my ratings. Three local projects made it because they deserved it, two failed because they deserved it, and three big ones are predicted to fail. Other experts may assign different scores but the average scores of a handful of unbiased assessors with knowledge of all facets of a project should yield a reliable overall score for a proposed project.

Both the H-3 freeway and the grand expansion of the Honolulu International Airport (HIA) including its controversial reef runway had major cost and environmental problems, but their superior payoff (by providing needed roadway and runway capacity), sound business plan (by paying for themselves in the long run), and generous federal cost sharing garnered them a good score. They got done and work well.

Similarly the Hawaii Convention Center had a lot going for it. The main issue was its location. Once this was resolved, the project was built expeditiously. Its business plan was and still is weak.

Two recent project failures in Hawaii are unique. Both are water transportation projects, and both were implemented and then failed. Both should never have been started. This is particularly true for TheBoat that never had a credible business plan or solved a problem. It removed the equivalent of 2 to 4 buses from the road at a cost of $32 per commuter trip. The (sometimes nauceous) commuter paid only $2; all the rest was public tax subsidy.

The SuperFerry was a fitting transportation addition in the island state of Hawaii but it needed a super-sized investment in order to succeed; roughly four times what was actually available. It needed three fully debugged vessels with no need for custom docking platforms, and it needed media campaign and political greasing similar to the 2006-2008 pro-rail blitzkriegs. Given these requirements, it is questionable that a marine company can make a profit at the level of investment needed for establishing a competitive service. There have been several attempts since before statehood, all leading to losses and closures.

At least three large projects are currently "on the table" in Hawaii: The city's rail project, B.R.Horton's Hoopili project in Ewa (over 12,000 residential units), and the Big Wind project where wind turbines on Molokai and Lanai will generate 400 MW of electric power to be used on Oahu via submerged cables.

None of these projects make the grade. This does not mean that they will not be built. But it does mean that building them is not a good idea and that the monies should have been better spent on other projects and opportunities. Here is why.

Both Rail and Big Wind fulfill a major need but with archaic or problematic technology. Their project proponents have greased the wheels well and they enjoy strong political support, but both projects are very expensive for what they offer and the cost share by outsiders is small or nil. They have large impacts mostly borne by non-users. Both have strong local advocacy and opposition so that's a wash.

Hoopili and Big Wind have credible business plans but their externalities are not accounted for, e.g., Hoopili and surrounding developments require their own freeway lane to/from town, but none is being built. As a result, over 100,000 existing residents will suffer much worse congestion upon Hoopili’s completion and occupancy (even assuming rail is there.) In addition, both the rail and Hoopili obliterate a large portion of prime agricultural land in central Oahu.

A major externality of rail and Hoopili that is not accounted for in their direct costs is the loss of a major portion of prime agricultural land on Oahu. This is a huge loss for an overpopulated remote island.

The 20 mile rail should be replaced by 11 miles of High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) lanes and point-to-point express buses. Hoopili's 12,000 units should be replaced with 12,000 units in Kalihi and Kakaako. Big Wind should be replaced with geothermal power plants on Maui and Big Island, and coal, solar and biomass on Oahu.

The scores for HOT Lanes and Better Energy are shown in Table 3 below. These are good projects that should get done!

Note 1: Those who desire a better understanding on why big projects get or don’t get done may read articles on Megaprojects by Oxford University professor Bent Flyvbjerg, and Utah University's study on Bootleggers, Baptists and Enterprising Politicians, that is, the alliance of profit-driven interests, groups of uncompensated advocates, and opportunist politicians that form the tripartite support alliances needed for a big project to muddle through the project development process.

Note 2: On June 23rd at the Plaza Club, HVCA and ThinkTech present Big Projects in Hawaii - Why are they stuck? Contact: Jay Fidell, ThinkTech Hawaii,, (808) 780-9254 for information.