Thursday, June 20, 2024

A Student's 3 Good Questions About Honolulu Rail

I receive about a dozen requests for interviews from students in Hawaii, mostly from the Univ. of Hawaii, working on papers or presentations about Honolulu's rail. Some of them are pure "make work" for me as the student lists 10 to 20 questions and expect me to write their paper for them. This recent inquiry from a high schooler was brief and on point. His request and my response below.


Dear Mr. Prevedouros,

I am a student at ‘Iolani School and would like to ask questions and gather information about the Hawaii rail system and its impact on traffic congestion. I read the transcript of your interview with Mr. Akina and read the article you wrote about the rail, and wanted to understand more about your perspective on the Hawaii rail system. Below are a few questions I would appreciate your insight on:

  1. As many people know, you were opposed to the rail. You mentioned many red flags that you believed were going to be problematic. Now that the rail has opened, what are the top three indicators that proved you were right? 
  2. Do you know where I can find data that shows whether or not the rail has succeeded in diminishing traffic as was promised? I haven’t been able to locate any statistics that prove the money was well-spent or that the investment was worth it for tax-payers (if that is possible)?
  3. Considering your past criticisms on the rail, do you see any potential for the rail to become successful in the long run? And if so, what changes would be necessary to achieve that goal?

Thank you for taking the time to read and answer my questions!


Here are brief answers to your important questions, but first, I should clarify that as a conscientious engineer, I oppose stupid infrastructure proposals, not rail as a mode for metropolitan transportation. In fact, in my textbook, I recommend metro rail for dense communities over 5 million people; and high speed rail for connecting large urban centers located 100 to 500 miles apart.

  1. Exorbitant costs for what it is (length and capacity) and very low ridership. The costs shouldn't have exceeded $6.4 billion but it'll exceed $12 billion (double or more than my high estimate of $6.4; at the time Oahu voted for it, its cost was stated at $4.6 billion). I also estimated that, when completed, rail won't carry the 105,000 daily riders forecast by the city-paid consultants, but up to 50,000. Post-Covid, 30,000 looks like the new maximum. So... the cost per passenger will be almost 6 times higher than originally planned!
  2. Presently the rail carries 3,000 person trips (riders) a day. Its daily productivity is equivalent to 6 to 10 city buses, so its effect on traffic is minuscule and imperceptible. Recall that the city's EIS stated that the weekday number of trips on Oahu exceed 4 million. If you divide my estimate of rail trips by that you get... 30000/4000000=0.75%... that's less than 1% of Oahu's trips served by the rail, so even when rail is completed, its effect on traffic congestion will be practically zero.
  3. Only after pigs fly! Unfortunately, until it is demolished or replaced, it will be a constant and major drag for Oahu's economy, i.e., a constant loss of taxpayer money to keep it going. Fares, at best, will cover 10% of its operating expenses and none of its construction and replacement or renovation costs that come due every 20 years or so.  After 30 years of operation, the delayed refurbishment of BART cost nearly $15 billion!