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Honolulu Rail's Next Stop?

Since Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle came into office, the $5.3 billion elevated-rail project has gone into overdrive—and so have its critics.


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According to the Hawaii Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, this is what Ala Moana Boulevard, near River Street, will look like when the city completes its $5.3 billion elevated-rail project.

photo: urban advantage inc.


 [UPDATE: On Tuesday, July 19, 2011, the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs rejected Bombardier Transportation's challenge to the city's intention to award Ansaldo with the contract to design, build, operate and maintain the elevated-rail line. Bombardier officials haven't announced whether or not they will take the issue to circuit court, the company's next recourse.]

“Hallelujah!”  Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle was excited. His jubilation echoed the mood inside the large white tent set up along the North-South Road in Kapolei. Powerful politicians—some who flew in specially from the Mainland—flanked Carlisle, including Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, City Council members, and present and past city officials. They traveled to West Oahu that sunny morning in February to hold a ceremonial groundbreaking for the estimated $5.3 billion elevated-rail project.

Building the Rail

The city has awarded several major contracts to construct the 20-mile elevated rail. Here’s what’s been awarded so far, not including the Ansaldo contract.
  • $483 Million to build the first, 6.5-mile segment from Kapolei to Pearl Highlands
  • $372 Million to build the second, 3.9-mile segment from Pearl City to Aloha Stadium
  • $195 Million to build the maintenance and storage facility in West O‘ahu
  • $156 Million spent on preparing the project’s environmental impact statement and other general engineering consulting work

The elected officials then gathered outside and lined up behind a freshly formed mound of dirt, and paid little attention to the mostly quiet protestors who were waving signs across the street. The politicians smiled for pictures and poked the mound and turned the dirt with an ‘o‘o (a Native Hawaiian digging stick). A coconut was cracked, the Royal Hawaiian Band played and food was served. The ceremony cost the city $30,000.

However, it was more of a publicity stunt than an actual groundbreaking. Many of its attendees certainly had reason to celebrate. Mock groundbreaking or not, the day marked the closest Honolulu has come to building a rail system. Mass transit has been hotly debated on Oahu for decades; this is the island’s third attempt to make it a reality. The city has achieved substantial milestones on the current road to rail: a .5 percent GET surcharge to fund rail has been levied on Oahu since 2007, Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the environmental impact statement (EIS) shortly after taking office last winter and, this past January, the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) approved the city’s rail project, enabling it to begin some preliminary construction, such as relocating utilities in Waipahu and grading and trenching work. 

But the city still has a long way to go. It’s been four months since the ceremony and no major construction has started—it was supposed to begin in December 2009—and there’s a possibility it won’t start anytime in 2011, or even next year.  In the meantime, its price tag will only increase. In 2007, when HONOLULU Magazine last covered rail in depth, the project was budgeted at $3.6 billion—it’s gone up almost $2 billion since then.

Our streets now (left) and our streets with rail (right): Nimitz Highway near the Nuuanu Stream Bridge, according to city renderings.

photos: urban advantage inc.

City officials portray rail as a done deal. “The voters have decided,” they say, repeating it like a mantra. However, only 53 percent of voters supported the rail project, hardly a landslide. Rail advocates shouldn’t pop the champagne cork just yet; the truth is, when it comes to rail, not everything is, well, concrete.

In the first half of this year alone, the rail project has been met with multiple challenges. Shortly after the FTA gave the city the green light, a federal lawsuit to stop it was filed. Not long after the city announced its decision to award a significant construction and maintenance contract, the losing bidders lodged protests. And after the City Council and the mayor’s Cabinet appointed members for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART), the semiautonomous rail-project board—before they even held their first official meeting this month—the two have continued to squabble over the board’s actual authority. Carlisle even threatened to take the members to court. Can the rail project survive these setbacks?  Should it? Depending on which side you’re on, these are either standard public-works hurdles that city officials can jump over or they are strategies meant to halt an expensive and controversial project.

Related Links:
Online Rail Survey Results
Photos: Our streets now, and our streets with rail.

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Honolulu Magazine January 2018
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