Hawaii Struggles to Keep Rail Project From Becoming a Boondoggle
From the start — when Honolulu officials began talking about building a 20-mile elevated train line near the southern coast of Oahu — there were concerns. How much would it cost? What would it do to the character of a state that has long celebrated its natural beauty and isolation? Can an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean handle the kind of ambitious public works project one would associate with urban centers like Boston and New York?
Eight years after voters in Hawaii approved a referendum clearing the way for construction of the rail line, many of the concerns that have been voiced during a 40-year debate over the project have turned out to have merit.
The project was initially projected to cost $4.6 billion, but that number now is $6.7 billion, forcing the city in January to approve a five-year extension of a general excise tax surcharge to help cover the overrun.
City officials are awaiting the opening of two sets of bids, covering the final 10 miles of the project, to see if even that is enough. At this rate, city officials said, it could have the distinction of being, on a per-capita basis, the most expensive transit project in the country’s history — in a state that also has the highest per capita cost of living in the nation.
The train, which will take passengers from this city in western Oahu to the edge of Waikiki, is at least two years behind schedule, set for opening at the end of 2021.
As construction jams traffic and upends neighborhoods, a poll conducted in February by Civil Beat, a Hawaii news site, found an overwhelming number of respondents who said they either considered the rail plan a bad idea or were troubled by its progress. Just 15 percent of those polled called it a good idea.
“It’s a disaster. In my view, we are worse than how we expected,” said Panos D. Prevedouros, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Hawaii, who has twice run for mayor opposing the project. “We were saying at the beginning we would be lucky if it could be done for $6.4 billion, and people thought we were close to lunacy. We are sitting here today, and we are now computing about $7.1 billion cost.”
“We have become numb to these numbers,” Mr. Prevedouros said. “But it’s very dear for a small place like us, with only like 400,000 taxpayers.”
Yet at this point, even its most ardent opponents are resigned to its completion. Close to seven miles of concrete railway are already arching up to 40 feet over farmland and crowded streets, and pillars are in place for the first of 21 stations. Federal transportation authorities have contributed $1.5 billion to the project, which Honolulu would probably have to return if it were cut back or abandoned.
“People are very angry about it,” said Mayor Kirk Caldwell of Honolulu, as he drove through the streets of his city. “But we are now heading toward eight miles completed. It’s like we are pregnant — we can’t just stop and tear it down.”
Daniel Grabauskas, the executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, said it was now just a matter of time until the benefits long promised by its advocates, to help Oahu deal with choking traffic and an absence of affordable housing, would be realized.
For now, “they don’t get to ride it,” he said. “They don’t get to see it. They have to deal with the traffic. This is kind of the darkest time for any new system that is coming into fruition.”
Hawaii is experiencing the kind of construction trauma well known to mainland governments that have embarked on such ambitious works projects as the Boston tunnel known as the “Big Dig” or the high-speed train that Gov. Jerry Brown is advocating in California.
But more than that, it is a discomfiting reminder of how at least one part of this once-tranquil island is changing, made readily apparent by the jumble of construction crews building the rail line and a skyline already crowded with cranes.
Ernest Y. Martin, the chairman of the Honolulu City Council, said he was stunned at how quickly the price tag exceeded projections.
“I was surprised we incurred a cost overrun so early in the project,” he said. “It was very disappointing. I still believe it’s the right thing to do.”
When cost estimates were first offered to voters, the region was in a recession, and construction crews and equipment were idling. Opponents filed two lawsuits, which delayed bidding on the second part of the project by 13 months.
By the time Honolulu won those cases, the construction market had exploded, which became clear when railway officials opened up bids.
“We gagged on the number,” Mr. Grabauskas said. “It was something over 60 percent higher than the estimates we had in 2011 and 2010.”
Benjamin J. Cayetano, a former governor of Hawaii and longtime critic of the project, argued that officials lowballed the original estimates of what it would cost to win voter approval.
“What is happening is what most of us predicted would happen,” he said. “The way I look at it, it might hit $9 billion. They haven’t hit the hardest part yet.”
The highway leading from Kapolei to Honolulu is packed with traffic, particularly during rush hours.
“I believe the rail project will make getting around Honolulu a lot simpler and easier for a large majority of our community,” said Gov. David Ige, a Democrat. “I do believe it’s important.”
And on an island with an acute shortage of housing, the corridor provides a passageway to encourage construction.
“Rail is a way to help get to affordable housing,” said Bob Nakata, a housing advocate and onetime pastor with the Kahalu’u United Methodist Church. “Rail as transportation is almost secondary.”
The main concern now is whether the city has raised enough money to finish the project.
“I’m holding my breath,” Mr. Caldwell said. “You see all these cranes everywhere? All of this is competing for a limited supply that has to be put on a boat to get here.”
Mr. Grabauskas said the question will not be resolved until summer. “We have not yet opened the bids for the final 10 miles and the final 12 stations,” he said. “That’s going to make or break us.”
At this point, though, even another round of cost overruns might not make a difference. “It’s gotten to the point where even I don’t recommend walking away from it,” Mr. Cayetano said.