All aboard the Hawaii train – no, not that train

For more than 20 years, the debate over the development of a rail system in Honolulu has been a major point of contention in local politics, especially leading into 2008, 2012, and 2016 mayoral elections. Proponents of the system say it will alleviate worsening traffic congestion, already among the worst in the United States.

They assert that the urban agglomeration in south Oahu is ideally suited to rail. In opposition, freeway advocate Panos Prevedouros questions its cost effectiveness compared to alternatives and claims that it will have a marginal impact on traffic congestion. Other groups object to its cost as well as paying for the line without it serving their neighborhoods.

The project is financed by a surcharge on local taxes as well as a $1.55 billion grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). After major cost overruns, the tax surcharges were extended in 2016 by five years to raise another $1.2 billion; however, that additional funding was only sufficient for construction out to Middle Street in Kalihi. The FTA stated that its contribution is contingent to completion of the line all the way to Ala Moana Center and will not be increased.

After much wrangling, the state legislature in 2017 approved $2.4 billion in additional taxes to allow the city to complete the project according to the original plan.

The process to award the contract for building the final 4.3-mile (6.9 km) section through downtown Honolulu was suspended in 2015. The process was restarted in September 2017 and is expected to take eighteen months. The first major contract, estimated at $400 million, was awarded in May 2018.

The final cost has grown from preliminary projections of $4 billion in 2006 to between $9 billion and $10 billion by 2017.

Critics have called for a “forensic audit” to establish the cause of the increase. The tax increase legislation passed in 2017 also requires the State auditor to carry out an audit of the project’s accounts and to consider alternatives for completing the system.

For ore on the Hawaii Historical Railway, go to

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