Unfortunately, there’s more than one ‘CRC’


We are not alone. The light rail tolling disaster being forced on our community is only one of many across our nation. Monday night at the city council meeting, I listened to the nonsense of Mayor Tim Leavitt and two condescending council members reiterate how they plan to force light rail on Clark County — even if the majority of citizens vote NO to fund it. Something is not right here.

Yet, we are not alone in our rush to squander billions for a light rail boondoggle that makes no sense. Our fellow Americans in Honolulu are in danger of losing the same battle. Read their story to recognize the same light rail invasion that defies common sense. Their economic future hangs in the balance just like ours. ~ David Madore


Honolulu’s beleaguered residents

Honolulu is set to construct an ambitious urban rail project. It’s a $5.125 billion behemoth that this metropolitan area with less than a million residents may not be able to afford.

Rendering of Honolulu light rail. Image: Honolulu Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Critically, there is plenty of competition for the scarce dollars that Honolulu residents have to spare. The city’s basic infrastructure is in bad shape.

(sewer) Water, water everywhere: A consent decree signed between local officials and the Environmental Protection Agency requires major upgrades to the sewer system. Sewer overflows are not unusual. Last year the state reported 17 sewage spills and four brown water alerts. Just a few days ago, 51,000 gallon raw sewage spilled into a local stream.

The state issued a brown water alert for the entire island of Oahu (which is also the combined city and county of Honolulu), including Waikiki Beach and all other beaches. As of this writing, the brown water advisory has not been cancelled. For this to happen in a highly tourist dependent economy is nothing short of astounding.

More than leaky pipes: The city’s water system is in need of major upgrades. From 2004 to 2009, water main breaks were virtually a daily occurrence. In an effort to solve the problem, the city has raised water rates 60 percent in the last five years and plans another 70 percent increase over the next five years. How much more will be required after that is anyone’s guess.

“How are people going to make it? I just don’t know,” said City Council Budget Chair Ann Kobayashi.

Unfunded government employee liabilities: In just three years, unfunded city and county employee pension and retiree benefits have risen per Honolulu household from $15,000 to $21,000. The state’s actuarial consultant says things are going to get worse. [Download the PDF]. The demographics are skewed against financial control, since people are living longer, and the number of retirees is rising relative to the workers who must pay (most of whom cannot even dream of such rich benefits). All of this means higher tax bills for Honolulu households.

High cost of housing, high cost of living: Honolulu residents already endure the most unaffordable housing in the nation, with median house prices 8.7 times median household incomes. That is three times those of Dallas-Fort Worth. [Internationl Housing Affordability Survey: 2012. PDF.]

Outside six metropolitan areas in the greater New York and San Francisco Bay areas, Honolulu’s overall cost of living is the highest in the nation. Honolulu residents pay $1.41 to buy what $1.00 buys in St. Louis, 1.24 for each $1.00 in Austin, and $1.21 for each $1.00 in Phoenix.

End of the Honolulu rail line. Photo: Wendell Cox.

This is not about easy choices. The sewer remediation, water system maintenance, government employee pension and government employee retiree health care benefits are mandatory. The rail expenditures are not.

Yet, the city of Honolulu would tax its residents even more to pay for a 20 mile rail line out to empty, open farmland well beyond the urban fringe. This is a project not unlike the early 1900s land speculation schemes of Henry Huntington in Los Angeles and the Sweringens of Shaker Heights (Cleveland). There is, however, one important difference. The Huntington and the Swearingens bet their own money. Honolulu is betting the money of its taxpayers.

End of the Honolulu Rail Line

The city hopes to receive $1.55 billion from the federal government, with local residents left to pay a hefty 70 percent of the cost. At more than $10,000 per household, the $3.575 billion local share would create the highest tax burden for any urban rail line ever built in the nation. But residents should “thank their lucky stars” if that’s all they have to pay, given the history of cost overruns on such projects around the world.

Stacking the deck, the federal court challenge: The planning process is being challenged in federal court. The plaintiffs argue that the rail selection process eliminated more cost effective options with biased analysis. This would not be the first time.

Annie Weinstock, Walter Hook, Michael Replogle, and Ramon Cruz of the Institute for Transportation Development and Policy (with a foreword by Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer), cited circuitous routing of a bus line that biased ridership forecasts in favor of light rail for the suburban Washington Purple Line. [Download PDF]. Weinstock, Hook, Repogle and Cruz refer to a similar “deck stacking technique” that favored an expensive rail project over a bus line in the suburban Washington
Dulles corridor. They fault local officials more than federal:

While there is no outright pro-rail bias at the FTA, there is indeed FTA complicity in the rail bias of city and state level mass transit project sponsors. The FTA, when evaluating New Starts and Small Starts project applications, tends to bow to political pressure to favor locally preferred alternatives and ignore certain forms of rail bias by the project sponsors.


Pulling the plug on rail? Former Governor Ben Cayetano has filed to run against Mayor Peter Carlisle in the August 2012 election. In announcing his entry, Governor Cayetano said “I will pull the plug on rail.” Polls show Mr. Cayetano ahead of both Mayor Carlisle and a third candidate.

Capital cost escalation: A state report indicated that construction costs could rise well above forecast. Every penny above the $5.125 billion capital cost will be the responsibility of local taxpayers. Based upon experience, this could easily raise the per household cost from $15,000 to $20,000.

Ridership optimism bias: Echoing general concerns raised by Weinstock, Hook, Replogle and Cruz (above), the state report indicated concern over an optimism bias in the ridership projections. For example, the city expects 60 percent of rail riders to use the bus to get to the train. This is four times the rate of the largest new rail system built in the nation (Washington’s Metro). Using the bus to connect to the train makes travel much slower and this factor has often been over-estimated by rail planners. This unrealistic assumption alone could qualify the Honolulu ridership forecast as among the most inaccurate in history. Fewer riders means more money out of residents pockets.

A billion here, a billion there: As if all of this were not enough, a report for the Federal Transit Administration [PDF], obtained by the Star Advertiser through a freedom of information request, indicates that the operating costs of the transit system may be understated by as much as $1 billion over the next 20 years. That’s $3,000 per Honolulu household (Note 1).

Federal doubts: Federal Transit Administration Regional Administrator Leslie Rogers expressed concern about Honolulu’s ability to afford the project in a letter to local officials, noting that the funding program is insufficient.

Local taxpayers likely will need to pony up more.

Debt limit suspended: Four months after having claimed it could afford the rail debt, the Star Advertiser discovered that the city had suspended its debt limit. Usually, breaches of trust like this become evident only much later in the rail construction process. A suspended debt limit means more money out of taxpayer pockets, or worse. (Jefferson County, Alabama filed bankruptcy after not being able to afford payments on its sewer debt).

Two ways light rail will change Honolulu

Honolulu waterfront walled off: The elevated design of the rail system is so intrusive that the local chapter of the American Association of Architects opposes the proposal. The elevated line would run directly in front of the waterfront. Its oppressive design would separate the rest of the historic Aloha Tower area from the rest of the city and could preclude future attractive “placemaking” development.

Honolulu has the second worst traffic congestion in the nation. Source: INRIX.

No traffic relief: According to the leading international reporting source, INRIX, despite being only the 52nd largest metropolitan area in the U.S., Honolulu has the second worst traffic congestion in the nation. Honolulu and Los Angeles are the only US metropolitan areas ranked in the worst 25 out of 200 in Western Europe and the United States. Even with the rail system, local plans call for traffic congestion to get worse.


First, get the transportation choices right

The Manila Rail System the Mayor Carlisle did not see.

Incumbent Mayor Peter Carlisle recently returned from a Potemkin Village tour of Manila raving about that city’s rail system. Governor Cayateno, whose familiarity with Manila extends well beyond a scripted tour, called Mayor Carlisle’s comparison with Manila “comedic,” noting that most residents cannot afford a car and that Manila has more than 10 times as many people.

The mayor may not have been aware that more than 4,000,000 – more than one-third – of Manila’s (National Capital Region) residents live in slums, shantytowns and informal settlements, where sewers are rare if not non-existent. Government projections indicate that the slum population will rise to 9,000,000 by 2050. More than one-half of Manila’s population will be in slums. PDF.

Manila slum. Photo: Wendell Cox.

In his recent “state of the city” address, Mayor Carlisle mused “Manila without rail transit would be unthinkable.” That may be the view of an itinerate visitor, but not of the majority who never ride it. For millions, a Manila with sewers is unimaginable. First world urban areas all have sewers. But many do not have rail systems. Honolulu could use some genuine prioritization and less contempt for the hard earned income of its residents.


Note 1: Illinois Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen, who was minority leader of the United States Senate in the 1960s is reported to have said: “A million here, a million there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money.” The line has been often repeated, though the rise in government spending is indicated by the inflation from “millions” to “billions.”

Note 2: Manila’s rail system serves a very small market and represents a small share of transit ridership. The latest available data suggested that barely five percent of transit ridership was on rail.

Image and photo credits: visual of rail system in downtown Honolulu courtesy of American Institute of Architects, Honolulu Chapter. All other images by Wendell Cox.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life

This article originally appeared at newgeography, some edits have been made for our site.