Rail to Nowhere: Honolulu, Hawaii's Train Boondoggle


In 2011, officials in Honolulu, Hawaii began construction on a controversial 20-mile rail project partly because of almost $1.8 billion in federal subsidies to President Barack Obama's home state. The project's total cost estimate stands at $5.3 billion, but if other similar projects are any indication, the final price tag will increase dramatically before anyone even gets to buy a ticket. What's playing out in the Aloha State is happening all over the country.

"This rail project is our bridge to nowhere", says University of Hawaii law professor Randall Roth. "We are convinced that it will be billions of dollars over budget and we think they will try to get the federal government to bail them out."

Hawaii has some of the worst congestion and roads in the country and studies consistently rank its major city, Honolulu, among the worst cities for traffic. The INRIX Index has estimated that Honolulu drivers waste an average of 58 hours in traffic every year during peak travel times.

Yet there's no reason to believe the Honolulu's rail project will do anything to improve traffic congestion. In fact, it's likely to divert resources from more-affordable solutions.

"The one thing about these projects [is that] they are very inviting politically," says former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano. Along with Cliff Slater of Honolulutraffic.com and University of Hawaii's Roth, Cayetano has filed a federal lawsuit against the rail project that's held up construction. They claim the city misled the public about the total cost of the project and didn't deliver fully on a required review of alternative solutions to a rail line.

Panos Prevedouros, one of the state's leading transportation experts, says the rail plan that the feds approved will siphon off state funding for the area's bus system. The project's own report, which Prevedouros says is filled with overly optimistic estimates of rail ridership, still shows that Honolulu's congestion will be worse in the future with rail. "The point of doing any cost effective type of analysis is out of the window," says Panos, "the benefits are not there."

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered an expedited hearing for the federal rail lawsuit on August 15th. 

Go here for Reason Foundation analysis of mass transit.

Produced by Sharif Matar. Camera by Matar and Zach Weissmueller.

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  1. I’ll wager $20 billion +.

    1. Ill say $20 Billion and one dollar

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  2. Glad Drudge found Reason, I hope he posts more to wake people up to the dangers of Big Government in the future.

  3. Why am I hearing the Springfield residents from the Simpsons show singing about the monorail?

    They are doing the same thing in Minnesota, DESTROYING traffic flow! The MN DOT completely FUDGED the study on how it will affect traffic because they knew if the results were released it would never have been built. Instead of stopping with the crappy one that exists, THEY ARE BUILDING ANOTHER LINE FROM MINNEAPOLIS TO SAINT PAUL!

    The state and local governments would have been hailed as heroes for building more lanes on the highways and improving bus service. Instead of fixing or improving infrastructure the politicians would rather “leave their legacy”. It’s enough to drive reasonable people crazy.

  4. We have Mayor Mallory in Cincinnati promoting a train that will go about two miles and will costs millions of dollars. Cincinnati is broke and continues to pursue Mallory’s folly with no regard to who will pay for or use it!

    1. Rhinobuster| 8.1.13 @ 7:56PM |#
      “We have Mayor Mallory in Cincinnati promoting a train that will go about two miles and will costs millions of dollars. Cincinnati is broke and continues to pursue Mallory’s folly with no regard to who will pay for or use it!”

      Well, SF is gonna out-bid you.
      We have an ex-mayor ‘playa’ Willy Brown. He was (and remains) among the most corrupt politicos you’d ever encounter, but given SF’s love for corrupt progs, he gets a newspaper column rather than a jail term.
      We also have a 2 mile *subway* which is budgeted at $1.6Bn, but only when no one is laughing.
      Willy got what he wanted when he was mayor by buying off Rose Pak who delivers the China Town vote and got current mayor (tool) Ed Lee elected.
      Willy makes no secret that it’s a total waste of money, but that every mayor has to have a ‘legacy’, regardless of the cost to the taxpayer.
      Yeah, he’s about as sleazy as you can get; he worked a room where Sevos were having lunch and I refused to shake his hand.

  5. Republocrats, led by their Obamessiah, are off the light rails on that crazy train.

    1. Republicans and Obamamessiah? Hawaii Dems voted for this.. are you nuts.

  6. Have always wondered…interstate designations for Hawaii?

    1. Frank Siegler| 8.1.13 @ 8:12PM |#
      “Have always wondered…interstate designations for Hawaii?

      Pretty sure it was never presented as anything other than porkl; like “interstates” in AK.
      You have to admit that claiming an island 4,000 miles off-shore is pretty brave; WIH else was congress gonna do when they handed out the dough?

    2. Interstate because of the funding.
      ..State and US highways get funding from those accounts, so naturally they have those designations. Shouldn’t highways funded through the Interstate account be labelled ‘Interstate’ ?

      1. Highways that are a part of the Interstate Highway System are designated as I-80, I-5, etc. Those would be the red, white and blue route signs.

        Conventional surface roads in the U.S. highway system are designated US 30, US 6, etc. and use black on white route signs. State highways receive state highway designations.

        Hawaii’s “interstate” highways were largely paid for out of federal interstate highway funds but, in a concession to reality, are designated H-1, H-2 and H-3. They are “interstate” highways that never leave Honolulu county.

  7. Building the thing won’t even be the worst of it. The salt air will eat the rails, structure, and cars. Metal doesn’t do well in Hawaii. Just look at the condition of the automobiles after a few years, and just imagine what a nightmare maintenance will be on a light rail system. Billions to build, gazillions to maintain, and the work force in Hawaii is not known for efficiency either. Guaranteed expensive failure.

    1. Dogula| 8.1.13 @ 8:20PM |#
      “Building the thing won’t even be the worst of it. […] Metal doesn’t do well in Hawaii.”

      Ah, you’re thinking like an engineer! Totally irrelevant.
      The union workers will do wonderfully, as will the contractors who replace the salt-ruined parts.
      This is not an engineering project, it’s a vote-buying project!

      1. Like the aloha stadium…constant maintenance and rust control.

    2. While there is plenty wrong with this project, salty air is not a significant issue. It’s not like the ships that travel through the oceans aren’t made of metal. Or for that matter, it’s not as if Hawaii isn’t full of metal road signs, light polls, bridges, etc. How many thousands of miles of railroad is within 10 miles of an ocean in the world? Salty air doesn’t destroy a rail system.

      1. Thanks for clearen that up there ‘Jaster, I wernt aware Moran University was handing out engineering degrees, congratulations.
        BTW. Salty air destroys everything it touches, its called corrosion. duh

  8. Hey, more shovel ready jobs! It’ll stimulate the economy!

    1. “It’s stimulating! It’s stimulating!”
      Rocky Horror Picture Show?

  9. Will the train take the soon-to-be-deported homeless to the airport?

  10. I live in Honolulu, and let’s be clear about one thing: this is not a partisan issue here. While the relatively few Republicans here tend to be more consistent in their opposition to the light-rail project, so too do many otherwise Obama-supporting Democrats. This is seen here as a cronyism/inefficiency/design issue, not a partisan one.

    1. Trying to blame Republicans for this mess… typical. It’s all Dem and all Obama idea… typical libtard.

  11. Wow, they did the same thing in CA, and CA is just as stupid.
    Dianne Feinstein’s husband won the bid to do the rail to nowhere in CA. Another collasal boondoggle people would like to have stopped ASAP!!!!

  12. Why are Democrats so fixated on 19th century solutions to 21st century problems?

    1. Hmmm, when did Marx live?

  13. Simply review the history of Detroit’s “People Mover” to get the feel of failure on these commie-trains:


    1. What a joke that thing is, and these days I wouldn’t even trust riding it.

      God only knows neglect in maintenance it faces.
      Especially considering they’re always threatening to shut it down.

  14. I lived on Oahu for 10 years. This is nothing like Detroit. Detroit suffered unions and global competition. This is about mass transit into Honolulu where everybody goes to work. Honolulu is a tourist industry not a union controlled dinosaur manufacturing industry. The two are as different day and night. If Obama is trying to help push this mass transit rail system through, then I am happy is doing something right. This is a very good thing for the people and the Earth.

    1. “This is a very good thing for the people and the Earth.”

      Two lies and a dose of self-righteousness in one sentence!
      No, it is neither.

    2. Mizzi, you could not be more wrong. My family and I moved to Honolulu in 1968 and my folks still live there, near Aloha Stadium. The union machine in Hawaii is as strong if not stronger than the union machines of Detroit, Chicago, and other large cities. The over-development of the island of Oahu is BECAUSE of unions. The Convention and Visitors Center is a good example of unions wringing every last drop of the public fund. The light rail system, which my mother is actively fighting against, will not pay for itself, contrary to what is being sold. In addition, it will be unsightly and, indeed, be a maintenance nightmare. Just look at what happened to the steel monolith which is Aloha Stadium. It was supposed to be a moving stadium, to accomodate football and baseball…but rusted so badly that it stopped moving a few years after being built. You’re on the wrong train, Mizzi!

      1. The convention center was supposed to be ultramodern low maintenance project. Because it’s made of glass the AC cost are outrageous.

    3. I was born and raised in Honolulu. It is the most pro-union, pro-central government place in the USA. If you want some real entertainment, try reading comments sections of the local online newspapers. Absolutely in the tank for everything the left espouses, with no critical analysis of any of it.
      It’s why I left.

    4. You lived here for ten years and didn’t know the state of Hawaii is extremely influenced by unions…the rail project was union supported,it doesn’t matter what the people of Hawaii want.

  15. Shut up and get on the train!

  16. Have you ever been to Oahu? You can literally WALK to any point on the island! Get out of the car, and get some exercise.

    1. @ Roundup …Have you ever been to Oahu?

    2. You can literally walk to any point in the 48 states, well, with a bit of swimming now and then.

  17. Shades of the CA super train to link LA to SF via some tiny towns no one goes to.

    The capital cost will easily be $200bn+ and the line will never happen fully. The Sierra Club and pals will hold up the permitting in court for the next 200 years, at which point California will have long ago slid off into the ocean never to be seen again.

    1. There will be that section of unused track between two towns nobody goes to.

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  19. The Rail project is worse than when they built Aloha Stadium out of “Rustproof” steel! I have some future beachfront property on the Big Island that I’d like to sell these “dim bulb” politicians.

  20. Should just go with busses. Return on light rail will not justify the cost. Like pooring money down a bottomless hole. I know from first hand experience – 28 years.

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  22. Another democrat ‘led’ city about to bite the dust. And the national democrats will want to ‘bail’ it out also. Only sane people would recognize that a precedent would be set with a bailout of Detroit that will reverberate across the Country. Every large city will be looking for a bailout from the Federal Government to rescue them from years of fraud, corruption, mismanagement, and general ineptitude. What’s another $10trillion or so of public debt matter? The democrats say spend and we draw money from the money tree in the taxpayers pockets.

  23. Lived in Hawaii for 4 years… loved the people, HATED the politics and union death grip so prevalent throughout the islands.
    This project sounds like a disaster… DO NOT ask the mainland taxpayers to bail you out if the sh*t hits the fan… unfortunately Washington could care less if Hawaii burns then sinks into the ocean. Scratch this dumb, liberal idea off the chalkboard.

  24. Don’t fall for this people. Here in Austin we voted down this light rail (solution?) year after year …. and now we have it. No one really rides it, with the exception of a few handfuls of state employees. Each day train after train stops traffic at roadway crossings (congesting traffic further) and when the bright shiny new train passes you can see all the empty seats through the windows. So frustrating. Tell the feds to put their freshly printed toilet paper money where the sun doesn’t shine.

  25. Wasting 58 hours a year in traffic? Wow, that’s 15 minutes a day…brutal commute.

  26. I live on Oahu and this island is so team blue is slides past indigo into the ultra-violet. This project is a pure sleaze union payoff. Oahu is one city/county government and the rest of the island will be paying for this leftist dream. But there is not enough money on Oahu and the stain will expand to encompass the wallets from all the islands here and try to expand to the mainland. I beg you, don’t pay it!
    How blue is HI? Try one GOP member in the entire state senate and he would be stained as a RINO by the Massachusetts GOP.

    1. The only potential bright spot about this rail nightmare are the “native activists.” They will pile lawsuit after lawsuit to “protect their iwi” (aka bones of long dead and forgotten people on property the activists don’t own) that eventually the entire budget of Honolulu will go into pockets of lawyers and the resulting bankruptcy will put a temporary pause to this project.

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  29. I can totally understand making alternatives to driving.

    However, WHY RAIL? It takes YEARS if not decades to build and the areas you build to may no longer need rail before the thing is paid off.

    What exactly is wrong with busses? They take less time to procure, you can easily make lanes in current roads just for them and, most importantly, if a bus line is no longer being used, you can just make a new bus line TOMORROW and divert the unused busses to serve areas that need themT

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