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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