Arguments For and Against
a Rail Transit System
THE LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS OF HONOLULU
RAIL TRANSIT TASK FORCE
LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS OF HONOLULU
Rail Transit Task Force
Pro and Con Arguments
for a Rail Transit System for Honolulu
The Rail Transit Task Force has been in existence for three months, operating under a mandate to study the arguments for and against a proposed rail system for Honolulu. Members have included both proponents and opponents. Only in that way, we felt, would it be possible to give to League members a report that would present the best arguments both sides can advance.
The Task Force itself has not taken a stand one way or the other on rail. Should the League decide that it does want to take a position for or against the specific type of transit system now being proposed, the Task Force hopes that this document will be of some value in helping League members form an opinion on the matter.
A word about the organization of this report: The arguments developed by both sides (pro and con) do not exactly parallel each other. An effort has been made to organize the report in such a way that the reader will be able to compare arguments on similar issues when that is possible. Readers should not, however, expect symmetry or one-for-one arguments and rebuttals.
The editor realizes that the authors of both position statements may be unhappy with the compromises that she has effected. Nonetheless, an honest effort has been made to keep the integrity of their arguments intact.
Finally, the editor, who also served as chairperson for the Task Force, would like to express her deepest appreciation for the diligence and courtesy shown by all Task Force members, whatever their persuasion. Jim Koshi and Lorenn Walker, who headed the "pro" team, and Astrid Monson, Charles Carole and Mildred Walston, authors of the "con" arguments, merit special thanks for their hard work.
SUMMARY BY RAIL TRANSIT PROPONENTS
Honolulu has a serious traffic congestion problem, and it's steadily getting worse. Since 1963, a number of studies have been made to find solutions to the traffic problem. In 1967, the Oahu Transportation Study concluded that a fixed guideway transit system would be part of our total transportation system. No single method of transportation can meet all our transportation needs. A rapid transit system would only be a part of our total transportation system.
Although a rapid transit system was suggested 23 years ago, there has been heated debate and disagreement over its need. The City and County of Honolulu attempted to develop the HART system 15 years ago, but it was rejected. Now, probably because everyone has experienced Honolulu's gridlock traffic conditions, traffic congestion is the number one public concern. Fortunately, business, government and labor have stopped arguing and finally united in supporting a transit system for Honolulu.
Local cooperation for a rapid transit system is important for obtaining federal funding. Other cities are competing for the federal funds to build rapid transit systems, but because of the uniqueness of Honolulu, we are ranked high with the federal government for the scarce funds. The federal government has recently committed to funding 30 percent of a system based on our assurances that we can contribute the remainder.
Transportation is a public need just like electricity and telephones. A ,transit system cannot and should not be guaranteed to be financially successful. No public utility or business has ever been started with a full guarantee of success. The longterm values of our telephone and electric systems were not anticipated when they were first proposed. Likewise, all of the long-term values of a rapid transit system cannot be completely anticipated now.
Many benefits of a rail system cannot be quantified. Everyone will benefit from cleaner air, open rural spaces, and from living in a place where access to travel is easier. We should consider the future transportation system and the environment we are creating for future generations. The sooner we start building a rapid transit system, the more we'll save in future building costs.
Rather than try what has been tried before, we should create an innovative transportation system. We have an opportunity to make Honolulu's future something more than what is offered today in other cities.
SUMMARY BY RAIL TRANSIT OPPONENTS
Which would it be if we built rail transit: Sleek, white trains gliding swiftly above a lush green landscape while traffic moves freely below? Or high transit fares, disappointingly low ridership, staggering municipal debt, and continued traffic congestion?
Big business, big government and big labor are united in a m�dia blitz to sell rail transit. Millions of tax dollars have been spent on planning and publicizing choices between routs and station locations, but there has been little public debate on whether rail should be built at all.
The "Alternative Analysis and Draft Environmental Impact Statement" was finally released to the public on March 28, 1990. For the first time it is possible to look behind the rhetoric and analyze the facts and projections put forward to justify rail. Rail ridership projections, included in a report submitted to the City Council in December 1989 and to the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, have been deleted from the new "AA-EIS." Ridership projections discussed below are therefore based on the December report (City and County of Honolulu, Honolulu Rapid Transit Development Project, "Project Summary.")
The following arguments emerge against rail transit:
- Oahu's projected population is far smaller than other cities with rail systems.
- Projected rail ridership-to-population ratios are unreasonably high.
- The projected increase in transit ridership if rail is built is minimal, at best.
- Projected fares are at current levels, so that ridership would decrease as they are raised in the future.
- The projected decrease in vehicle volumes and mileage on the roads is small.
- Projected travel times for automobile travel will hardly decrease at all.
- Projected total transit time savings for those using the rail system are modest, especially for the majority of riders making short trips.
- Projected capital costs and permanent annual costs are much higher for rail than for other alternatives.
- The large difference between annual costs and fare revenues for rail would be a heavy burden on the island, either in cash subsidies or otherwise.
- The proposed excise tax increase is regressive and would bear most heavily on the poor.
- Rail transit differs from such public utilities as water, electricity or telephone in two ways: a) It is used by only a small fraction of the population, rather than by almost everyone (and even then its benefits are negligible); b) Rail users pay only a small fraction of the actual costs of each ride they take, whereas other types of public utilities are entirely paid for by those who use them.
In the older Eastern cities and in federal policy, attention is increasingly being given to such alternate solutions as HOV lanes, para-transit, road pricing and road rationing. Some of these may not yet be popular, but neither are increased user fees for transit nor the local tax increases that federal transportation policy is shifting to cities and states. We urge very careful consideration before Honolulu commits itself to an expensive rail system which may already be outmoded and which even its proponents admit is no solution.
Ridership will be high. Because ridership on The Bus ranks 3rd or 4th highest in the country, we can predict that people will use a rapid transit system here. The City and County of Honolulu predicts that with a rapid transit system, ridership will increase 30 percent over present ridership of The Bus. This estimate is based on a conservative methodology because the City and County recognizes the overestimates made in other cities. The federal government concurs that the City's estimates of ridership increases are conservative, considering the high ridership of The Bus. (Source: City and County of Honolulu, "Why Rapid Transit in Honolulu?" February 1990, page 7. Hereinafter cited as Rapid Transit Paper.)
About 6 million tourists visit Oahu each year. Many of them now ride the buses, and can be expected to ride a rail system, too, if one is in place.
Regardless of who the individuals are that ride The Bus -whether they're tourists, students, senior citizens, etc. -- they are people in our community and they have transportation needs that must be met. If they were not riding The Bus, they'd probably be riding in cars.
The "AA-DEIS projects total daily transit ridership in 2005 at 254,600 (the average of six full-length rail alternatives). This represents an increase of 6 percent over the current bus ridership of 240,000.
Honolulu is too small a city to sustain rail. The entire population of Oahu is 850,000, making it the 49th largest metropolitan area in the United States. Of the 20-odd larger cities that have or are building heavy or light rail systems, just three -- Portland, Buffalo, and Sacramento -- have metropolitan populations under 1,500,000. (Population figures from the 1989 World Almanac.) The average metropolitan population of the 10 cities with heavy rail is 5,593,000, and of the five with light rail, 1,671,000. According to the city's General Plan and Development Plans, Oahu's population will grow to 975,000 by the year 2005, and to 999,500 by 2010.
Ridership in other cities has been far below projections. A recent federal Urban Mass Transit Administration report lists 4 cities with metropolitan populations ranging from 1,200,000 to4 2,500,000 which have recently built new light rail systems. (Source: UMTA, "Urban Rail Transit Projects: Forecast vs. Actual Ridership and Costs," October 1989.) In these cities, rail ridership has averaged just 34 percent of projections.
Projections for Honolulu are out of line with those for other cities. Daily ridership in the four cities mentioned in the previous paragraph has averaged 1.5 rides per 100 population, compared with Honolulu's projections of 17.9 rides per 100 population. (This is the ratio of rail rides to population calculated from the sources cited above and from the rail ridership projections included in the table "Summary of Key Evaluation Measures" in the December 1989 report to the City Council and to UMTA, "Honolulu Rapid Transit Development Project, Project Summary.")
Even allowing for Honolulu's alleged (though debatable) linearity and high bus transit usage, the large discrepancy between Honolulu ridership projections and actual usage in other cities raises questions. In Vancouver, B.C. -- whose metropolitan population is 1,300,000, and whose "advanced light rail" system is said to be a mod 1 for what is being proposed here -- the ridership rate is less than 6 rail rides per 100 population. In 4 U.S. cities with new heavy rail systems, the average ratio of rail rides to population is only 5.96 per 1,00 population. (Figures based on the same sources cited in previous paragraph.)
Honolulu's high bus ridership is based on special circumstances. Three factors come into play here:
First, the $15 monthly passes, the reduced student fares (accounting annually for 11,600,000 trips), the free passage for senior citizens and disabled persons (accounting for 14,300,000 rides annually), and the free transfer privileges (accounting for another 5,100,000 rides) make its average fare of 25 cents per ride among the cheapest -- if not the cheapest -- of any comparable city in the country. (Source: Honolulu Department of Transportation Services via MTL, 1989.) Increasing fares (as would likely happen with a rail transit system) would decrease ridership.
Second, in Honolulu, free transfers are counted as rides.-In some cities, transfers are not counted as separate rides. This, too, tends to inflate Honolulu ridership figures when compared with cities that do not count transfers.
Third, Honolulu's ridership rates are further inflated by counting tourist rides while tourists are not counted as part of the population base. Thus, with 7 million tourists a year, if each one took just one round trip bus ride, this would account for 14 million of the total 1989 ridership of 75 million." (Ibid.)
Projected rail riders in Honolulu amount to just 9 percent of Oahu's population. Even if the Honolulu projection is accepted, the actual number of individuals using rail would be only half (or less) of the 174,600 projected daily rides, assuming round trips. Thus, no more than 87,300 individuals would be involved -- less than 9 percent of the projected population for 2005. The other 91 percent would use the bus, private cars, trucks or vans, taxis, bicycles, or would walk.
ENVIRONMENTAL, AESTHETIC, AND HEALTH ISSUES
Air quality is improved with rail. Studies show that hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide emissions are reduced by more than 99 percent when an electrically powered rapid transit system is substituted for an average commuter car trip. (Source: Rapid Transit Paper, page 8.) Additionally, emissions of nitrogen oxides are reduced by more than 60 percent, while particulate emissions decrease by more than 90 percent. (Source: ibid.) At present, 70 percent of all power generated in Hawaii goes for transportation uses. (Clean air also has aesthetic benefits.)
Elevated viaducts are visually more pleasing than expanded freeways. The elevated viaducts that would be part of the rail transit system are better looking than buses with or without overhead electrical wires. Few would challenge the idea that an elevated viaduct is less intrusive than the 12 additional freeway lanes that would have to be built to handle the equivalent number of riders.
Rail has significant health benefits. If the rail transit system is electrically powered, air quality would be improved and there would be less smog, which can impair people's lung functions. Even if the system were run on petroleum products, it would take less fuel to run than it takes to run buses and cars to transport the same numbers of riders. Also, one could expect fewer car accidents with a rapid transit system. A last point: riding a rapid transit system would be far less stressful to commuters than driving a car, and this could also have health benefits.
The benefits can be argued, but in any case, they will be, realized only to the extent rail is able to get cars off the road. The city's projections show car usage decreasing, with rail, only by 1 percent to 3 percent. (See the discussion on rail's effect on traffic, which occurs elsewhere in this report.) This is hardly enough to result in the health benefits claimed.
Even electric trains will probably be powered by fossil fuel. Most of Oahu's electrical power comes from the burning of petroleum products. Thus, claims for improved .air quality with rail are not all they may seem. (To be sure, there is a small fraction of the power that comes from burning trash at the HPOWER facility, but this, too, has adverse consequences for air quality.) If rail ridership was great, overall reductions in some emissions might occur; but if ridership projections turn out to be overestimates, rail will have no positive effect on air quality.
The elevated viaducts may be unsightly to some. What are now pleasant viewplanes in many areas of Honolulu will be disrupted by elevated viaducts. Trains may be noisy, to say nothing of the noise and inconvenience of years of construction.
Individual health benefits are negligible, if they exist at all. For many people, just getting to the rail transit station will require a trip by bus -- and if the bus system is reduced as part of boosting rail, that will only add stress, not subtract it. Moreover, if rail transit is inconvenient, many present bus riders may find themselves turning to their cars for commutes -thus again potentially adding to the population's level of stress.
Committing funds to rail transit precludes spending them in a way that would bring greater benefits. Again, the environmental, aesthetic, health, energy-saving and other benefits claimed for rail transit can be achieved only in proportion to the number of cars "taken off the roads." These marginal benefits have to be evaluated in terms of what comparable expenditures could do for other public needs -schools, child care, health facilities, housing, water and sewage infrastructure, etc.
GEOGRAPHIC AND DEMOGRAPHIC ISSUES
Oahu's geography favors a light rail system. Most cities form round, sprawling shapes, but southern Oahu is linear. Most major activity centers, the areas where people travel to and from, are located in a line from Waikiki to Waiawa. The nature of this line makes a rapid transit system particularlyviable. It would take 12 additional lanes of freeways to provide what a rapid transit system can provide Honolulu. (Source: Rapid Transit Paper, page 3.)
Development is "fattening up" southern Oahu. A close examination of southern Oahu will show that, though the corridor is relatively narrow Diamond Head of downtown, it broadens out to an enormous pear-shaped area as you go out toward Ewa and Central Oahu. The vaunted linearity that is supposed to make Honolulu so amenable to a fixed-rail system is thus quickly vanishing.
EFFECT ON TRAFFIC
A light rail system is a sensible way to reduce congested traffic. Over the past 20 years the population of Honolulu has increased by 34 percent and the number of motor vehicles has increased by 134 percent. (Source: Honolulu Rapid Transit Development Project Summary, March 1990. Hereinafter "Project Summary.) About 20,000 motor vehicles are added to Hawaii's roads each year. (Source: Hawaii Data Book, 1989.)
Hawaii ranks high in its dependence on cars. To illustrate: Hawaii has 760.8 motor vehicles per 1,000 population, while in the United States overall, the figure is 572 per 1,000. In Japan, the figure is 235 per 1,000, while in the Soviet Union, it is just 42 per 1,000. The population is expected to grow by more than 120,000 people in the next 15 years, and the number of cars per 1,000 population will likely continue to grow as well.
A rapid transit system will not eliminate all traffic, of course. But a rapid transit system is needed to prevent total gridlock and to meet the increased transportation needs of the future.
The fixed guideway system for rail means existing traffic patterns will not be adversely impacted. The guideway will be built above present road medians. Some roads will need to be widened, but no lanes of any roads will be eliminated. The H-1 viaduct was constructed with a place for the transit system, so no lanes of that freeway will have to be given over to accommodate the rail guideway.
Travel times will be reduced. The proposed system will travel about 50 miles per hour, and could be expected to reduce travel times by a half to a third over what they now are. For example, the ride from Pearl City to Downtown could be reduced by 40 minutes; Waikiki to Downtown by 15 minutes; and Ala Moana to Pearl City by 45 minutes. Compared to travel on roadways, a rapid transit system is especially efficient because no delays would occur due to cars breaking down and car accidents that block lanes and cause traffic jams, sometimes for many hours.
The effect on daily traffic volume would be minimal. In 2005, traffic vehicle (automobile) miles traveled per day is projected to be only 1.2 percent less if a rail system were in operation than with an improved, augmented all-bus system. In fact, it is projected to be only 2.6 percent less than what would be the case with essentially the present bus system. (Source: "Alternative Analysis and Draft Environmental Impact Statement," Table S.7, page S-28.)
Even with fewer bus miles traveled, overall traffic volume will not be decreased significantly. Most rail users will be former bus riders. There would obviously be fewer bus vehicle miles traveled, due largely to the fact that there would be many shorter runs and some routes would be eliminated. However, even if the traffic impact of the space each bus takes on the road is equated to six automobiles, the overall reduction would only be 3.1 percent and 3.2 percent, respectively.1
The projected increase in transit rides is not enough to affect total trip volumes. The total number of daily transit trips (bus and rail combined) is projected to be about 254,600 in 2005 if the rail system is built, compared with 229,600 with an Improved and augmented "Best Bus - TSM" system. (Source: "AADEIS," Table S.8, page S-31.) Thus, there would be 25,000 more daily transit trips with a rail system -- an increase of 10.9 percent in transit rides, but an impact of less than 0.84 percent on 1985's total daily trips by all modes (2,984,344) (source: "AA-DEIS," Table 3.6, page 3-22), and an even smaller fraction of trips for the year 2005.
Even if all rides diverted to transit occur in peak periods, traffic reduction would be small. Some argue that it is not total daily trips that matter, but travel during peak period (rush hour) times. Even if it is assumed that all the diverted trips during the day -- 25,000 -- are between home and work during peak periods, the effect on traffic would still be small. The 1980 Census showed that 37,000 workers (10 percent of the total) used mass transit, and that 282,500 workers (76.4 percent) used 233,450 cars, vans or trucks, at an average occupancy of 1.21 per vehicle. (Source: Honolulu Department of General Planning, "Statistics by Neighborhoods from U.S. Bureau of the Census," September 1983.) Thus, there would be 12,500 fewer auto trips in each peak period, which would amount to 10,330 fewer cars -- 4.4 percent of 1980's peak period volume and less of 2005's.
Highway travel times will hardly be affected.In the "Hali 2000 Study Alternatives Analysis" made by Wilbur Smith and Associates for the Oahu Metropolitan Association in 1984, highway ,travel times in the year 2000 were calculated for various assumptions. The average highway travel time for 20 typical trips (from seven outlying areas each to downtown, the airport and Waikiki) was 40.45 minutes under "existing" conditions (polus highway improvements already committed); 41.15 minutes with an 800-bus system and TSM measures (such as priority lanes for buses); 40.45 minutes with partially grade-separated rail; and 39.45 minutes with fully grade-separated heavy rail. The trip from Waianae to downtown, for example, was estimated to take 69, 68, 68, and 68 minutes, respectively, under these same four alternatives. (Source: "Hall 2000," Table 6-5.) This corroborates other data showing that rail would have little, if any, effect on highway traffic.
1 Equivalent vehicle miles calculated from the "Alternative Analysis and Draft Environmental Impact Statement" as follows:
Bus miles x 6
Numerous studies have concluded that light rail is cost-effective compared with the alternatives. The Honolulu Rapid Transit Development Project Draft Environmental Impact Statement released in March is the latest of these. (See especially Table 4.2.) The greater cost-effectiveness of light rail results from the attraction of new riders to the transit system, improvement in service and travel time for present riders, and reduction in operating and maintenance costs.
A rail system is cheaper to operate than buses. The Bus's major expense is labor, with labor costs running $45 million a year. For each 40 riders or so (the average number of riders on a bus), a driver is required. A rapid transit system, operated by computer, would not be nearly so labor intensive.
An expanded bus system would cause labor costs to shoot up. An electric bus system could cost just as much to build as a rail transit system, plus there would be the additional labor costs of employing the drivers.
Personal costs to riders should be weighed in time lost as well as money. Many people who ride the bus are unable to read while because of the jolting, bumpy ride. A rail system offering a smooth ride will enable more people to work while commuting. It is impossible to quantify the value of work that can be accomplished while traveling on a rail transit stem compared to the same amount of time spent on traveling by bus. But there is a true value in being able to work on a rapid transit system. Also, all the time wasted in traffic jams (in which buses are also caught) represents another non-quantifiable value. These factors might not be quantifiable, but they should be considered in assessing the cost-effectiveness of transit alternatives.
As to the argument that money spent on a rail transit system would be better spent on other needs such as education, housing, health, etc.: It is difficult to judge the merit of this argument without specific spending proposals that could allow for a costbenefit analysis. However, one should realize that if costbenefit analysis were applied to our public school system, it is likely that this system would not have been developed.
Costs need to be looked at in terms of other public needs and who benefits. Costs need to be seen in the context of other public needs and whether enough people benefit to justify the expense. In the case of rail, there are two categories of potential beneficiaries: those who ride the rail line, and those who would be able to use the streets and highways with less traffic congestion if enough others shifted from cars to transit. Neither of these groups, however, represent large sections of the population. (See our arguments on ridership and traffic, developed earlier in this report.)
Rail costs are far higher than the "AA-DEIS' best bus-traffic systems management (TSM)" alternative. The city's projected cost estimates, for both capital construction and operating and maintenance, are presented in tables contained in the "Alternative Analysis and Draft Environmental Impact Statement." In general, they show:
- Capital costs would be $232 million higher for the "best bus" alternative than for the "no build" alternative, and annual operating and maintenance costs (0&M) would be $30 million more. (Table S.4, page S-25.)
- Capital costs would be $969 million more (average of six alternatives) for a rail system than for the "best bus" system, and annual 0&M costs would be $8 million less. (Ibid.)
- Combining annualized capital costs and annual 0&M costs, the "best bus" system would cost $152.2 million a year (1988 dollars) compared with $98.3 million for the "no-build" alternative, and $248.1 million for rail. (Table 6.9, page 6-20.)
- Annual ridership projections are 11.1 million more for "best bus" than for "no build" and 7.9 million more for rail than for "best bus." (Table 6.18, page 6-30.) Thus, the cost per additional ride would be about $4.86 for "best bus" over "no build," and about $12.14 per ride for rail over "best bus."
- If actual ridership is less than projected, the cost per ride would be even higher. If ridership has been estimated too optimistically or drops as fares are increased, the cost per additional ride would rise steeply, even if it was offset somewhat by a marginal drop in operating costs.
The projected time savings for transit riders is modest. Transit travel time savings per trip are projected to average 8.1 minutes when rail is compared with TSM (from 49.1 to 41.0 minutes). (Source: "AA-DEIS," Table 6.13, page 6-24 and page 625.) Highest transit ridership rates, however, are found in central areas, where trip distances tend to be the shortest, while outlying areas, with the longest distances, have the lowest rates of transit usage. (Sources: "Statistics by Neighborhoods" and "AA-DEIS," Table 3.9, page 3-25.) This means that many transit riders -- probably the majority -- will save less than 8 minutes per ride, particularly if trains do not run every two minutes. The "AA-DEIS" projects that the total annual time savings from rail will amount to $27.6 million, compared to rail's total annual cost of $248.1 million. (Source: "AA-DEIS," Sect. 4.1.3, page 4-15.)
Rail's costs are not justified by benefits. As discussed earlier, even the city's own projections (whether they are "conservative," as some argue, or overly optimistic, as we consider them) indicate that: (a) building rail will not increase transit ridership greatly; (b) only a small fraction of the trips people make will bel by rail; and (c) street and highway traffic will not be lessened appreciably. It should also be noted that in the four cities with recently built light rail systems, actual costs exceeded projections by 19 percent. (Source: "Urban Rail Transit Projects -- Forecast vs. Actual Ridership and Costs.") In view of limited funds and competing needs for education, housing, health care, replacing and repairing existing water, sewage and other infrastructure elements, these costs do not appear to be justified by the benefits.
Financing should be equitable. An increase in Hawaii's excise tax has been proposed as a means of financing rail transit on Oahu. Although an excise tax is regressive in nature, it can be adjusted so that the disadvantaged are treated more equitably. Tax credits can be made available to the disadvantaged, many of whom file state tax returns only to receive the credits. (Source: Honolulu Advertiser, April 1, 1990.) Eliminating the excise tax on food would be another way to help the disadvantaged. Because tourists contribute 24 percent of the total collected excise tax (according to the Hawaii Department of Taxation, March 1990), they would be significantly contributing to the transit system.
Tourists will also help pay through fares. If a round-trip fare is $2 and each tourist took only one round-trip, we could collect about $12 million a year in this fashion.
Rail capital costs have to be paid, no matter how the costs are financed. Many ways of financing have been proposed for a rail system, including various combinations of private investment and public funding, pay-as-you-go and/or bond financing, general tax revenues and/or earmarked taxes, etc. To stimulate private financing, gifts of public land and/or development and zoning concessions have been suggested, though many people feel these are highly undesirable and make for bad public policy.
Wherever the money comes from, in the long run it has to be paid, either by users of the system or by the population at large; and either with money or in the loss of less tangible (but no less real) values.
Federal capital grants for rail are now sharply curtailed. In the 1970s, federal grants of up to 80 percent of rail capital costs were possible. Much of the available money, however, went for the repair, rebuilding, or enlargement of a few existing mega-size city systems (New York, Boston, Chicago). New rail "starts" in smaller cities were scrutinized skeptically.
In 1980, Honolulu's system, then in the planning and engineering stages, was withdrawn from consideration by newly elected Mayor Eileen Anderson, as it had becoming increasingly likely that federal funds for new rail transit systems would be curtailed. Federal budget deficits have only increased since then, so that lately the most that can be hoped for is 30 percent of costs -- and even this would be contingent upon adequate state, city or private financing. (It has just been announced that federal transit contributions will be cut another 10 percent to 12 percent.)
State surplus funds are not likely to be allocated to
Honolulu. Though the state currently may show a budget surplus, its future is uncertain and it does not seem politically likely that Honolulu's rail system will be able to tap it. At the same time, Mayor Fasi has stated that the city cannot finance construction of a rail system out of its own existing funds.
Private financing and/or increased city taxes are required. This leaves private financing and/or increased city revenues as possibilities. A number of potential transit developers are said to have shown interest in building and/or operating a rail system wholly or partly with private funds -- in exchange for various as-yet unspecified concessions.
Differences between rail annual costs and revenues are staggering. As stated above, the "AA-DEIS" projects that annualized capital costs plus annual operating and maintenance costs for the combined rail-bus system would be $248.1 million (in 1988 dollars). The projected average cost per ride would be $3.13. (Source: "AA-DEIS," Table 6.19, page 6-33.) The present annual fare revenue is $18.7 million. In 2005, the revenue from fares is projected at $25.5 million. (Source: Sect. 4.1.3., page 4-15.) The difference between fare revenues and annual costs -$222.6 million per year by 2005 -- would have to be paid, out of taxes or otherwise. (Note that these figures do not include profits that a private developer or operator might seek.)
Interest on capital construction bonds can triple costs. Though the capital costs of the rail component of the combined rail-bus system is projected about $1 billion, this does not include interest. If bonds are issued to finance capital costs, the interest would easily double or triple this amount. For example, repayment of 35-year, 7.5 percent tax-exempt bonds would require $2.832 billion.
It is inconsistent to lower property taxes while increasing the excise tax. Oahu's property tax revenues have risen dramatically and will yield some $75 million more next year than was expected. Mayor Fasi is, accordingly, proposing to lower the property tax rate. At the same time, he is asking for more state aid or permission to levy and/or collect and additional half of one percent excise tax to finance rail, said to yield more than $100 million a year.
An excise tax is the most regressive of all tax measures, weighing most heavily on those least able to pay. Even the poorest must pay it on basic necessities of life, and most of their income is subject to the excise tax. (Source: Hawaii State Tax Commission, Report, December 1, 1989.) In spite of the state's excise tax credits allowable to people who file state income tax returns, many low-income families do not benefit, since they don't file and are therefore unable to claim the credits. In the case of rail transit, the tax is particularly unfair in that (as shown in the discussion of ridership and traffic), only a small proportion of the population is projected to use it. In other words, while traffic congestion is not projected to decline appreciably, and thus few people will benefit from rail, all people will have to pay for it. (Although about a quarter of the revenue is estimated to be collected from tourists, there are large segments of the state's business which pay no excise tax at all.)
There are disproportions between incomes of riders and payers. In other cities with rail fares of $1 or more, rail users tend to be suburbanites in the upper-income groups. As one analyst said of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in San Francisco, "Clearly, the poor are paying and the rich are riding." (Source: University of California, Berkeley, "The BART Experience -- What Have We Learned?")
Federal transit policy is shifting costs to states and cities. In many cities, annual subsidies needed to pay off capital debt service for transit (interest and amortization) and annual operating and maintenance losses have risen steadily. Increasing demands for federal assistance have led the administration to state that the federal government "would no longer bail out state and local transit agencies," in the words of Transportation Secretary Skinner, explaining the new national transportation policy. The administration, Secretary Skinner said, would expect them to rely more heavily on user fees and on their own (or private) financing and revenue sources.
Rail places a heavy and permanent burden on Oahu's budget. It is clear that whatever means are used to finance capital costs, the annual burden on Honolulu's budget will continue indefinitely if rail is built. As cited earlier, there will be an annual gap between costs and fare revenues of $222.6 million (1988 dollars). At a 4 percent rate of inflation, this will be $329.5 million by the time the system is operative in 1998 -which translates into an annual burden of about $1,000 per family on Oahu.
Fares won't rise. Joe Magaldi, deputy director of the Department of Transportation Services, stated at a Feb. 21, 1990 meeting of the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization, that the present fare structure of 60 cents would not be changed, and that current transfer system remain in effect (that is, one fare would pay for the ride from origin to destination.)
Honolulu's present fare structure is far lower than that in other cities. In accordance with federal rules, ridership projections for rail are based on present fares, which are 60 cents for a single trip (for adults) and $15 for a monthly pass. When free fares for senior citizens and the handicapped and reduced fares for students are factored in, the average revenue per ride is around 25 cents. (Source: Honolulu Department of Transportation Services via MTL, 1989). Cities with newly built rail systems -- indeed, other rail cities as well -- typically have fares of $1.00, $1.50 or more, often depending on the length of the trip.
Increasing fares results in lower ridership. Other cities' experience, even with buses, has been that substantial increases in fares result in reduced ridership. In some cities with new rail systems, in fact, total transit ridership has dropped. Since present ridership projections showing increases in transit ridership and decreases in automobile usage do not take such fare increases into account, one can legitimately ask whether these projections might not be unduly optimistic.
Private transit developers would have to raise fares. Various suggestions have been made as to private financing and operation of a rail system, possibly in exchange for development and zoning concessions. Since private transit developers have to recoup their expenses in one way or another, and will want a reasonable return on their investment, and since public transit systems will want to minimize losses, higher fares will undoubtedly be a part of the package no matter how the system is financed.
An expanded bus system won't work. Buses are just big cars. They are themselves part of the traffic problem -- as anyone will tell you who has ever been stuck driving behind a bus. By the year 2005, an expanded bus system would require almost 300 buses an hour during peak hours operating in the downtown area. At present, about 150 buses run during peak hours in the downtown area.
Electric buses would be just as bad. An electric bus system could end up costing as much as a rail transit system, plus it would have the drawback of additional labor costs for drivers. If one of the electric buses broke down, we would see "bus jams." Even if they were given their own lane (and where are the bus lanes planned to come from?), they would tie up traffic in their lane if they broke down. The present number of buses on the road illustrates the problem with buses, whether electric or diesel fueled.
Road "rationing" or pricing (toll roads) would hurt the needy even more than an excise tax increase with tax credits. Tolls on Oahu would make traffic even more horrendous.
Cheaper and more effective alternatives to rail are available. Numerous other measures, taken in combination and in addition to the type of approach defined by the city as the "TSMbest bus" alternative, could do more to alleviate traffic congestion than building the fixed guideway. And, it would do so sooner and at considerably less cost.
The "best bus" is given short shrift. The city's "AA-DEIS" treatment of the "TSM or best bus" system is only cursory -- to put it mildly. It is defined as "the best transit service that can be provided using buses without the construction of a fixed guideway system." This alternative calls for a bus fleet of 997 vehicles, of which 831 would operate during peak periods. It includes the widespread use of HOV (High-Occupancy-Vehicle) lanes, nine park-and-ride lots, four to six maintenance and/or storage facilities, and new express service to downtown/Kakaako, Waikiki, the University of Hawaii, and Pearl Harbor.
Why not have bus rapid transit on reserved lanes or busways? As was stated 14 years ago by Andrew Hamer (The Selling of Rail Rapid Transit, Lexington Books, 1976): "The central theme of any transit strategy that is to be successful must be the concept of priority for public vehicles at some discomfort to riders of private vehicles. Its focus should be the servicing [by bus rapid transit] of corridors and employment areas where, for reasons of cost, expanded facilities for commuter automobiles are deemed impossible." (It should be noted that the 1980 Census showed that 84 percent of Oahu automobiles used to get to and from work were occupied by only one person.)
Hamer asserts: "The technology is available to meter our limited-access roads and restrict the use of crucial streets in high-activity centers. This controlled network, occasionally supplemented by busways, is ideally suited to the development of a rapid bus system. Buses are inherently capable of average speeds equivalent to those of rail rapid transit; under those conditions, they can attract patronage and operate at per passenger mile costs similar to the rail alternative. The only difference is the capital price tag."