Rail Isn’t Worth the Wait

Hawaii has better options

Sometimes car dealers let you take a car home right away and pay for it later. Benefit now, pay later. Too bad it’s just the opposite with light rail. If Hawaii moves ahead with plans to hike taxes to pay for rail, taxpayers will be forced to pay now, but benefits like congestion relief will come much later, that is, if they come at all.

Consider California. In 1981 San Diego became our nation’s first light rail city, San Francisco’s heavy rail system (BART) predates San Diego’s rail by several decades, and though it’s often regarded as Car Capital USA, Los Angeles has spent a long time building the nation’s second largest commuter rail system. Yet congestion continues to mount; in fact, LA and San Francisco have the nation’s worst traffic. In San Diego and LA even telecommuters outnumber rail commuters.

Plans for more rail are in the works, but officials still expect that – even by 2030 – over 90 percent of commuters in California’s three largest metro areas will get to work by car.

Why does it take rail so long to make an impact? It simply takes much longer to create a rail network from scratch than to add to the existing road network, and steep costs make the wait for rail’s benefits even longer.

Yes it costs much more to build rail than roads, but rail also has a long established reputation for cost escalation. Public officials quote one price, but then later on, costs shoot up. Sure, cost hikes plague all kinds of transportation projects, but rail projects— average cost escalation is roughly five times that of road projects. Officials often respond to cost hikes by simply cutting the size of the project.

Way back in 1980 local leaders in LA promised a sales tax hike would pay for 11 rail lines. After yet another tax hike and a quarter-century wait, LA has four rail lines.

Nearly every corner of America has its own tale. From Seattle to Miami to Raleigh projects have grown in price even as they shrink in size.

Officials may point to sharp – looking sketches that depict the future rail system, but Hawaii residents should consider the very real possibility that what they see could be different from what they actually get. When taxpayers pay more and get less they have to wait even longer to get what they were originally promised.

But there are ways around the wait.

First, improve the existing roadway infrastructure. Even if Hawaii spent decades building rail, the new system would still offer access to only a fraction of the destinations motorists can already get to by car. By that time drivers could very well be zipping around in zero emission hydrogen-fueled cars.

Second, partner with the private sector. The political process that funds transportation projects stops and starts just like rush hour traffic. But private funding can be delivered upfront and fast. The US Department of Transportation recently reported that public private partnerships can make project delivery up to 50 percent quicker.

Yet there is one thing that might be delayed with private financing – that tax hike. With private money there is less need for tax increases, and public private partnerships are less prone to cost overruns. But if overruns do occur, they’re the private investors’ burden.

Private investors have funded multibillion dollar tollway projects in cities like Paris, Toronto and Sydney. Billions in transportation funds are flowing into states like Texas and Virginia thanks to public private partnerships.

Hawaii could use public-private partnerships for major projects or to add high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes to sluggish freeways. By using a toll that rises during peak hours and drops during off-peak times, HOT lanes keep traffic moving briskly even during rush hour. Commuters trapped in gridlock always have a free-flowing escape route, and since pricing allows for roads to be used more efficiently, more reliance on pricing means less need to build more roads.

HOT lanes could accommodate buses and vanpools, transit options that are not only cost-effective but flexible. Rubber tire transit lets passengers travel on highways, access cities and suburbs, and wind around Hawaii’s mountainous terrain.

Lots of things are worth the wait, rail just isn’t one of them.

Ted Balaker is the Jacob’s Fellow at Reason Foundation.