Secretary LaHood’s Blind Support for Honolulu’s Rail Project

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood went before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development to reiterate the departments support for a $5.3 billion elevated rail project on Oahu, Hawai’i. The Secretary was responding to copies of emails released the day before by plaintiffs in a legal challenge to the inititative showing the Federal Transit Administration has serious reservations about the viability and utility of the project.

According to the Hawai’i Reporter (March 15, 2012), Secretary LaHood told the commmittee:

“Since I have taken this position, I have had the privilege of being with you in your state. We’ve talked about this project. You were kind enough to convene a meeting about this and other projects in Hawaii. I want you to know that we are committed to this project. This is an important project. This will deliver people all over the island. It’s an important project and at this point, we will continue to work through whatever issues need to be worked through. We’re committed to this. We’re committed to the money; we’re committed to the project. And, until we hear differently from others who are intimately involved in this, I see no reason why we won’t go forward,” LaHood said.

“LaHood was reaffirming his Department of Transportation’s FY2013 budget request that asks for $250 million for the 20-mile Honolulu Rail Transit project, the “largest single item in the Department’s New Starts portfolio,” and addressed the emails after Inouye asked him for his current view of the project.”

Hmmm. I wonder of Secretary LaHood has actually seen the alignment of the rail project. I toured the alignment from beginning to end in 2010, and the rail line will not “deliver people all over the island.” The elevated rail line is pretty much a straight shot along the southern edge of the island of Oahu, starting in a largely unpopulated region on the western side of the island (Kapolei) and terminating on the east in downtown Honolulu. It won’t serve the island’s population in the north central region, North Shore, eastern shore, Diamond Head, or Waikiki. In fact, it won’t serve much of anyone in the early decades because the terminal point is located in the middle of vacant fields.

Before touring the route and seeing Honolulu first hand, I thought this project might be a case where rail made sense. It didn’t take long for me to believe that this project doesn’t because the constructin is mistimed, the potential for growth is limited, and Honolulu’s jobs and population is suprisingly dispersed despite its relatively high densities. While the corridor is highly congested, the connections along the rail alignment aren’t sufficient to really create meaningful time savings. The potential for transit-oriented development is quite limited, particularly along the western reaches of the alignment.