Why Congress should be concerned about Honolulu’s pricey $5.3 billion rail to nowhere

Democratic senator from Hawaii Daniel Inouye says it will take Photo: Artist's rendering of completed Honolulu Rail

HAWAII, April 17, 2012 – With the federal budget projected to rack up an additional $4.6 trillion in debt by the year 2017, talk of tax increases refusing to go away and the American people struggling harder than ever before to cope with rising costs of living, now is the time for Congress to seriously question whether the nation’s taxpayers should be indefinitely on the hook for a $5.3 billion niche transit project in Honolulu whose long term solvency and benefits are at best highly questionable.

Funding a steel behemoth on a tiny island

For decades Hawaii’s most populous island of Oahu has seen significant increases in traffic congestion and several portions of its key freeway, the H-1, are now estimated to be at least 15 percent over capacity and by the year 2031 will be at 81 percent.

On any given work day, Hawaii residents routinely spend upwards of an hour during peak commute times simply to travel distances less than thirty miles. During natural disasters and major traffic accidents, the island effectively grinds to a halt.

While the most obvious solution to roads over capacity would seem to the lay observer to just to finance the construction of more roads, Honolulu’s policymakers have chosen instead to construct a massive elevated, twenty mile long steel-on-steel wheel rail system whose $5.3 billion price tag - $1.55 billion of which is expected to come from federal funding – has 59 percent of local likely voters very concerned the project is too expensive and experts concerned that the system will not even reduce traffic on the road.

Senator Daniel Inouye: It will take World War III to stop the project

Despite growing public taxpayer opposition to the project and even concerns in the Federal Transit Administration that the City of Honolulu has engaged in what several now public internal agency e-mail messages have characterized as “lousy practices of public manipulation” and “use of critical and inaccurate statements” and a concern that Honolulu “have produced 3 failed projects and are well on their way to a fourth, so why is FTA wasting time on the City’s problems” the pricey island rail system has pit locals against large corporations, banks, unions and even elected officials who have staked their future on the project.

Just last week, Hawaii’s senior senator and chairman of the powerful U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations Sen. Daniel Inouye told local construction workers on April 12th  that the only thing that could stop the Honolulu rail was “World War III” and Honolulu mayor Peter Carlisle characterized opponents of the project as “the enemy” going so far as to say, “We need to be the army that builds and sells the project … spread the word and register and vote. That will defeat the enemy in a heartbeat.”

The pattern of demonizing dissenting opinions and shaky, stretched justifications for billion dollar projects that Honolulu taxpayers are now witnessing is one that is not without prior precedent. In November 2009, the Oxford Review of Economic Policy published a longitudinal survey conducted by Dr. Bent Flyvbjerg, Founding Director of Oxford’s BT Center for Major Program Management which compared 258 public projects in 20 countries over the course of 70 years.

The paper, entitled Survival of the unfittest: why the worst infrastructure gets built – and what to do about it determined that in instances of rail in particular, 44.7 percent of the transit projects experienced a cost overrun, average ridership was -51.4 percent off from passenger forecasts and most concerning of all, “misinformation about costs, benefits and risks is the norm throughout project development and decision-making, including in the business case.”

Congress should demand answers over Honolulu’s project

America has already seen the disastrous effects of Too Big To Fail. At a time of fiscal instability and a weak global economy, Congress cannot afford to finance risky projects and should not commit to funding investments which could prove to be money holes for taxpayers over the long term.

If the City and County of Honolulu or the State of Hawaii are unable to pay for their share of the project, will the rest of the country be stuck with the bill for all time?

With a public already suspicious of companies and banks receiving privileged monopolies at public expense - “crony capitalism” - Honolulu’s $5.3 billion dollar rail to nowhere should not be a quiet drain on the nation’s taxpayers but urgently needs to become a national discussion before it goes any further.

Congress should immediately investigate allegations of manipulation and deceptive practices regarding the acquisition of federal funds for Honolulu rail and the nation should be given an explanation why a tiny island needs a massive rail paid for by the American public.

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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs committees at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, Danny has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. Now working on his first novel, Danny resides on the island of Oahu.

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