by Joe Kent
For years now we’ve heard about the billions of dollars that it’s been costing to build the Honolulu rail — now dubbed “Skyline.” And in fact, at $10 billion and counting, the Skyline is the most expensive light-rail system per capita in the world, equaling about $10,000 per every Hawaii man, woman and child.
Now that the transit system is partially open, running from Kapolei to Halawa, the costs to operate it on a daily basis are coming into view too, and it’s not a pretty sight.
According to the Honolulu Department of Transportation Services, the Skyline is going to cost about $85 million to operate in fiscal 2024, which started this month. That will cover the personnel, administrative, maintenance and electricity costs.
But at the current rate of about only 4,300 passengers a day, each paying $3, the actual cost per passenger trip is over $54 — the highest in the country — leaving taxpayers to make up the difference of $51.
In Cleveland, San Jose and Seattle, the cost per passenger is about $19 — and those are the highest in the United States after Honolulu. After those three cities, the per-passenger costs range from $12.48 in Pittsburgh down to the lowest of about $3 in San Diego.
Honolulu transit officials are saying they expect ridership to pick up as people get used to the Skyline and students return to college in the fall, perhaps increasing to 10,000 riders per day.
Roger Morton, director of the city’s Department of Transportation Services, even said that when the rail finally extends into the downtown area, “at that point it will be one of the lowest-cost systems on a per-passenger-mile basis.”
We shall see. But even if 10,000 people pay to ride the Skyline every day, the per passenger cost would come to only $23.29, meaning each ride would still cost taxpayers more than $20.
At that price, the city would be better off paying for Uber rides for everyone, or giving everyone a prepaid HOLO card for TheBus.
This is all just another example in how government budgeting is often done with rose-colored glasses on. Think what Honolulu could have done with the billions it has already spent on the Skyline.
Unfortunately, it’s an example city officials appear to be ignoring. Already, Honolulu transit officials are talking about extending the rail from its current end point in Kakaako to Ala Moana Center or even the University of Hawaii or Waikiki.
In addition, Lori Kahikina, executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, recently stated she would like to see the county’s 0.5% general excise tax and 3% transient accommodation tax surcharges extended beyond their current expiration dates of 2030. — all to help keep the rail financially afloat.
With Hawaii’s cost of living already so high, lawmakers should not extend those “temporary” surcharges.
In the short run, rail officials should consider halting the $54 rides until more of the rail line is complete and more people would be likely to ride it.
If the city were to delay operations until 2031 — its current projected completion date — it would presumably save at least half-billion dollars in operating costs, which would be a good gesture toward Hawaii taxpayers who have already paid billions toward the rail’s construction.
JOE KENT is executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
by Joe Kent