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The most expensive train

By: Nick Ochs

16 April 2020

Courtesy: HART

As far as symbols of local government misspending go, the gold standard is the Big Dig.  This giant highway tunnel in Boston was supposed to cost less than 3 billion to complete and include a train stop. In the end, it cost 9 billion, arrived 9 years overdue, included no train access, and became an enduring libertarian talking point on the limits of capable government.


As of now, the partially complete light rail in Honolulu is budgeted at over 9 billion, up from original estimates of 3 billion.  The comparison has been made. Critics are not happy. The libertarian think tank Grassroots Institute of Hawaiʻi has often called for an audit and the last Republican candidate for Lt. Governor, Marrissa Kerns, made stopping the rail entirely the centerpiece of her campaign.  For current elected officials, the rail is an issue few are enthusiastic to have associated with their name.



NICK rail 1.png

But there is a cautious optimism as well. A recent study ranked Hawaiʻi as the scientifically worst state to drive in. Los Angeles may have the slight edge in traffic hours but when other factors including decaying roads and the lowest national ratio of mechanics to cars are factored in Hawaiʻi is not a motorists vacation. So if a train can help, the conventional wisdom is that a few billion in extra spending might well be forgotten by the voting public.


“I think climate change.” said 22 year Honolulu resident Tiana Garcia when asked what issue most young people care about most.


“Not rail?”


“Everyone knows it. Not like a get angry thing. People just don't think it will ever be done.”


For the older generation, a long construction project is not an astounding thing to live with in Hawaiʻi. Jason Kim is 59 and a lifelong Oʻahu resident.  “Ok, the unions like it. Why not? Itsʻ good to have work to go around.” said Kim. Asked if he liked his taxes paying for it, Kim said “No, but we’re all gonna be paying for something!”



The rail, over budget as it may be, has not attracted major attention outside of Hawaiʻi or resulted in a mass of lost elections for incumbents. It's yet to be seen if the rail will be the way to clear Hawaiʻian roads. The rail will stay a source of debate among friends in the aloha state, but not a real source of anger - like a telescope. 



Data from Federal Transit Administration, Us Customs and Border Protection and Hawaiʻi budget and Policy Center


Datafrom and HART

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