As funding gets funneled into Honolulu rail, the transit industry struggles to stay on track

Travis Quezon

HONOLULU—As Honolulu is finally seeing funding for its rail transit project after 30 years of discussion, other cities are struggling to keep their transit systems in a passable state of repair.

At a national summit on the future of transit in May, Federal Transit Administration Administrator Peter Rogoff talked about the challenges facing the transit industry as well as the record levels in federal funding for transit projects due to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

It’s been the Transit Administration’s goal to increase the “state of good repair” for America’s transit systems, highways, runways, and ports. A recent federal study found that more than 6,000 of the nation’s almost 72,000 buses are in need of replacement, having exceeded their useful life. And 29 percent of all transit assets—rail, bus, and paratransit—are in “poor or marginal condition.”

“Supporters of public transit must be willing to share some simple truths that folks don’t want to hear. One is this: Paint is cheap, rails systems are extremely expensive,” Rogoff said. “Yes, transit riders often want to go by rail. But it turns out you can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus, if you call it a ‘special’ bus and just paint it a different color than the rest of the fleet.”

Rogoff’s comment highlights the enormous undertaking and fiscal responsibility that Honolulu and its future citizens face in keeping its transit system up and running once built.

Add to that: Nationwide, cities have been facing a downturn in revenues and sales tax receipts, cutbacks, and service cuts due to route reductions, layoffs, and furloughs, Rogoff said.

However, thanks to efforts by President Barack Obama, America’s transit industry is seeing an 80 percent increase in federal funding this year alone. And Hawaii is setting itself up to receive a mighty helping of that funding.

Hawaii Congresswoman Mazie Hirono, a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, tonight voted in support of legislation that will deliver more than $55 million in federal funding to Hawaii for the final design and engineering of Oahu’s rail transit system and for improvements to a six-mile stretch of Saddle Road on Hawaii Island. 

The U.S. House passed the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Act for FY 2011, HR 5850, by a vote of 251 yeas to 167 nays. The bill now goes before the U.S. Senate for consideration.

“The rail project and improvements to Saddle Road are much-needed transportation projects that will improve the quality of life for Hawaii’s families. And they are especially timely because both projects will provide sorely needed well-paying jobs,” Hirono said. “Construction of the rail project is expected to provide an average of 9,000 to 10,000 jobs a year. Modernizing our transportation infrastructure is a vital investment, not just in Hawaii’s current economic recovery but in laying the foundation for economic activity for years to come.”

The $55 million builds on the $69.5 million previously appropriated by Hawaii’s Congressional delegation for the rail project.

The $750,000 for Hawaii Island’s Saddle Road improvements (mile markers 48 to 54) would be used for redesign and construction of the existing road. Saddle Road is the only cross-island road in the 4,000 square mile island. While much of the road has been improved, this section is badly worn on both sides and riddled with potholes. The road is used by commuters, the military, and employees of the observatories on Mauna Kea.

On Wednesday, the City awarded a $5.5 million design contract for three rail transit stations to HDR/Hawaii Pacific Engineers.

The contract advances the designs of the West Loch, Waipahu Transit Center, and Leeward Community College stations along Farrington Highway.

Throughout July, the City administration has been actively defending Honolulu’s ability to pay for the rail project.

Last week, the City stated that there are strong indications the rail project is on firm financial footing: Two major rail construction contracts awarded by the City totaled approximately $150 million less than had been projected, and the City received 99.6 percent of anticipated revenue from the General Excise Tax surcharge through Fiscal Year 2010.

The City has also been assuring its citizens that Honolulu’s bus system will not be hurt by the influx of funds toward the rail project. TheBus recently raised fares to avoid cutting routes and jobs.

Earlier this month, then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann commented on the potential use of federal transit formula funds—which have historically helped finance TheBus—for Honolulu’s rail transit project.

“Let’s set the record straight. Bus service will not be compromised,” Hannemann said. “As I have said many times, the federal government requires us to explore all funding scenarios, and use of transit formula funds for the rail project is a worst-case scenario.”

Hannemann said the City has no reason to tap into unnecessary revenue sources and that TheBus will not be affected by funding the rail project.

“There is absolutely no indication that those funds will be needed to build the rail system, and we certainly do not expect to utilize the city’s general fund for any aspect of rail construction either,” the former mayor said. “And, contrary to assertions by some on the Council, we are honoring, in spirit and action, Ordinance 07-001, which calls for rail construction costs to be funded by federal or State sources, the surcharge on the General Excise and Use Tax (GET), interest from revenue, and private capital.”

As further funding is secured for Honolulu’s rail project, the reality of maintaining a functioning rail system will depend on effective planning and the ability to keep the City’s riders riding for generations.