Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle spoke at yesterday’s Think Tech/Venture Capital Association of Hawaii luncheon. He was followed by two panels on the theme, “”The Press weighs in on Rail,” at the Plaza Club.
The mayor likes to tell audiences Honolulu is the country’s 10th largest city. I’ve heard the claim made before. The mayor says it, in part, to imply that such a large city can afford the high price of the proposed elevated rail system, and that being on the Top 10 list means we need to have these flashy projects to prove our standing on the national and world stage.
The problem is that Honolulu isn’t the 10th largest city in the country, unless you cook the numbers by comparing apples and oranges.
Here’s a list of U.S. cities ranked by population.
Pay attention to the fine print:
Note that this list refers only to the population of individual municipalities within their defined limits, which does not include other municipalities or unincorporated suburban areas within urban agglomerations. A different ranking is evident when considering U.S. metropolitan area populations.
So, on this list of cities, Honolulu ranks as #47, tucked down there between Tulsa and Oakland.
But there’s another, perhaps more realistic way of comparing “Metropolitan Statistical Areas,” that is, adjacent urbanized areas that are related but may include more than one incorporated jurisdiction.
The United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB) defines a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) as a Core Based Statistical Area having at least one urbanized area of 50,000 or more population, plus adjacent territory that has a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured by commuting ties. The OMB has defined 367 MSAs for the United States as of March 29, 2010.
Among the ranks of metropolitan statistical areas, Honolulu sits at #53, between Tucson and Tulsa.
Here’s where the apples and oranges come in.
Carlisle’s reference to Honolulu as the 10th largest city only works if we include not just the urban core, defined by the Census Bureau, but Honolulu’s entire metropolitan statistical area, but compare the population of that larger area with just the urban core of other cities.
This is important because urban rail systems are most often regional, serving the larger metropolitan area and sharing the costs among the larger population.
The population of Honolulu’s metropolitan statistical area, which includes not just urban Honolulu but all of Oahu, is listed at 963,607. Other areas with light rail systems–generally less costly than Honolulu’s planned “light metro” train–include the metropolitan statistical areas of Dallas (pop. 6.5 million), Phoenix (4.2 million), Seattle (3.5 million), St. Louis (2.8 million), Denver (2.6 million), and so on.
You do the math. It isn’t comforting.
Carlisle’s second major point was that we can’t afford to walk away from the $1.5 billion in federal funds Honolulu hopes to receive.
That argument sounds a lot like pitch made for a sale at the mall. Shop today and save! In order to get the “savings,” of course, you’ve got to spend a lot. Same with rail. In order to get those federal funds, Honolulu taxpayers still have to at least come up with the balance. And since the funds are not guaranteed, we may still have to pay the entire tab.
To tell the truth, I don’t know if the projected cost is a deciding factor. However, there are clearly opportunity costs involved that have not been openly discussed. If you spend something over $5 billion on rail, we don’t have that money available to spend on something else. We are already seeing the initial rail spending squeeze existing bus services. The cutbacks in our area, for example, will mean only one bus per hour between Kaaawa and downtown Honolulu. If you miss that bus, or if it’s full, you will have to wait another full hour. That’s not a realistic level of service for our area, and other parts of Honolulu are facing similar cutbacks.
Someone at the city will say that there’s no connection to rail. Right….