Honolulu’s rail project poses a particularly tricky issue at this point in its life.
We’ve already spent a vast amount on it, but the estimated total still to go keeps growing at an alarming pace.
And there’s no real reason to believe that current estimates are more accurate than those that came before.
So what do we do now?
The mayor now says we should just end at Middle Street and defer the remainder of the project until funds are available.
That’s a political fantasy. I don’t think any elected official is going to touch that political “third rail” once the first segment is capped off and the construction crews demobilized. It is just very, very unlikely to happen. And, of course, the crippled initial segment is just going to be a constant reminder of how badly this idea was executed and the costs, economic and political, of trying and failing.
UH Planning Professor Karl Kim, who has a background in transit issues, published a column in the Star-Advertiser which I hoped would have some sage advice (“Five fixes could help put Honolulu’s rail back on track“). Unfortunately, Kim’s suggestions would have been constructive if we were just starting out in designing a rail system, but not very useful when facing a mid-construction crisis in both finances and confidence.
He suggests simply getting over the blame game, finding a new consensus, coming up with a workable revenue model, developing more appropriate technology, and redesigning to incorporate elements of social justice.
It seems to me that this is all pie in the sky. Not going to happen. And can’t happen in a time frame that would give us any way forward from the current mess.
Then there was a comment on a recent post here expressing the “just do it, get it done” sentiment.
Here’s an excerpt:
Not having enough funds to complete elevated rail to Ala Moana is an entirely self-created dilemma. A funding cap BEFORE bids were opened was dumb. It’s a completely SOLVABLE problem that both HART and city council could be discussing because it’s entirely within their authority to address the funding cap issue.
It’s also within the mayor and council’s authority to discuss using property taxes. There are lots of good reasons why Honolulu taxpayers SHOULD be paying more for our own transportation system but I’ll save that for another discussion.
I have a of sympathy for this point of view, although this rail design was not my preference. I don’t agree with those who argue that if not for rail, these billions could have gone to other public projects. I don’t think that’s true. It took a truly major project like rail to muster the political forces to put an excise tax increase into play to cover the costs. We tried to get an increase for education, and that went nowhere.
And when you look around, it’s hard to say that the rail tax has crippled the economy. We’ve got low unemployment, lots of investment coming in, etc., etc. And although the big numbers are scary, the half cent out of each dollar spent isn’t one of the big factors in everyday finances. Obviously, housing is the biggie. The rail GET really doesn’t compare to those big expense categories at the micro level, only at the macro level. So would we really feel the pinch if it were extended farther into the future to pay for completing the system?
But David Johnson, a UH Sociology prof and a friend, wrote in Civil Beat that we need to challenge the idea that since we’ve gotten this far, there isn’t any alternative to just pushing forward to completion. He refers to this the fallacy of sunk costs.
But to view rail in terms of costs already incurred is to commit the fallacy of sunk costs. A sunk cost is a cost that has been paid and cannot be recovered. In many areas of life and policy, decision-makers become preoccupied with sunk costs when they would be better off forgetting them. Couples commit this fallacy when they refuse to leave a lousy film before it ends (“We paid $20 for these tickets!”). And the United States committed a much grander version of it during the Vietnam War (“Giving up would mean our soldiers died in vain.”).
And Johnson concludes:
So I end with three conclusions: 1) Common sense says we do not need a rail project that ends at Middle Street. 2) A decent regard for reality leads to the conclusion that we cannot afford a rail project that goes where it should. 3) And recognition of the sunk cost fallacy counsels that we should walk away from this colossal mistake now.
Here’s a link to his column, “Honolulu’s Runaway Rail Project And The Fallacy of Sunk Costs.”
Perhaps we need a contest to come up with the best idea for alternative uses of the rail segments built to date if we just “walk away”. What other uses could be made of the elevated concrete platform?
It’s all just such a mess that it boggles my mind. None of the solutions really “work.”