Honolulu Rail Transit: What is the Status?

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) is currently constructing a new, driverless, urban light metro rail system along the south shore of Oahu. The Honolulu Rail, which began construction on February 22, 2011, is expected to link key employment centers, tourist destinations, and residential communities – and offer an alternative public transportation method besides Oahu’s only option of the bus. 

In addition, the Honolulu rail is proposed to make huge impacts to Oahu’s real estate, with Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) of housing, services, and jobs planned for each of the rail stops. According to the City & County of Honolulu, the rail and the planned development around it, could transform real estate on Oahu.

However, the rail was once promised to be running in 2020, and in 2012, a construction budget of $5.2 billion was promised to the Federal Transit Administration. Now the rail construction is going at a much slower pace than promised and the proposed budget has doubled – with reports of more funding needs quite often. With these controversies and more, many people may be wondering when they will be able to finally ride the Honolulu rail. 

The System and Stations

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The 20-mile rail system includes 21 stations:

  1. East Kapolei (Kualaka‘i)
  2. UH West Oahu (Keone‘ae)
  3. Ho‘opili (Honouliuli)
  4. West Loch (Ho‘ae‘ae)
  5. Waipahu Transit Center (Pouhala)
  6. Leeward Community College (Halaulani)
  7. Pearl Highlands (Waiawa)
  8. Pearlridge (Kalauao)
  9. Aloha Stadium (Halawa)
  10. Pearl Harbor Naval Base (Makalapa)
  11. Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (Lelepaua)
  12. Lagoon Drive (Ahua)
  13. Middle Street Transit (Kahauiki)
  14. Kalihi (Mokauea)
  15. Kapalama / Honolulu Community College (Niuhelewai)
  16. Iwilei (Kuwili)
  17. Chinatown (Holau)
  18. Downtown (Kuloloia)
  19. Civic Center (Ka‘akaukukui)
  20. Kaka‘ako (Kukuluae‘o)
  21. Ala Moana Center (Kaka‘ako)

It is expected to take 42 minutes to ride from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center and 16 minutes to ride from the Honolulu Airport to Ala Moana Center.

Notice that each station name also has a Hawaiian name, reflecting forgotten names, sites, and events in Hawaiian culture. The Honolulu City Council resolved to have a group of experts gather community knowledge, ethnographic research, and oral accounts to develop accurate and culturally authentic stations names – with the hope of perpetuating the traditions, culture, and history of Hawaii for many generations to come.

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Each station will have these enticing features:

  • Stairs, escalators, and elevators
  • Roving attendants
  • Restrooms
  • Bicycle racks
  • Ticket vending machines
  • Closed-circuit TV security cameras
  • Safety lighting
  • Compliant with ADA laws

There are a number of educational institutions along the rail: UH-West Oahu, Leeward Community College, Honolulu Community, and Hawaii Pacific University. HART says a rail extension could be constructed in the future to link the Ala Moana Center stop to UH-Manoa.

The rail system will be powered by environmentally friendly electricity. The plan is for the rail to be powered by alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind and biofuels. The Rail Operations Center (ROC), located between Waipahu High School and Leeward Community College, is a 43-acre LEED certified building where the trains will be maintained.

The rail will be integrated with the city bus system with a single system-wide transit card, called Holo Card, making transitions from the station to a workplace or entertaining option easier.

The Trains

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The new Honolulu Rail Transit trains are advertised as having top-of-the-line features, including the following:

  • Fully automated and driverless
  • Air conditioning
  • Free WiFi connectivity
  • ADA compliant, with priority areas for wheelchairs
  • Bicycle, surfboard, stroller, cooler, and luggage allowed on the trains
  • Visual display boards
  • Audio announcements
  • Closed-circuit TV security cameras and call boxes in each train vehicle
  • 30 miles per hour average speed, with a top speed of 55 miles per hour

There will be a total of 20 four-car trains, with 17 trains in operation during peak hours, and eight trains during non-peak periods. A four-car train has a maximum capacity of 800 passengers, with 188 seats in each four-car train.

Frequently Asked Questions about Honolulu Rail Transit

When will the Honolulu Rail be finished?

HART Honolulu says that the first 10 miles of the rail could be opening this year in 2021 – from East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium – and could run at limited times. However, the opening of the rail to passengers will depend on solving a few issues that have been found during trial testing of the Honolulu rail: faulty crossover tracks and wheels which were too small for the width of the track. While the first construction section of the rail is said to run fine on straight tracks, when the trains have issues at the crossovers; to solve those issues, the tracks might have to be removed and replaced, which could bring a two-year delay to the opening of the rail to passengers.

The second opening of the Honolulu Rail will be to the Middle Street Transit Center, which has an undetermined opening date at this time. This second opening will include stops at Pearl Harbor and the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

HART officials say the entire 20-mile system could be running by 2031 if there are no further delays. By then, the rail is expected to run from Ala Moana Center to Kapolei. However, former Mayor Kirk Caldwell said the full rail might not actually open until 2033 – a delay of 13 years from what was promised to the federal government.

Construction of the Honolulu Rail continues near the airport. Stations near the Ewa end of the rail were being completed, and utilities were being relocated for the rail through Kalihi, downtown, and in the Ala Moana area. However, relocating utility lines along Dillingham Boulevard for the last 4 miles of the rail proved difficult in 2020 and 2021, as traffic and permitting issues along with limited space underground have caused various issues. Work is ongoing to relocate overhead utilities above Dillingham Boulevard, and the original route for the Honolulu Rail has move close to the mountains or mauka through the Kalihi portion.

Throughout 2021 HART and Hitachi Rail will be doing Dynamic Train Testing between East Kapolei Station and Aloha Stadium Station. This testing allows for the train system to be set up – with automated signaling and proper operations and maintenance. So if you look up above the freeway and see a train running on the rail, there are not yet passengers inside, but instead HART is simulating the regular rail schedule to prepare for passengers to soon ride the Honolulu rail.

Testing continues in 2021, especially for the crossovers on the East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium portion of the rail. This trial run needs to be able to go for 90 days without any glitches, and then the Hawaii Department of Transportation and Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi will decide when people can being to finally ride the rail.

62% of the overall project, including the full 20 miles and 21 stations, was complete as of writing.

Did COVID-19 affect HART Honolulu’s plans for the rail?

Early during the coronavirus pandemic in Spring 2020, Governor Ige and Mayor Caldwell said the Honolulu Rail Project was “essential infrastructure,” so the Honolulu Rail Transit construction continued without interruption. 

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HART’s Safety and Human Resources teams added safe working practices for construction workers or office staff to continue moving forward on completing the Oahu rail. About 80% of office staff worked from home, aiding physical distancing at HART. Additional PPE was given to rail construction crews, and HART Honolulu conducted site compliance checks to ensure safe working conditions and regulations were followed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While construction continued on the rail during the COVID-19 pandemic, funding for the rail became more difficult due to the pandemic and its impact on the Hawaii economy. The Hawaii State Legislature has approved additional funds for the construction of the rail in the past: $1.5 billion in 2015 and $2.4 billion in 2017. However, because of the state’s budget crisis due to the pandemic, the future funds for the rail’s construction are unknown. Furthermore, HART received millions of dollars less in hotel room and excise taxes since tourism shut down and the Hawaii economy weakened.

As a part of some of the COVID-19 relief packages passed through Congress in March 2021, Senator Brian Schatz, who is the chair of the Senate’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, was able to secure $70 million for the Honolulu rail transit project. The Oahu rail had a loss in tax revenue estimated around $376 during the COVID pandemic, as a result of less room and excise tax, and as reported by HART.

When will the Honolulu Rail run? What is the planned operation schedule?

When the trains are in full operation, they will run 20 hours per day, from 4 a.m. to midnight. During peak travel times, like rush hour, 17 four-car trains will arrive at the stations about every five minutes. During non-peak times, they will arrive about every 11 minutes. The Honolulu rail trains will travel a top speed of 55 mph and an average speed of 30 mph.

In 2030, HART estimates 121,000 passengers will ride the rail every weekday, and about 55 percent of these passengers will walk or bike to a station. They also except the Honolulu Rail to remove 40,000 car trips from Honolulu’s crowded roads, reducing gasoline consumption by 16,000 gallons. 

The Honolulu Rail may transform the way residents and visitors to Oahu move around the island, but we will have to wait until it opens – possibly this year – to witness its impact.

Who is paying for the construction of the Honolulu rail transit?

$1.55 billion of the construction costs for Honolulu Rail are being paid for with funds from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). As of July 2020, HART had received a little over $800 million of the $1.55 billion federal grant, which was approved in 2012; FTA has not released any new funds to HART since 2014 because it wants Honolulu to be able to show it has a plan to complete the rail with the necessary funding. Also, the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into the Honolulu Rail project. 

In April 2021, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, along with City Council Chairman Tommy Waters and interim HART executive director Lori Kahikina, sent a letter to Hawaii’s Congressional delegation, asking them for an addition $800 million to help build the rail from Middle Street to Ala Moana Center. However, the message was fairly clear that the federal government does not plan on approving additional funding for Honolulu’s rail.

Besides federal funding, another large percent is being paid for by tourists making purchases on Oahu via the 0.5% General Excise Tax (GET) surcharge. The rest of the Honolulu rail transit is being paid for by all Hawaii residents and businesses through a 0.5% GET surcharge, which has been collected since 2007 and will continue through 2027. The room and excise taxes are expected to generate around $7 billion toward the Honolulu Rail Transit project – its largest source of funding.

HART Honolulu is also using short-term bonds to finance the rail construction, which will be paid back using federal funds and the GET surcharge revenues.

The latest operating budget for the construction of the full 20-mile Honolulu rail is $12.4 billion, not including about $1 billion in financing costs. This is about 150% more expensive than originally promised.

I see elevated rail tracks in the West Oahu landscape. Why was this design chosen for Honolulu?

While some people may see the rail as an eyesore in the Hawaii sky, others may view it as an innovative transportation method that will transform Oahu. During the design phase, many professionals and community members collaborated to decide the final design. 

In the end, the elevated Honolulu rail transit design was chosen for its safety, efficiency, and reliability. Cars and pedestrians will not interfere with the train and vice versa, avoiding collisions and ensuring that train riders will get to destinations on time, regardless of congested traffic. Also, an elevated system is less expensive than an underground alternative.

The trains’ steel wheels and steel-rail technology were recommended by a panel of engineering and transit professionals and approved by Oahu voters in 2008. The “steel-on-steel” technology was then one of the most advanced technologies in the world and said to be quiet, smooth, and efficient.

What is HART Honolulu?

HART stands for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, and they are a semi-autonomous public authority responsible for planning, constructing, operating, and maintaining Honolulu’s rail transit. HART has a 14-member board composed of the Department of Transportation director, the Honolulu City Department of Transportation Services director, and 11 volunteers from the community (three appointed by the Mayor, three by City Council, three by the State Legislature). The voting members then appoint the fourteenth member to the board. 

HART employs hundreds of workers and business partners to construct the rail and is ultimately responsible for its completion. In January 2021, HART named Lori Kahikina, the city’s environmental director, as its interim CEO - after HART decided not to renew Former CEO Andrew Robbins’ contract. Within the first few months of Kahikina’s start date, nearly 50% of the city employees who were at HART when she arrived were no longer there, many being fired and some resigning.

“I am ready for the challenge of moving this important project forward,” Kahikina said in a public statement. “I commit to doing the best job possible for the citizens of the City and County of Honolulu and our entire state.”

And residents and visitors to Oahu hope HART will complete construction on the first section soon, so rides on the Honolulu rail can begin within the next few months!