ATI The Alliance for Traffic Improvement

Seeking cost effective ways to reduce traffic congestion on Oahu



 The case against ‘light’ rail for Honolulu — and for a HOTway.

No one is proposing ‘light’ rail for Honolulu, they are proposing ‘heavy’ rail — and that means trains. ‘Light rail’ and ‘heavy rail’ are precise terms; light rail runs in the street for a significant part of its route and takes its power from overhead. Heavy rail is totally separated from the street and takes its power from below — the proverbial third rail. However, proponents prefer to use ‘light’ rail since it is a more saleable term. OFFICIAL DEFINITIONS

The following are the principal statements made in support of rail:

1.       All the other cities of our size have rail transit.

2.       Rail transit will reduce the numbers of cars on the road.

3.       Rail transit will reduce traffic congestion.

4.       Rail transit will ‘whisk’ you into town.

5.       We can build rail transit without raising taxes.

6.       We can only build rail; there is no room for highways.

Let’s examine these statements, one by one, using only federal government and American Public Transportation Association data.

First, "All the other cities of our size have rail transit."

Using ‘cities’ is very misleading; U.S. public transportation, and many other issues, are discussed in terms of metropolitan areas, such as the Bay Area, rather than just San Francisco. One cannot sensibly discuss San Francisco’s transportation problems and opportunities without including Oakland, South San Francisco, Fremont and the many other counties in the Bay Area. The federal government’s term to describe these is Metropolitan Statistical Areas — or MSA’s.

With a year 2000 population of 876,000, Honolulu is the 55th largest MSA in the U.S. No MSA of less than 1.2 million population has a rail line of any kind. No MSA of less than 3 million has a heavy rail line of the kind being proposed for Honolulu. Further, no one has built a heavy rail system since Miami’s was approved for construction 25 years ago — and Miami is four times our size.

It is instructive to examine the Census list of MSA’s merged together with the American Public Transportation Association listing of all the U.S. light and heavy rail lines. Note how many MSA's larger than us do not have rail lines. View the top 75 MSA's in the U.S.

Second, "Rail transit will reduce the numbers of cars on the road."

Proponents cannot show that this actually happens in practice. For example, the MSA’s in the table below were the three most successful ones in the U.S. in attracting new riders to their public transportation systems during the 1990-2000 Census period. However, note the increase in those “driving to work alone” during the same period, a number which is far greater than the new transit riders — and yet these were the most successful transit systems.


San Francisco



New Solo Drivers




New Transit Riders




Examine the data yourself for all of the nation’s 50 largest MSA’s in this spreadsheet prepared by the U.S. Census together with ATI’s calculations made from these data.  

For ease of handling we have also prepared a simpler one using only the most important information from the spreadsheet. Show this simpler one to your friends. They will find it quite eye opening.

There is only one reliable indicator of the use of public transportation for commuting and that is the decennial U.S. Census journey-to-work data. As you can see from the following summary data, the use of transit, of any kind, for commuting purposes has been continually declining.

Census Data for journey-to-work, 1960-2000







Percent of Workers by Mode






Private Vehicle






Public transportation












Other means






Worked at home






Source: Journey to Work Trends in the United States and its Major Metropolitan Areas 1960-2000.
Federal Highways Administration Publication
Publication No. FHWA –EP-03-058. Exhibit 1.1 (available online).

You can see from this next table that the trend is happening in nearly all the nation’s top 50 MSA’s. U.S. Census journey-to-work data for all major MSA’s comparing 1990 and 2000.

Nationally, the use of public transportation for commuting continued to steadily shrink from 12% of commuters in 1960 to 4.7% in 2000 — and it is still shrinking, as it is in Honolulu, which can be seen in this next table.

Census data: Commuting to Work  data for Honolulu County, State of Hawaii














Workers, 16 years or older








Drove alone, car, truck or van








Carpooled, car, truck or van








Public Transportation








Sub-total:Walked or worked at home








Other means








No. of buses in City fleet








Source: State Data Books, 1991 & 2000








Third, "Rail transit will reduce traffic congestion."

The recognized experts nationally on traffic congestion are the staff members of the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) at Texas A & M University. They are funded by the federal government, several state Departments of Transportation and the American Public Transportation Association. They issue a report annually on the changes of traffic congestion in the nation’s 75 largest MSA’s.

Their latest annual Texas Transportation Institute study on traffic congestion nationally, divided the nation’s MSA’s as follows:

Very Large

More than 3 million


1 to 3 million


500,000 to 1 million


Less than 500,000

They then sorted them, by category, according to changes in traffic congestion. SEE LIST

  • · In the ‘Very Large’ category, there were 11 cities, all but one of which had rail lines. Houston was the only one without, and it had the least increase in traffic congestion of any of this group.
  • · In the ‘Large’ category, there were 27 cities of which half had rail lines. Excepting the stable or shrinking cities of Cleveland, New Orleans, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, the best performing cities for traffic congestion were Milwaukee, Norfolk, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City — and none of these had rail.
  • · In the ‘Medium’ category there were 30 cities, which included Honolulu, and of these only Salt Lake City, which is 50 percent larger than us, had a rail line, and they had the third worst showing in traffic congestion increases.
  • · In the 'Small' category, there were no cities with rail lines.

Traffic congestion has increased significantly in every city of any size in the U.S. regardless of whether or not they have rail transit. In fact, as University of Hawaii’s Economics Professor James Roumasset pointed out recently, there is an unexplained correlation between those cities experiencing the greatest increase in traffic congestion and those with rail transit.

TTI’s latest annual tracking report on traffic congestion said that,

“To accomplish a goal of maintaining a constant congestion level … by only adding transit riders, there would have to be a substantial growth … equivalent to … expanding transit systems by more than one-third of the current ridership each year."

TTI added, “It may be very difficult to convince this many persons to begin riding transit.”

This last comment has to be the year’s understatement: no MSA has ever come remotely close to achieving such increases. READ THEIR FULL STATEMENT

Fourth, "Rail transit will ‘whisk’ you into town."

You often hear that ‘light’ rail will ‘whoosh,’ or ‘whisk,’ you into town at 60 mph. However, the train is projected to stop every half mile and the deceleration and acceleration involved is what limits average speeds no matter what the top speed. The FTA tells us that the average speed of the type of ‘heavy’ rail proposed for Honolulu is 22.5 mph. VERIFY FTA

Fifth, "We can build rail transit without raising state or city taxes."

The proposed rail line is projected to cost $2.64 billion READ IT before cost overruns. DISCUSSION

The feds have a funding limit of 50% of the project cost, or $500 million, whichever is less. That leaves $2.1 billion to be funded locally — before cost overruns. There is absolutely no way that such a sum could be funded without tax increases — either by a ½ percent statewide tax increase or a larger one percent Honolulu citywide tax increase.

Remember, if you favor a rail line, by definition, you favor a tax hike. There is no way you can fund $2.1 BILLION out of existing taxes. It may a tax levied by the state, or it may be that the legislature will approve the counties levying a tax. Either way it will be a tax hike.

Sixth, "We can only build rail; there is no room for highways."

The reversible HOTway being proposed by us at ATI (see below) would run in the same alignment as the proposed rail transit line and be only a few feet wider. Therefore, any objections raised on environmental issues apply equally to both the rail transit line and the HOTway.

These facts beg the question, is rail transit the best we can do with $2.6 billion dollars?

It is not only the capital costs, there is also the accompanying operating cost. Currently, Honolulu taxpayers subsidize TheBus by over $100 million annually. The proposed 1992 rail system would have increased operating costs over TheBus by $45 million annually — $56 million in today’s money (1991 FEIS, p. 6-20). We should expect at least this amount to accompany any new rail proposal.

Before we commit to such a program we should contemplate the following:

  • · Prior to the 1970s, public transportation was mostly privately owned and profitable. After this time, governments at all levels concluded that with the proper investment, public transportation would be revitalized (they used the word, Renaissance) and the use of it could be greatly increased especially during the rush hour. Accordingly, within a few years public transportation was socialized and the formerly private companies universally became government-run operations.
  • · This nation has spent over $200 billion subsidizing public transportation just during the past ten years only to have the commuters using it decline both in total and in percentage. Between 1990 and 2000 the U.S. Census showed we had a 13 million increase in commuters driving alone and a slight decrease in those using transit.
  • · We have had a similar result in Honolulu where commuters using TheBus declined from 41,000 to 34, 000 during the same period while we spent well in excess of a billion dollars in subsidies.

There is an alternative to rail …. a  HOTway.

You will often hear that building highways does not work as they just keep filling up with cars. That, of course defies common sense, which tells us that if highways expand at the same rate as travel demand then the prevailing congestion rate will stay the same. The TTI annual study says precisely that:

“The analysis shows that changes in roadway supply have an effect on the change in delay …The difference between lane-mile increases and traffic growth compares the change in supply and demand. If roadway capacity has been added at the same rate as travel, the deficit will be zero.” READ IT

The kind of highways currently favored by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation are HOTways, or High Occupancy Tollways or Transitways, usually referred to as HOT lanes. These are limited access highways that are reversible around midday, offering travel into town in the morning and out in the afternoon. Buses and vanpools have priority and go free, and all other vehicles pay a toll. As on  San Diego I-15 tollway, the toll price is collected electronically and the toll price is changed every six minutes to ensure that the facility is full, but free flowing, at all times. In short, a HOTway is a managed highway since the changing price manages the demand for its use.

We have suggested that such a two-lane reversible highway built along the same alignment as the proposed rail transit line, and only slightly wider than the rail line, would be appropriate for Oahu. The HOTway would begin around Waikele and end at Pier 16 near Hilo Hattie’s and have three or four entrances/exits at each end.REVIEW THE THREE LANE TAMPA VERSION

Both projects would be elevated, and of approximately the same size, except that the rail line would run to Kapolei whereas the expressway would end in the Waikele area. Both would offer far more capacity than could be used. The expressway, however, would cost far less and get bus riders, vanpool riders and toll-paying motorists downtown faster.

Highways of this nature have greater capacity than a rail line. A single lane of buses could carry 1,500 buses an hour with 75 passengers each. Two lanes could carry twice that amount, or 225,000 per hour per direction. But that is just theoretical capacity, and is as meaningless as those statements rail proponents make discussing rail capacity. For example, rail proponents often say that it would take 12 lanes of freeway to equal one rail line. However, that assumes the rail line is at full capacity and the highway is not reversible and the average number of persons per vehicle stays at today’s levels

The fact is that, in practice, neither a rail line nor a HOTway could possibly use all the capacity available to it. In practice, HOV lanes generally carry far more riders per hour than do rail lines of any kind. Only New York's 6th Avenue subway carries more than the HOV's.  DISCUSSION.

Rail proponents often talk of rail as a “high-capacity spine” for Honolulu. It’s a good analogy; our body’s spines carry our nerve signals from butt to shoulder — but most signals are sent from head to toe. And a HOTway is a head-to-toe conveyance. You catch a bus in your neighborhood and the bus goes on the freeway at uncongested speeds all the way into town and takes you where you want to go. No taking the bus to one end of the spine the averaging 22.5 mph to your destination station before you transfer from the end of the “spine” to your ultimate destination.

Those opposed to any highway construction often say that current highway taxes do not come close to paying for highway use. Dr. Jack Mallinckrodt’s paper on Highway Subsidies should put this one to rest; he shows that the taxes motorists pay more than cover highway costs.

And the HOTway does not require a tax increase. The proposed reversible express tollway would cost $1.0 billion and would be eligible for the same $500 million federal funding as a rail system. In addition, $200 million would be raised by selling the future stream of tolls; this is a normal procedure for funding tollways. That leaves a net local funding of $300 million, which can be handled within the existing tax collections.


About 8 percent of Honolulu’s commuter traffic is by transit and 90 percent is by automobile. Trying to solve a 100% problem by focusing on the least important element of that problem is not too smart. To solve the traffic congestion problem you have to manage the 90 percent, which is the auto and truck traffic and the highways. That is where the action is.