Innocents abroad when Hawaii legislator goes to Puerto Rico
REP. Marilyn Lee's recent guest column lauded the Tren Urbano, or 'urban train,' a new 10.7-mile heavy rail line in San Juan, Puerto Rico (Star-Bulletin, July 5). She said she had been invited to observe it and "jumped at the chance because there are many similarities between Hawaii and Puerto Rico" and afterward concluded, "We must proceed with our scheduled plan to build transit -- our sister island has shown it can succeed."
Lee tells us that the construction costs for the 10.7-mile line was $2.25 billion. She does not tell us that the original forecast was $766 million, or that the official forecast in the Final Environmental Impact Statement, approved by the Federal Transit Administration, was $1.25 billion. It's a "success" when your costs are twice the budget?
LET'S RELATE that cost to Honolulu's transit project: Dividing the Tren Urbano's $2.25 billion cost by its 10.7-mile length results in $212 million per mile. Honolulu's locally preferred alternative transit line is scheduled to be 28 miles long. That would suggest that Honolulu's rail construction costs could be $6 billion. However, because Honolulu's labor costs are 47 percent higher than San Juan's, we should expect an even higher cost.
Next, ridership: According to the San Juan Star, the region's daily newspaper, the first year's average daily ridership was 25,000, against the official forecast of 80,000. Lee tells us only that the Tren Urbano ridership was "lower than projected." It's a success to achieve only 30 percent of what was forecast and approved by the FTA?
Let's relate that ridership to Honolulu, which has a population of only 40 percent of that of San Juan. If we had 40 percent of San Juan's ridership, that would mean daily ridership of 10,000, or about 4 percent of what TheBus currently carries. Of course, the official response is going to be, "That's ridiculous."
BUT CONSIDER this: The city and Parsons Brinckerhoff in 1992 forecast that if we did not build rail, bus ridership in 2005 would be 250,000 trips (excluding transfers) daily. We did not build rail but according to the city we had only 178,000 trips in 2005, 30 percent fewer than forecast. And there is nothing easier to forecast accurately than ridership for an existing, stable bus system.
As usual, when the financial performance goes awry on rail lines, the authorities take it out on the bus riders. In Puerto Rico, they tried to help their rail-caused financial problem by tripling bus fares and caused a great deal of aggravation among residents.
The performance of the Tren Urbano has been so bad that FTA administrator Jennifer Dorn put in place new measures to, as she testified in Congress, "avoid problems like those we have seen in the Tren Urbano project."
THE EVIDENCE clearly shows that the Tren Urbano is one of the worst failures in U.S. transportation history. Yet Lee wants such a "success" here.
It is difficult ever to understand what a politician means by "success." Over the years the alert observer of political activities will have noted that it has nothing to do with costs or even outcomes.
Political success appears to be based only on whether the voters perceive a project to be a success. That is to say, if it will help get the politician re-elected, then it is a success; otherwise, it is a failure. To more conventional thinkers, costs and benefits are what matter.
Cliff Slater is a businessman and former community scholar in the University of Hawaii economics department.