A look back at the rocky, decades-long path to get a mass transit system on Oahu

The path to get a mass transit system built on Oahu has been long and full of twists and turns. We dug through our archives to examine the project's history.
Published: Jun. 30, 2023 at 3:15 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 30, 2023 at 3:23 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The path to get a mass transit system built on Oahu has been long, rocky, and full of curves. Talk of a rail project to help alleviate the island’s increasing traffic troubles first began in 1968, when Neal Blaisdell was Honolulu’s mayor.

His successor a year later, Frank Fasi, championed the idea for a 29-mile rail line from Hawaii Kai to Pearl City. But Fasi lost his re-election bid in 1980.

A few months later, new Mayor Eileen Anderson canceled all rail plans.

“The ridership numbers that had been anticipated when HART was proposed are simply not materializing,” said Anderson in 1981.

But when Fasi was re-elected in 1984, he brought rail back on track.

Special Section: Honolulu Rail

And by 1990, federal money was promised for a 17-mile system. The city wanted a 0.5% general excise tax surcharge to provide local funding. Public support was mixed, but it seemed like a done deal at Honolulu Hale.

Then suddenly, any hope for rail died during a council committee vote in 1992. Councilmember Rene Mansho — a one-time rail supporter — changed sides in the final hours of the surcharge debate and stopped the train with a single swing vote.

She said the Fasi administration failed to prove the project was financially sound.

“I think the people of the City and County of Honolulu, especially the younger generation, have lost out,” said the late Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi.

Fasi’s successor Jeremy Harris started bus rapid transit before his term was up in 2004. But a few months later, new Mayor Mufi Hannemann scrapped the system.

He was able to get funding for rail after state legislators allowed counties to impose a GET surcharge to pay for public transportation systems. Oahu’s 4% GET increased to 4.5%. It won’t expire until 2030.

“It will not waste taxpayers dollars. I make that pledge to you, " said Hannemann in 2005.

There was also a huge, and highly-influential, supporter in Congress: longtime Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye.

What followed was years of back and forth over the right route and the exact type of system.

In 2008, voters finally had their say and chose steel-on-steel rail. They also voted 2 years later to create the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation or HART.

The city finally broke ground in 2011 for what had become a $4 billion project. But work was soon paused for over a year because of a federal lawsuit over Native Hawaiian burial sites.

During that time, former Gov. Ben Cayetano joined the 2012 mayoral race to kill the project if elected.

“This is the most mismanaged project I’ve ever seen in my 28 years in public office,” Cayetano told the media in 2012. But he lost to rail supporter Kirk Caldwell.

Over the next several years, the project struggled with skyrocketing costs, public distrust, changes in HART leadership, and billions of dollars in funding shortfalls. The Federal Transit Administration eventually withheld federal money and forced HART to issue several recovery plans.

In 2020, the agency canceled a public-private partnership plan for the City Center section because bids were higher than expected.

“Both came in above a billion dollars. About one point three billion dollars above the affordability limits,” said former Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

The tough job of figuring out how to pay for rail was then passed on to Honolulu’s next leader: Rick Blangiardi. He eventually received federal approval to cut the line a mile-and-a quarter short, ending in Kakaako instead of Ala Moana.

The city also ditched a $330 million park-and-ride structure at Pearl Highlands to keep the project’s price tag under $10 billion.

“Our intent was to say how much money do we have and how far can we possibly take this?,” Blangiardi said.

The city will need to look for other funding to someday make the Ala Moana stop a reality. But now, after decades of debate and delays, Skyline — Hawaii’s largest-ever public works project — is ready for riders.

“This really fulfills a 50 year promise to the people of Oahu that we are going to we were going to put in a rail system. This transfer ushers in a new era,” said Roger Morton, director of the city Department of Transportation Services.

A new era and a new way to connect Oahu’s “first” and “second” cities.