Rail cars will have 20 more seats; critic predicts low ridership

Published On: Mar 21 2013 06:18:00 PM HST

After numerous complaints from future riders of Honolulu's $5.3 billion rail system, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation increased the number of seats in each railcar from 76 to 96. The $1.75 million change order with core systems contractor Ansaldo Honolulu JV was approved Thursday during a joint session of the project's Finance and Oversight committees.

"It fulfills a promise we made to try to offer better amenities for our customers, and as the mayor talks about, build rail better," said HART Executive Director Dan Grabauskas. "I think one way to do that is to offer people more seats."

All told, HART's fleet of railcars will feature 800 additional seats, an increase of 25 percent. The final price tag of the change order was $800,000 less than what Ansaldo had requested, and did not impact the $644 million in contingency funds the project has left.

"We had set this aside already last year prior to the final budget," said Grabauskas. "We were able to talk to them about where their proposal came from, (and) work those numbers down."

However, University of Hawaii civil engineering professor and longtime rail critic Panos Prevedouros believes additional seats are unnecessary. Prevedouros predicts Honolulu will experience the same type of ridership as Tren Urbano in Puerto Rico, which began service in December, 2004.

"They projected 80,000 people in the opening year, they got 25,000," Prevedouros told KITV4. "Pretty much, everything is a big guess, and rail forecasting has a tradition of being way off."

According to statistics from the Federal Transit Administration, Tren Urbano saw an average of 48,800 weekday trips in 2012, still well below the initial ridership forecast.

"That is a spectacular failure," said Prevedouros, "that six or seven years after it opened, it has not reached the 50-percent mark of the forecast."

The final environmental impact statement for Honolulu's rail line predicts 116,300 daily trips by 2030. Despite construction delays that resulted from a Hawaii Supreme Court decision in August of last year, the 20-mile long system from East Kapolei to the Ala Moana Shopping Center is expected to fully open in March, 2019.

Grabauskas remains confident ridership predictions will pan out, regardless of what critics like Prevedouros have to say.

"We're going to have this train running down the center of Kamehameha (Highway), Farrington Highway and coming into the city center," said Grabauskas. "It's going to be an advertisement as you're sitting dead stopped in traffic, to look up and see those trains go by every few minutes and say, 'Why am I not on that train?'"

Like Honolulu's heavy-rail system, Tren Urbano is built on an elevated track with elevated stations. In addition, some of the design work on Tren Urbano was performed by Parsons and Brinckerhoff, the same company that served as the primary contractor for Honolulu's alternatives analysis report and preliminary engineering.   

"It's almost a perfect comparison," said Prevedouros. "But Tren Urbano, it's a smaller system, it's only 10 miles."

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