Cliff Slater's Second Opinion


Light rail won't work either


Once more our Mayor is offering us a rail line--this time a light rail line. The old heavy rail proposal also started out as light rail. Remember: it was sold to us as a system of ethereal, noiseless monorail cars gliding about the sky whooshing everyone from home to work. When we got down to the hard facts of the final proposal it was, as a surprised Councilman Gary Gill described it, "A train ... a Godzilla of a train."

It is difficult to critique the Mayor's current ideas since we have no details. He only tells us that it would be like Portland's MAX light rail system. However, on November 3rd Portland voters turned down any further funding for MAX. It was understandable; by any objective measurable standard, MAX is a failure. Here’s why:

Fewer commuters now use public transportation than before MAX opened. In 1980, before MAX, 49,000 commuters used public transportation. In 1990, after four years of MAX, that number had dwindled to 39,000—bus and rail combined—despite a 50,000 increase in commuters. (1) The latest estimates by the federal government show continuing declines in commuting by public transportation in Portland. (2)

Ridership on MAX is insignificant. As in most communities with new rail systems, riders carried by bus far outstrip those carried by rail. In Portland, MAX only carries 13% of public transportation riders.(3) Or, put another way, MAX only carries 10% of what Honolulu's bus system presently carries—and these cities are about the same size.(4)

MAX increased traffic congestion? Between 1982 and 1988, the federal government studied traffic congestion changes in 39 urban areas. During this time, spanning before and after MAX, Portland experienced the 29th greatest increase in traffic congestion of the 39 cities. (5)

This was not unusual. Seven of the ten cities that opened new rail lines during this time were among the eleven worst performing U.S. cities of the 39 in this study. Only three of all the 39 cities surveyed actually reduced traffic congestion and none of the three had a rail line; they built busways.(6)

Could rail transit have actually caused an increase traffic congestion? Unless rail lines are built totally underground, they usually reduce road space significantly. For example, Honolulu’s 1992 proposed overhead heavy rail line was planned with 6’ by 6’ (and larger) concrete supports in the center of many of our busiest streets with only an average of 90’ between them.(7) Obviously, when you reduce road space this much you tend to increase traffic congestion.

And light rail vehicles or LRV’s might sound slick and modern but they are streetcars pure and simple as the City itself admits. Streetcars run on fixed rail lines in the street for at least part of their routes and this impedes regular traffic. In Honolulu we began replacing streetcars with buses in 1933 because buses obstructed traffic less than streetcars. As the Hawaii Hochi said then, "(buses) are much superior to the electric cars which stay in the middle of the street and block all the traffic that follows them ... our most serious problems of traffic congestion have been due to the ... (street) cars operating in the middle of our narrow streets."(8)

We have tremendous traffic problems in Honolulu but rail will do nothing to solve them. We must use the practical, proven solutions that have worked elsewhere rather than go along with the usual political shibai that will just put us into more debt.

 Cliff Slater is on the faculty of the Economics Dept., University of Hawaii as Community Scholar in Residence. He teaches urban transportation and privatization. Footnotes to this column are at


(1) Journey-To-Work Trends in the United States and its Major Metropolitan Areas 1960-1990. Federal Highway Administration. Publication No. FHWA-PL-94-012. November 1993. For change in workers: tables 5-6 and 5-6A. For changes in public transportation use: table 5-9A.

(2) 1995 Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey data quoted by Wendell Cox at:

(3) Transit Profiles: The Thirty Largest Agencies: for the 1994 National Transit Database Report Year. Portland Tri-County Metropolitan District of Oregon. Available at:

(4) Transit Profiles: The Thirty Largest Agencies: for the 1994 National Transit Database Report Year. City and County of Honolulu Department of Transportation Services (DTS). Available at:

(5)Roadway Congestion in Major Urbanized Areas, 1982-1988. Research Report 1131-3. Texas Transportation Institute in cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration. July 1990. Table 10.

(6) Houstonians Embrace the Bus: It Can Cut Commute Times in Half. Reprinted from the Charlotte Observer, March 17, 1998. Available from USDOT at:


(7) Alternatives Analysis and Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Honolulu Rapid Transit Development Project. U.S. Dept. of Transportation, Urban Mass Transportation Administration. March 1990. p. 5-30.

(8) Hawaii Hochi quoted in Honolulu Gets A New Deal. Bus Transportation. March 1934. p. 88.