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Skyline marks first anniversary, anticipates more stations opening in next 18 months

HONOLULU — A year after it opened to the public, Honolulu’s Skyline rail system continues to see a mix of more than 1 million commuters, first-timers, lookie-loos and tourists who are already anticipating four more stations that are scheduled to open in the next 18 months — including into and out of Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

For now, rail ridership between East Kapolei and Halawa — across from the shuttered Aloha Stadium — has remained relatively flat and has yet to see the kind of opening numbers when 71,722 curious passengers packed into Skyline trains for free from June 30 through July 4, 2023.

When riders had to pay to ride the country’s first fully automated system for the first time — the same fare covers both TheBus and Skyline — the number of passengers fell to 18,329 on the first day and have yet to see a return to similar opening-day ridership.

For all of August — the first full month of paid ridership — Skyline saw a peak of 96,178 passengers. They ranged from a daily high of 4,195 on Aug. 26 — a Saturday — to the lowest daily count for August of 2,437 the following day, a Sunday.

Since then, monthly ridership numbers have ranged from a low of 85,460 in December to 95,238 in April.

In all, 1,165,821 passengers will have ridden Skyline between July 2023 and today,(June 30) according to the city’s Department of Transportation Services, which operates Skyline.

The result means that Skyline will have generated $617,441 in revenue during its first year of operation.

But DTS Executive Director Roger Morton — who also serves on the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board that oversees rail construction — emphasized that most rail passengers also ride TheBus to get to and from the current 11-mile route through nine stations.

One fare charged to their HOLO card gets them aboard both TheBus and Skyline.

And rates vary depending on whether a passenger has a monthly pass, senior citizen pass or disability pass, so the revenue projections “are complicated,” Morton said.

But including Skyline’s revenue of $617,441 and fares generated by bus passengers who used their HOLO cards, total bus and rail revenue for the first year will add up to $46,553,701, Morton said.

Once the full line opens by the end of 2031 through downtown and into Kaka­‘ako’s so-called Civic Center station, ridership should jump to 80,000 to 85,000 passengers per day — boosting Skyline revenue exponentially, Morton said.

Change of plans

Getting rail open for the public a year ago today only came after what U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz characterized as “multiple near-death experiences along the way,” as he said on opening day.

The original plan envisioned in 2012 was to build a 20-mile, 21-station route from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center, which the city could not afford.

As a result, the Federal Transit Administration had grown frustrated with construction delays and cost overruns and withheld $744 million in federal funds.

Then — largely thanks to a new funding stream from a new county hotel tax aimed at tourists — Mayor Rick Blangiardi, the HART board and HART CEO and Executive Director Lori Kahikina came up with a truncated plan for only 19 stations and 18.75 miles of elevated track that the city could afford at a cost of $9.8 billion.

The relationship between the FTA and the city improved and the FTA released $125 million last year, representing the first payment since 2017.

Then a second round of $250 million in federal funds was threatened by recent revelations of tensions between Kahikina and the HART board, specifically HART Chair Colleen Hanabusa, over Kahikina’s future when her contract expires Dec. 31.

The situation appeared to be resolved during Friday’s HART board meeting.

Hanabusa announced her intention to step down as chair while remaining on the board. She then proposed a new, three-year contract for Kahikina.

But the board ended up approving a multiyear, minimum three-year contract to begin in January, with the details to be negotiated.

Hanabusa recused herself from voting on the contract motion.

Future generations

When Skyline opened, everyone knew that ridership would be a challenge because of the system’s initial, limited route from East Kapolei to Halawa.

“Obviously we’re not filling up the trains,” Morton said. “We have a system that’s second to none. We need to spread the word.”

So the challenge remains “to get more of our folks to try it,” he said.

Rail has always been billed as a benefit for future generations. And Morton encouraged more school groups to tour the system as long as their visits include an educational component.

Blangiardi acknowledged that the current rail segment has “inherent limitations” and isn’t “ideal” for riders.

But on the one-year anniversary of the opening of the system and new stations coming soon at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, Blangiardi said, “We’re on the threshold.”

He continues to push to expand rail to its original destination to Ala Moana Center, Hawai‘i’s largest transit hub — as well as deeper into Leeward Oahu “as far as we can possibly take it.”

Perhaps “in the lifetime of my grandchildren,” Blangiardi said, Skyline could even reach his alma mater, the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.

It’s the city’s obligation to offer rail service to where it’s needed most, especially into Leeward O‘ahu, the island’s fastest growing population, he said.

“We owe that to the people,” Blangiardi said. “All eyes are on the future of rail.”

In the meantime, bids to build the final, planned segment of track and the Civic Center station are due by July 21 and a contract is expected to be awarded in August.

After a year of ridership, Kahikina said she was “very proud of what HART and the HART team have accomplished.”

Morton said that in it’s first year of operation, the system has “exceeded our expectations” and been operating at “a level unparalleled in the United States.”

There have been occasional glitches, but contractor Hitachi Rail has kept the system running at more than 99 percent efficiency, he said.

Passenger view

Taggers have hit trains and stations with graffiti but regular maintenance has kept the system clean for passengers, several riders told the Honolulu Star- Advertiser last week.

Both regular commuters and first-timers like Jastine Kim-Ho of Nu‘uanu plan to ride Skyline again.

She and her 5-year-old son, Joshua, drove last week to the Halawa station to ride Skyline to the end of the line in East Kapolei and back.

She planned to return with her 2-year-old daughter, Sophia, and husband, Barney Ho.

“I was surprised at how comfortable it was and the views are great, especially sitting in front,” Kim-Ho said. “Joshua loved it. He liked seeing the water and all the trees and the buildings. I can use it as a way to shop instead of using the car to get to Pearlridge, Don Quijote in Waipahu. I don’t want to drive and have to park.”

Chris Kuznicki, a 45-year-old federal employee who lives in Waipahu and works at Camp H.M. Smith, tried Skyline for the first time two weeks ago to get to and from work.

He said he likes it so much that he’s now considering selling his 2015 Hyundai “to save gas and because parking’s a hassle.”

Now he walks from his townhouse to the Skyline station near the Waipahu Don Quijote and takes TheBus to Camp Smith — and back again.

“It really is pretty easy,” Kuznicki said.

And once the rail station opens at Daniel K. Inouye International, Kuznicki said, “it’ll be fast for me to go to the airport.”

Wearing a new Matsumoto Shave Ice T-shirt, visitor Chris Chin, 41, of El Cerrito, California, rode Skyline last week as part of his O‘ahu vacation.

Compared to the Bay Area’s BART rail system, Chin said, “I thought it was great and nice and clean — much cleaner than BART. It was a nice ride up and back. There weren’t too many people on there, but I can see how it would be good for shopping at Pearlridge and going to school at Leeward Community College, so I can see some benefit to it. It would be nicer to go further down south, and getting to the airport would have major benefits. I thought it was great. No complaints from me.”

Rosa Gomes of Ewa Beach works at Pearl Harbor as a civilian contractor and embraced the opening of Skyline to get to and from work.

“The minute it opened I got my pass,” Gomes said. “I don’t like driving and all the traffic.”

She did not want to disclose her age but said, “I’m a senior citizen and have a senior pass.”

Gomes rides her pedal-­assist electric bicycle to and from Skyline along “with about 10 of us” who also ride their bicycles and rail to get to work at Pearl Harbor, she said.

On board Skyline, Gomes called the experience “very peaceful, very calming” while creating a community of fellow commuters.

When she returned from a trip to the mainland last week, Gomes said passengers greeted her and said, “Oh, you’re back! We missed you.”

Overall — for her personally and for O‘ahu in general — Gomes called rail “a good thing.”
Source: The Garden Island

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