Honolulu’s Skyline is ready to roll

A media tour of the City’s Skyline rail was held on Thursday, June 22, 2023. Pictured is a Skyline train heading eastbound from the Pouhala - Waipahu Transit Center. (CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL/Honolulu Star-Advertiser)

Opening the city’s rail project for passenger service seemed a near impossibility just 2-1 /2 years ago when it was digging a deeper financial hole and federal transit officials had lost faith and were withholding millions of dollars in badly needed funding.

But Friday the public finally boarded Skyline trains at any of the nine stations along the initial 11-mile route from East Kapolei to Halawa, near Aloha Stadium.


They’ll experience for themselves the first leg of a $9.8 billion system that is planned to eventually extend to Kakaako by 2031, and possibly its original destination at Ala Moana Center—and maybe even beyond.

When he took office in January 2021, Mayor Rick Blangiardi for the first time realized how badly years of cost overruns and delays had tarnished Honolulu’s reputation at the Federal Transit Administration.

K. Jane Williams, who was then running the FTA, could not have been more blunt, Blangiardi recalled Wednesday as city officials prepared for today’s opening of passenger service. According to the mayor, Williams told him, “You’ve got to get your act together. There’s zero confidence here in Washington.”

“I was told flat-out this is the worst project of its kind in America,” Blangiardi said. “Yet I didn’t realize it until I started talking to Washington that this was on everybody’s radar screen. This was a big issue with the FTA, the status of this project and its future. I didn’t know that until I started having these discussions. Out of the depths of all of that, we got it figured out.”

The project was in a $3.5 billion budget hole at the time, with no hope of further financial support from either the state or federal government, which already was holding on to $744 million in rail financing.

Stopping construction likely would have meant that Honolulu would have to repay millions of dollars in federal financing it already had spent on construction.

“There was no way we could stop this thing without incredible recourse, if you will, from the FTA,” Blangiardi said. “It would be an incredible failure, an incredible failure.”

With the state Legislature granting a new county hotel tax aimed at tourists, rail had a new source of income. But it still wasn’t enough to build the original 20-mile, 21-station route from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center, Hawaii’s largest transit hub, that had been envisioned in 2012.

So Blangiardi worked with Lori Kahikina, CEO and executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, to cut the system down to 19 stations and 18.75 miles of track ending in Kakaako at the so-called Civic Center Station, or Ka’akaukukui.

At the same time, Kahikina was getting rid of consultants and redundant staff and doing anything else to cut costs, such as coming up with a “mauka shift ” plan to move the rail route to only one side of crowded Dillingham Boulevard to avoid relocating utility lines on both sides of the street.

With the new administration of President Joe Biden emphasizing infrastructure and transportation, new FTA leadership approved Honolulu’s truncated plan in September, and suddenly the rail project had new life, and attitudes in Washington, D.C., changed.

The new plan meant that the project was finally eligible for $125 million in federal funding and an additional $250 million when HART awards a contract for the final stretch of track and station in Kakaako.

After years of criticism about rail, Blangiardi said that passengers today will experience elevated mauka and makai views that he called “captivating” without having to worry about traffic congestion.

Skyline passengers, he said, will quickly grow to appreciate “the consistency of it, the efficiency of it, the reliability of it. … If you’re driving in a car, it’s anything but that. It’s not consistent. One day it can be a 30-minute ride and the next day a 50-minute ride.”

Limited parking is available only at three stations. So passengers will largely rely on a network of buses to get them to and from the rail stations. Bus routes and schedules are being adjusted starting Saturday.

Passengers for the first time will experience brand-new trains and stations, and Blangiardi hopes people will “respect” them.

“It’s a community asset, and we should all treat it that way, with respect,” he said.

If not, each of the four-car trains is equipped with 44 cameras that automatically point at onboard emergency call buttons for passengers who report bad behavior.

With surveillance cameras at Skyline stations, 24-hour monitoring at the rail’s operations center and roaming security, Blangiardi called the system “very high-tech … and very safe.”

He also credited former Mayors Mufi Hannemann, Peter Carlisle and Kirk Caldwell, who “all played a part in getting us where we are today.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email hawaiiwarriorworld@staradvertiser.com.