Why Does It Take 40 Years to Build a Railroad?



Like most mainland Americans, I had no idea that Honolulu is building a 20-mile long elevated rail line to alleviate automobile traffic.

In a March 22 New York Times article, writer Adam Nagourney reports that the project is over budget, behind schedule, and unpopular with many Hawaiians, including some who initially supported it. “Railway Rises on Oahu,” reads the headline, “As Does Anger Over Cost.”

Voters approved a referendum to build the railway eight years ago after what the writer describes as a “40-year debate over the project.” Initially, the projected cost was $4.6 billion, but that number has swollen to $6.7 billion, forcing the city to extend an excise tax surcharge for five years in one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. Completion of the rail line remains several years away; the first trains are now scheduled to run in 2021.

This is the most painful period for any transportation infrastructure project: after the commitment and the start of construction, but before anyone has realized any benefit. Think of the Big Dig in Boston, or, closer to home, the gradual replacement of the Union Street Bridge in Bangor. Messes often get worse before they get better.

A recent proposal calls for the construction of a roundabout at one entrance to the University of Maine. Traffic often builds up at that intersection in the morning and afternoon when school is in session. Imagine the annoyance it will be when it’s half done, as cars and buses and bicycles converge on a construction zone. When it’s finished it will be better than it is now, but there’s that period of pain.

I’m in favor of roundabouts and other road improvements, insofar as they make travel safer and more convenient for cyclists, pedestrians, and public transportation passengers. But I’m even more in favor of trains, because they remove people from road traffic, rather than just make it run more smoothly. There aren’t any passenger trains where I live, and that’s a pity.

People love trains. Yet when a rail project makes news, it’s usually because of problems: cost overruns, construction delays, local opposition. Maybe that’s why they take so long. If Hawaiians have debated about building a railway for 40 years, that means they had identified car traffic as a problem as far back as the 1970s. California has been talking about high-speed rail for at least as long. Governor Jerry Brown seems determined to make it happen; it may take as long to build as it did to argue about building it.

I’ve never been to Hawaii. I can’t pass judgment on the effectiveness of the railway versus the cost. But the Times article is accompanied by a photo of Honolulu traffic: a four-lane freeway backup that would do San Diego proud. Anything to get some of those people out of their cars would seem to be an improvement.

Maine doesn’t have that kind of car traffic – yet – though the summer bottlenecks along the coast and at the bottom of the turnpike can be trying. But if planners in Honolulu could see 40 years ago that their little stretch of paradise might soon be overrun with cars, the idea of restoring passenger rail service to Bangor and other parts of the state doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Living without a car for the past nine years has taught me, among other things, that patience is not only a virtue, but a necessity. In the short term, you sometimes have to wait for a bus. Or walk – because I can’t take a bus home after 5:45 pm. In the longer term, policy changes take time. Bangor bus passengers have been lobbying for later hours at least since I began using the system in 2007. We’re still waiting.

Infrastructure expansion seems to take longest of all. Still, incremental success stories abound. San Diego has expanded its trolley system since I lived there. Maine has added the DownEaster train and a tourist train to Rockland since I’ve been back. I’d love to see passenger train service return to Bangor. But it could take decades.

To use an Easter metaphor, we need to stop putting all our transportation eggs in one basket. We are living in the Late Automotive Age. Investing in alternatives to the car is ultimately worth it, even if the payoff may be years down the line.

And maybe by the time I make it to Hawaii, there will be a rail for me to ride.







Hank Garfield

About Hank Garfield

Hank's writing has appeared in San Diego Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Downeast, Bangor Metro, and elsewhere. He is the author of five published novels, and is now seeking a publisher for his recently-completed novel, A Sprauling Family Saga.