Honolulu’s rail transit system is still years away from taking its first passengers.

But when it does, who will use it, and how many people will give up their cars and take a ride instead?

While lawmakers focus on covering the cost of building rail, Always Investigating crunched the numbers to see how many people are using public transportation in Honolulu and found a big drop in users. That could spell trouble for covering the cost of running the rail system.

Honolulu has a big claim to fame when it comes to per-capita ridership of public transportation.

“We are the highest all-bus transit system,” said Roger Morton, CEO of Oahu Transit Services, which runs TheBus, “so that still says we’ve got a great ridership out there.”

It’s a ridership, though, that’s tracking 14 million fewer passengers a year off its peak more than 20 years ago. It’s gone from a steady slip to a steep drop recently, a range of as much as 10 percent, or more than 1 million fewer rides a month, compared to a couple years prior.

It’s a drop other cities are seeing too.

Always Investigating asked, what is eating away at public transit ridership right now?

“Uber, Lyft, and the other ride-hailing companies are clearly making an impact,” Morton said. “I’ve seen one city, in Las Vegas, where they’ve estimated perhaps it had a 10-percent impact on one of their major strip routes in the tourist area.”

There are other factors as well

“Our gas prices are very, very low right now,” Morton said.

So what does this all mean for rail

“The cost of operating and maintaining rail is just going to be off the chart compared to the ridership,” said rail critic Randy Roth.

The cost of operating rail and bus is estimated to be as much as $542 million a year within a decade, according to HART’s most recent projections, with fares bringing in about a quarter of that, or $126 million, and taxpayer subsidy covering the rest – hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the combined multimodal system.

“Today in the Legislature, the focus is on construction costs,” Roth said. “Even if some Santa Claus were to say, ‘Here is your rail system. We’re giving it to you for free,’ the city of Honolulu, I don’t think, could afford to operate and maintain in safe, clean adequate condition the kind of elevated heavy rail system that they are building right now. The focus today on the cost of constructing, it is really secondary, especially when you consider realistic ridership numbers. Even if we were given the system, it doesn’t make sense for this island community, and it’s not affordable to this island community.”

HART is counting on a turnaround, and a big increase in public transportation usage.

Rail’s original environmental impact statement said rail would have about 116,000 riders day, but its most recent projection bumped up to more than 121,000 riders.

Why? HART says because they switched to a four-car instead of a two-car configuration.

TheBus is projecting about a 75-percent increase in daily boardings by 2030, to 337,070 for TheBus and TheHandi-Van combined. Its most recent daily ridership reported – June 2017 – had just 192,395 for the two.

“Our buses have become slower over the last 30 years, maybe 25 percent slower,” Morton said, “and with rail we’ll be able to shave off a lot of stuff. Thirty years ago when I started, we could get into town 30 minutes faster from the west side than we could today, and now we’re two hours and 30 minutes, and if it’s a bad day it’s even longer than that. I know bus riders will understand what I’m saying. So with rail, we’re going to be able to get back to where we were and be even better than that.”

That’s because he says bus routes will be changed to encourage riders to take the west-to-town portion of the ride on the rail, and reconnect with a bolstered bus fleet.

“We’re actually planning a high-capacity electric bus fleet to run from Ala Moana Center to Waikiki,” Morton said. “We’re going to have two routes, one through the Ala Moana corridor, the other going through the Kapiolani corridor. I think we’re talking between 40 percent to 50 percent of our ridership in Waikiki is local residents going into Waikiki, many of them come from the west side.”

That’s a major reason, Morton says, why rail needs to be finished to Ala Moana and not stop short at Middle Street or downtown.

“We operate 27 routes in and around Ala Moana Center,” Morton said. “We have 1,500 daily bus trips, and just trying to figure out how would we handle those if we were at Aloha Tower. Where would you store those buses? Where would you park them?”

Not everyone’s buying the proposition that bus and rail ridership will turn around from its current trends.

“If you look at honest ridership projections, it makes no sense whatsoever,” Roth said. “Even before they made these latest changes, the numbers they’ve been providing have simply been bogus. When you look at evidence to support it, it’s simply not there. In fact, the evidence makes clear that their ridership projections have been grossly in excess of what could be reasonably expected, based on the experiences of many many cities that have adopted rail systems.”

Roth said in most other cities, transit ridership overall actually has gone down after rail is completed.

“The norm is that you don’t get more riders than you have just with bus. You actually get less after you’ve added rail,” Roth said.

But there are a few exceptions, and rail backers are counting on Honolulu to be one of them.

“I still believe in our numbers, and that’s because there is no rail currently, and I believe once the rail is built, there are more people that are going to take the transportation like to the airport,” said HART board chairman Damien Kim. “That, unfortunately, may reduce some of the new Ubers and taxi rides that you have, but I think TheBus would tick up in ridership as well as people riding the rail.”

“You know, we’re building lots and lots of houses on the west side right now at Hoopili and other developments, we’re adding tens of thousands of homes,” Morton said, “and there aren’t any major road projects for the areas, so our ridership is going to go up through people that have no other alternative and are going to have a good alternative with rail. They’ll be able to get into town from East Kapolei in about 40 minutes and that’s why you’re going to have people. They’ll vote with their feet. They’re going to take public transportation.”

What will a ticket cost? That’s not yet known, though it will be a unified bus and train fare. Starting this Oct. 1, TheBus rolls out an all-day $5 fare — no more cash transfers. A rate commission under the city’s Department of Transportation Services will take on setting bus-and-rail fares in the future.

“You want to keep it affordable for people to ride it,” Kim said. “If you do, I believe the true numbers. We couldn’t afford it at a full rate of fare that way, but it’s public transportation, so we’re there to come out with a fair fare for everybody and I think that we’ll keep the ridership up there.”

In addition to overseeing the rate commission, DTS will handle multimodal operations when HART is done building.

Rail’s federal oversight contractor called out DTS readiness in one of its latest reports, saying: “The PMOC (Project Management Oversight Contractor) is concerned whether the transition plan will be adequately developed and that sufficient resources will be allocated…. DTS has been provided no budget to add staff in FY 2017… This is very concerning.”

DTS director Wes Fryzstacki told Always Investigating in a statement: “DTS is preparing a HART Rail Operations and Maintenance Responsibility Transition Plan with staffing and budget requirements for future fiscal years…a budget request will be made for FY 2018.”