Honolulu’s rail system begins partial operation next year, with most of its riders expected to get to stations by bus. But a longtime decline in bus ridership had its worst drop ever this year. Always Investigating and looks at what this means for rail and bus ridership.

The federal requirement for the project depends on rail ridership numbers meeting what what was projected for the first five years, or else the $1.5 billion federal share could be in jeopardy.

A decade ago when Honolulu’s rail project planning hit high gear, bus ridership was in high gear, too. In 2012 when the feds and city signed the grant agreement to build it, TheBus logged one of its best years ever — more than 76 million rides.

It’s been downhill every year since then.

This past fiscal year the tally hovered just above 60 million rides. That’s a 21 percent drop, 5 percent in just the past year, which saw the biggest single-year exodus of 3.4 million fewer rides.

“This is happening in a lot of places,” said rail critic Randy Roth. “What’s surprising here in Hawaii is that the rail supporters, HART and the city haven’t adjusted their bus ridership projections.”

TheBus maintains it will carry more than 330,000 bus and HandiVan daily riders a decade from now, in 2030. But just over 193,000 rides a day happen now. Hitting the 2030 target of 330,000 daily riders would be a 74% increase, counter to all local and national trends.

HART even notched up its projected daily ridership by 2030, from 116,000 in the original EIS to 121,000 when they went to a four-car configuration. Rail forecasts say most train riders will get to stations by bus.

“Their projection is that 60 percent of the people that ride the rail will get there by bus,” Roth said. “Well if the number of people that are riding the bus has been coming down further and further every year, doesn’t that impact rail ridership?”

Ridership equals money in the fareboxes, and determines how much taxpayers have to cover in remaining operational costs.

“I think it is about time for HART to reevaluate their numbers,” said Honolulu City Councilmember Kymberly Pine, “and for the Department of Transportation Services and the city to re-evaluate their projections.”

But Always Investigating has learned the city plans to build its operating budget first, then reassess ridership later.

“City budgets are prepared a year in advance of each fiscal year, and we are in the process of building next year’s budget for public transit,” a DTS spokesperson told KHON2.

HART and the city’s DTS spokespeople tell me they won’t yet re-forecast ridership projections, even with the council and administration already building budgets for next fiscal year in which the train system’s first 10 miles opens for business.

“DTS and HART are planning to conduct a new onboard bus rider survey in 2020, prior to commencement of passenger service and rail operations,” HART said in a statement. ”This survey data can be used to update the rail ridership forecasts.”

That might not mean much to the Federal Transit Administration, whose full funding grant agreement terms include not just that rail is built, but that original ridership projections have to be met for at least the first five years of operation.

“Projects are not re-rated, including ridership projections, after the FFGA award,” an FTA spokesperson told Always Investigating. “”Project sponsors are required to provide a level of prescribed operational service for a minimum of five years upon successful achievement of the Revenue Service Date.”

The current Ansaldo operating contract does not include any ridership requirement for the system’s operator, according to a HART spokesperson. Whether the public-private partner (P3) that the city wants to build the last segment and run the system will be held to the federal minimum remains to be seen.

A resolution by Honolulu City Councilmember Heidi Tsuneyoshi (Res. 19-256; check status here) calls on HART to make sure the city council gets to review the P3 contract prior to execution, and she says she’ll be watching for a ridership clause.

“With a partner now doing the operation and maintenance component of it and not having a ridership level within their contract,” Tsuneyoshi said, “there’s no way for the city to manage our ridership, our revenue.”

“I think a private partner is not going to take on the risk of declining ridership without there being a major premium paid for them to take on that risk,” Roth said.

HART says the bus’s loss could spell rail’s gain, pointing to an American Public Transportation Association study that found while bus ridership nationwide has tanked 16 percent since the year 2000, rail is counting 43 percent more passengers. APTA says its focus groups and data show passengers don’t like riding buses stuck in the same gridlocked traffic as cars, or the service hour restrictions on bus systems.

Lawmakers see a quick fix that could turn around fortunes for TheBus — and riders – immediately.

“What they need to do to fix the ridership now is to provide better service to the outlying areas that travel the farthest on the bus,” Pine said, “and that would be the leeward coast, Mililani, North Shore, Kailua, Kaneohe people coming to town. When we see certain routes aren’t doing as well or performing as well, we can switch the routes and bring it to where the ridership is.”

“In the areas where we’re losing bus ridership because of Uber, Lyft, taxis and now we have Biki bikes, it makes sense for us to lessen the amount of buses in those areas and we can use the same model for the future,” Tsuneyoshi said. “With the rail no matter what happens it’s going to be on a fixed route.”

Regardless of what happens with rail, declining bus ridership itself has an impact on riders and nonriders’ pocketbooks. DTS says they had already notched back the portion of revenue expected from bus fares vs. taxpayer subsidy, and that bus fare hikes may have to be considered. DTS says TheBusʻ farebox recovery is recommended by city resolution to be between 25 percent and 30 percent; formerly it was 27% to 33 percent.

“When revenues fall outside of this range, the administration will look to adjust bus fares,” a DTS spokesperson told KHON2. “Currently, bus fares have not been changed since Jan. 1, 2018.”