Cheryl Soon is well schooled in the issues underlying Honolulu’s rail project — in many ways. For one, she was director of the city Department of Transportation Services, from 1997 to 2004. That was before the birth of the current 20-mile project, but the general rail concept had been floated more than once, after all.
And then there was the real schooling. The Boston-born Soon is now chairing the Honolulu Rate Commission, a voluntary position that will advise on all transit rates. But her academic degrees are in planning; her paid job is with the long-established firm SSFM International, and she earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard University and the University of Hawaii, respectively. (Soon met her husband, Ray Soon, who retired in 2017 as the mayor’s chief of staff, at the Harvard planning school.)
“Actually, my Ph.D. was written on mega projects, and what goes wrong with them,” Soon said. You mean, like rail? “Exactly,” she added with a laugh.
The commission took public testimony about proposals for rail fare structures in August, and a second hearing is set for 2:30 p.m. Sept. 17 at the Mission Memorial Building. Comments can go by email (firstname.lastname@example.org, with Comments for the Rate Commission in the subject line), or mail (Rate Commission, c/o Howard “Puni” Chee, Department of Transportation Services, 650 S. King St., second floor, Honolulu, HI 96813.
Ideas so far include whether rail should be free initially (and if so, how long), whether seniors should get a break, whether fares charged on the new HOLO cards should be capped, whether monthly and annual rates should continue.
To chair this commission, it can be helpful to have the sort of background Soon has. But she insists on keeping that knowledge in the background. The Honolulu Authority on Rapid Transportation (HART) handles the construction, the City Council will make the call on the rates, in the end.
“I am careful not to cross the line right now,” she added “My role is on rates and I feel the best way I can help them is by trying to give an early recommendation on that.
“They may not take the recommendation. But if they do and everybody’s kind of lined up, it’s just one more thing off the table.”
Question: Could you describe the duties of the Honolulu Rate Commission?
Answer: The Rate Commission was created following a vote during a Charter Review. According to the Charter Section 66.1705-1(c), the commission’s duties are: 1) conduct an annual review of fares; 2) adopt policies for internal management; 3) advise the Department of Transportation Services, the administration, and the City Council on fares, fees and rates; and 4) prepare an annual report to the Council, mayor and director of transportation services.
Q: The commission was formed by voters ratifying a charter amendment three years ago. How were rates set before that?
A: Setting of rates was and remains the responsibility of the City Council. Prior to formation of the Rate Commission, they received recommendations from the city administration and conducted public hearings in order to set rates.
The Rate Commission provides additional opportunities for public input and an independent and focused review. The last time bus rates were raised (they) went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018. Rates for Handi-Van have not changed since 2004.
Q: How will the commission decide what fare to recommend to the City Council? Is the goal still to raise 30% of revenue from fares?
A: The Rate Commission has been studying other systems, in particular those which have both rail and bus modes. We have also been studying systems which use a fare card, such as the recently introduced HOLO card. HART, OTS (Oahu Transit Services) and the Department of Transportation Services have shared important issues for the Rate Commission to consider. Meetings are held monthly and public testimony is taken at each meeting.
In addition, due to the importance of rail being introduced to the city’s transportation network, the Rate Commission has done extra advertising and encourages people to come to the scheduled meetings or send in written testimony to email@example.com. All testimony is part of the record and considered seriously. The Rate Commission has published a list of several questions where input is especially sought.
The fare box recovery policy for TheBus is 27-33%. One of the topics under review is if this ratio should be the case for rail as well; or if other policies such as getting cars off the road are more important in the introductory period. Social impacts and ability to pay are also under review.
Q: How will feedback from the public during the hearings and in the public comment period be used to guide the decision?
A:Public testimony is of utmost importance. We seek to hear from current riders, as well as those who do not ride, in order to see how much fares is part of their consideration in making transportation decisions. …
I think that there’s going to be a lot of education to teach people how to use the rail system. You know, when does it come? How do you get on it? … Where do I get dropped off, how long the doors are going to be open for, you know, if you’re in a handicap situation. There’s a lot of questions that people are going to have.
But Andy (HART CEO Andrew Robbins) tells me that in the public meetings — and they’ve been going through a series of them recently — the most consistent question is, what’s it going to cost. Fair question, right? …
Q: We have a history of seniors riding free or low fare. How much weight do you give history in the recommendation?
A: History is a piece of it, but also, if people are paying something now and they’re going to pay something else later, how big of a leap do you give them at one time? …
Right now the (bus) fare is $2.75 for a single ride, and the commission last year recommended that go to $3. … The average fare for seniors is substantially less than that. So do you ump them up to $3 like everybody else, or do you give them a 50% discount? …. And the same thing with disabled …
Those two populations have a harder time on a fixed income, taking even a 25-cent increase. And that’s really what the commission is struggling with. … We want to simplify the number of categories because there’s quite a few of them now, and the Holo card will help with that, but we want to make sure that they’re proportionate in a way that feels fair to everyone. And that’s why we’re putting out all this request for feedback. …
Q: It’s been 15 years since you headed the city DTS. What role did you have in shaping the beginnings of the rail project?
A:I have always been and remain a strong support of a robust bus and rail system on Oahu. It is the only means of giving people fast and reliable service. It will be changing the fabric of the city as people can now make reasoned choices for where to live, work and recreate. The benefits of rail will accrue for many years into the future.
Previously, I worked on a proposal for both an in-town and outside BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system with limited-stop express service. Many of the Country Express lines and transit centers at Middle Street, Waipahu, Kapolei, Mililani and Wahiawa came from that work. They are building blocks for islandwide service.
Q:What do you see as the challenges in meshing the various parts of a “multimodal” transit system?
A:This has been successfully accomplished in many cities around the world. Meshing time schedules, safety and security, and good information for riders are some of the elements that lead to success.
Q: Any crystal-ball-gazing at whether the project will reach Ala Moana as planned, or even go beyond?
A:The in-town service will eventually happen. Because this is a bus-plus-rail system with both working together. Bus routing will have to be continuously reviewed to meet travel needs. Sometimes, the routing changes are to help people access rail; other times it is the best mode available until rail gets finished and possibly extended, such as to UH (at Manoa).