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Hawaii NewsLee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna: Work from home era may leave rail behind

                                A Honolulu Rail Transit train is seen parked at the Halaulani Rail Station at Leeward Community College.
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A Honolulu Rail Transit train is seen parked at the Halaulani Rail Station at Leeward Community College.

Somewhere, somebody must be keeping track of how many times the “ready to roll” date has been moved back for the Honolulu rail project. It would be a number somewhat smaller, but every bit as predictable, as the number of times the estimated cost of the project has been ratcheted up.

Every time there’s another update that says the rail is going to take longer and cost more, it’s like a running joke that has run its course. Not funny already. No element of surprise.

What if one of the after­-effects of COVID-19 is that Oahu doesn’t need rail as much anymore?

Downtown Honolulu is pretty quiet these days. Many businesses, including those that had for years resisted allowing workers to telecommute, have found that letting employees work from home comes with certain advantages, including increased productivity and employee satisfaction.

At the same time, having everyone come back to the office after months of working at home while the virus has yet to be vanquished poses many complications of social distancing, including Plexiglas partitions, new intra-office traffic management and choreographing 6 feet of distance around a conference table.

The New York Times magazine asked the question in its June 9 issue, “What if working from home goes on forever?” The piece described employees and companies that have not only adapted to lockdown conditions but have come to prefer it to many of the “old” ways of doing business, including tangled commutes, expensive parking, public restrooms and fear of elevator sneezes.

“In the last month, several executives have announced sweeping plans to permanently increase the number of employees operating outside the office. At Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has said he expects 50% of his workforce to be doing their jobs remotely in as little as five years. Twitter’s leadership announced that anyone who wants to telecommute can now do so, forever. Nationwide Insurance sent nearly its entire staff home in mid-March and found the move so productive that it is closing six offices; 32% of its personnel will work remotely.”

So maybe there will be fewer downtown workers who will actually work downtown, and fewer University of Hawaii at Manoa students actually sitting in classes on the Manoa campus. Many workers do not have the luxury of doing their job remotely via Zoom, and as retail and restaurants and Waikiki tourism come back, those kinds of hands-on jobs will come back too, but will there be enough of those commuters coming from the west side into town to fill that expensive train?

Oahu’s rail project has been snake-bit from the start, hampered by a series of unfortunate events, a parade of leaders who talked a good game and then quickly moved on when it became obvious that keeping the promise of “doing rail right” was not possible with a project that started out before it was thought out.

What if rail’s time has passed and we are chugging into a new era where work and school from your kitchen table is possible and preferable for many people?

The latest obstacle is that COVID-19 has obliterated revenue from the general excise tax that was supposed to pay for the rail. Also, the pandemic prevented bidders from completing their proposals.

Maybe those folks should have figured out how to work from home.

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