Before Honolulu can tap federal funds to help pay for a proposed $5.5 billion rail project, the city is required to go into the community to inform the public about the project.

The city has spent nearly $2 million over the last two years for public outreach — essentially, a public relations campaign — that typically includes such things as designing informational mailers and brochures, holding public informational meetings, hosting a website and collecting comments during the design and environmental review processes.

Civil Beat looked specifically at outreach money spent since 2008, the year Honolulu voters approved steel-on-steel technology for the proposed rail project. It was also the year that a draft environmental impact statement was completed and the city began preliminary engineering on the 20-mile elevated rail line. The project’s final EIS is awaiting the approval of Gov. Linda Lingle before it can move ahead.

That $2 million has been awarded to 10 companies (nine Hawaii-based, and one Salt Lake City, Utah-based) that have been subcontracted by one or more of the three contractors hired by the city to do preliminary engineering and prepare the draft EIS.

But because there are no strict guidelines for how much a city should spend on public relations or where to spend it, evaluating Honolulu’s expenditures for rail is difficult. The relevant contracts also aren’t available for review.

When Civil Beat asked to see the 10 companies’ public involvement contracts, city spokesman Bill Brennan said in an e-mail: “They do not have contracts with the city. Their contracts are with PB Americas and/or InfraConsult, so the city does not have their contracts available to look at.”

The Honolulu City Council, complaining about a lack of transparency surrounding rail, passed a resolution in May requesting information about rail contractors and subcontractors. With newsletter headlines such as “Rail: It’s now or never,” some have suggested the city spent money to build support for the project under the guise of informing the public. City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi was most critical.

“We had trouble getting information from the (city) Transportation Department and we wanted to know what these contracts say, what their tasks are,” Kobayashi told Civil Beat. “It’s really shameful that these contractors get paid so much money, yet we don’t know exactly what they’ve been hired to do. The taxpayers need to know.”

Kobayashi said she had been asking to review rail contracts since 2007, but only recently started receiving copies of some of the contracts, which she says she is reviewing.

Of the nine Hawaii subcontractors for public outreach, only one has a website — Carlson Communications— and only three have listed phone numbers — AccuCopy, Carlson Communications and Gary K. Omori LLC.

While all nine are registered to do business with the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, most of the names seem to exist only in archived neighborhood board meeting minutes online where they are identified as representing the “Honolulu Rail Transit Public Involvement Team.”

Those who were tracked down, were reluctant to talk about their contracts or declined altogether. Doug Carlson of Carlson Communications and Pat Lee of Pat Lee & Associates declined to comment.

The rail project will be funded by a combination of city and federal monies and expects to receive a total of $1.55 billion in federal funding by the end of the 2011 federal fiscal year.

Public transportation projects that receive funding through the Federal Transit Administration are required to create opportunities for “public participation” throughout the planning, design and build-out phases, according to FTA spokesman Paul Griffo. But the FTA doesn’t impose a spending requirement on such outreach efforts.

“We certainly wouldn’t discourage projects from budgeting for public outreach, but there is no spending requirement to satisfy and we really don’t track those kinds of expenditures,” Griffo said. “It is a federal requirement that opportunity be made for public participation along the way, which we do monitor … It’s an important piece because the public and communities should have a voice in shaping projects that are being planned in their own community to serve them.”

Because the FTA doesn’t track public involvement spending, it’s unclear what a typical amount to spend on outreach would be. One mainland city says it budgeted between 10 percent to 20 percent of its light rail project’s budget during the planning and environmental process specifically for public involvement.

In Honolulu’s case, approximately 2 percent of the $107.7 million spent on contracts for the planning and environmental review phases has been spent on community and public outreach.

The city provided a list of the 10 companies, the amount of each contract and a brief description of the work they were hired to perform. The contracts range in value from $299,612 for “public information and outreach” to $80,869 for “branding.” (While fees for public relations services widely vary, top PR firms in Hawaii charge an average of between $150 and $400 an hour, according to the Hawaii chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.)

Firm Name Description of Contracted Work Contract Amount
AccuCopy Consulting Group Community outreach and presentations $135,354
Carlson Communications Community outreach and presentations $238,260
Dahl Consulting LLC Public information and outreach $299,612
Gary K Omori LLC Community outreach and presentations $242,440
Red Monarch Communications Community outreach and presentations $156,625
John F. DeSoto Community outreach and presentations $151,525
Lychee Productions Inc. Information production manager $155,096
Pat Lee & Associates Community outreach and presentations $240,350
Elisa Yadao Public information manager $250,800
R&R Partners Inc. Branding $80,869
TOTAL $1,950,931

Source: City and County of Honolulu

The contracted public outreach work adds to efforts by a two-member city staff that handles public relations full time for the rail project.

While Honolulu officials said they could not provide copies of the 10 public involvement contracts, they did point to a summary of actions the Department of Transportation Services completed during the 2009 fiscal year, including a bulleted list of activities done by the public outreach program for the rail project. This included:

  • 92 updates given at neighborhood board meetings.
  • 132 community presentations.
  • Eight community workshops where residents could ask one-on-one questions to project engineers and technicians.
  • A monthly newsletter distributed to 15,000 subscribers.
  • A four-color brochure was written, designed and distributed at community events.
  • Radio spots, including a weekly talk show on KHVH 830 AM.
  • Print ads purchased in the daily newspapers and Midweek.
  • 124 phone calls received through hotline (808-566-2299).
  • Received an average of 765 comments or requests for information per month through the rail project website.
  • A monthly television show was aired on one of Oahu’s public access channels.
  • Media relations and public outreach activities performed for release of the draft environmental impact statement, including press releases, postcards, a newsletter issue, notices in the newspaper, five public hearings in December 2008.
  • A project DVD with an animated “fly-over” of the proposed rail line and stations.

Nalani Dahl of Dahl Consulting LLC received the largest public involvement contract totaling $299,612. Civil Beat spoke to Dahl in person at the city’s Rail Transit Division in downtown Honolulu where she says she is an interim public information officer for the division. She too was reluctant to talk about her contract, but shared that she was hired by Parsons Brinckerhoff during the EIS phase to manage a “speakers bureau” (fancy name for organizing a group of experts who can talk at events or meetings) and work with an events director. She said she then moved into “resource management” and oversaw the production of a monthly newsletter, print materials and content for the website.

“A lot of times public outreach is depicted in a negative light, but that’s what we do occupationally,” said Gary Omori, who received a $242,440 contract for community outreach and presentations. “I was primarily contracted to help ensure that people are informed about the project. It involved going to neighborhood board meetings, working with the community on the alternative analysis and then the draft EIS, and making sure that everyone had an opportunity to comment and share concerns or issues.”

R&R Partners Inc. was the single mainland firm subcontracted for $80,869 to handle branding for the project. The company, which says it was hired in mid-2009 to name and brand the rail system, has narrowed down a list of approximately 90 names to three names that have been paired with possible graphics.

“We hope to do an unveiling of the name to the public soon, but a lot is dependent on approval of the final EIS,” said Brian Rasmussen, director of business development for R&R Partners’ Salt Lake City office. “We feel very good about the name, more so about the process – we interviewed and had discussions with local groups, Native Hawaiian groups, civic groups and focus groups. We feel the people have had a say and will be proud of a brand identity that will live on for years to come.”

Honolulu’s spending on public involvement appears low to some mainland city officials overseeing light rail projects.

For example, a $924.4 million elevated rail project in Denver is spending 12 percent of its EIS budget on public outreach.

“Generally speaking, the public involvement piece of a project’s overall EIS phase can be anywhere from 10 (percent) to 20 percent, depending on what the corridor dynamics are. If there is a larger community being affected, then there will have to be more public meetings, more brochures, newsletters,” said Pauletta Tonilas, public information manager for the FasTracks project of the Regional Transportation District in Denver, which operates a bus and light rail system.

FasTracks is an expansion plan to build more than 100 miles of new commuter rail and light rail lines, laying six new lines and extending three others. For one of those new lines, Tonilas said $784,000 was spent on public involvement for an 18.6-mile electrified commuter rail line, representing 12 percent of that line’s $6.5 million EIS phase budget.

“For Honolulu, $2 million on public involvement for that project seems low,” Tonilas said. “The FTA is one of our main stakeholders, and they take the public involvement piece very seriously. If there is in fact a huge public outcry, the FTA can tell a transit agency to go out and work with the public and sometimes they will tell an agency they need to do more outreach.”

In Washington state, officials with Sound Transit in Puget Sound said their light rail projects don’t have a “normal range” for public involvement costs.

“There isn’t a magic number or formula for calculating public outreach costs, especially for long-term projects that can take multiple years, if not decades, to go from planning to construction,” said Brooke Belman, director of community outreach for Sound Transit.

“Because so many different communities can be impacted — residential, business, industrial communities — each one is different, and it’s about getting in to those communities and figuring out how they like to be communicated with, whether it’s mailings, videos, animations, face-to-face.”

“One example of our spending on outreach is a recent $1 million contract we awarded for public involvement for an extension line that will run for 9.2 miles and have five or six stations,” Belman said. “That $1 million is just for consultant support to implement a program; it doesn’t involve actually producing materials, graphics needed to communicate, staff time.”

“One lesson we’ve learned is that community outreach is really critical to moving projects forward and keeping a schedule,” said Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason. “The more we do, the better it goes. The last thing you want is someone not knowing how they’ll be affected.”

See a related story about what the city bought for $2 million in public information and outreach.

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