Breene Harimoto, chairman of the Honolulu City Council Transportation Committee and a longtime rail supporter, is raising questions about whether the project can go forward.

“I have to choose my words very carefully,” Harimoto told Civil Beat Tuesday. “I think if we’re unable to resolve the concerns, and we proceed down the path that we are proceeding, I think it would be extremely difficult to continue the project.”

Harimoto attributes his growing concerns about the project to the Carlisle administration’s lack of transparency and forthrightness. While he says he’s confident about federal funding, he’s concerned about how much local taxpayers will have to pay for the project.

Harimoto’s comments to Civil Beat came a day after the administration announced $946 million in contracts for the $5.5 billion project, and on the same day U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Transit Administration Administrator Peter Rogoff are in Honolulu. A federal, state and city meeting on rail is scheduled for Wednesday morning.

Asked whether “there are things that the administration knows that haven’t been shared with the City Council and the public,” Harimoto said, “Yes.”

“Over the years that I’ve been observing the council working with the administration, it’s been clear there have been issues,” said Harimoto, who was elected in November after serving on the state Board of Education. “Since I’ve been on the council, I’ve experienced, personally, some of those issues. It’s why I have concerns.

“These concerns have been building and growing,” he said. “Certainly after my trip to Washington, D.C., talking with the FTA. The more major concerns are with regard to transparency, that the council and the public are given full information — accurate, complete information about the project.”

Harimoto was reluctant to delve into his specific concerns. He said he would detail them publicly in a letter he plans to write to the Federal Transit Administration. He also said he wanted to give Mayor Peter Carlisle the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting before going on the record about what he sees as major problems with his administration’s transparency. He’s also planning a special public meeting to “fully vet” the project’s finances.

“I’m still a very strong supporter of rail,” Harimoto said. “But we have a fiduciary responsibility not to just rubber stamp everything. I think because of some of these concerns, we have to do our homework and ask the questions to hold the administration’s feet to the fire to provide us the information we need.”

Harimoto is airing his concerns at a time when other council members have been expressing more frustration about rail. Council Chairman Nestor Garcia told Civil Beat last week that City Council members returned from a recent trip to Washington D.C. with “a lot of new concerns” about rail.

“A lot, a lot,” Garcia told Civil Beat shortly after they returned. “There is a lot below the surface.”

Last week, City Council members also complained about a breakdown in communication with the Carlisle administration over who would have the authority to approve a new rail agency’s multimillion spending plan for next year.

As Civil Beat revealed after a closed-door executive session on the matter, council members said city lawyers told them they would not have the authority to approve the new agency’s budget.

City Council member Ikaika Anderson called that move “darn concerning.” Council member Ann Kobayashi called it “out of control” and “scary.”

Asked about the development last week, Carlisle referred Civil Beat to the city’s top lawyer, Carrie Okinaga, who did not respond to a request for comment. Asked again in his office Monday afternoon, the mayor talked about unifying with the council and essentially letting the agency govern itself.

“We’ll be following up,” Carlisle said. “It’s supposed to be semi-autonomous but, frankly, my biggest hope is we’ll join hands with the council and walk out, and leave the people who we think are best to lead.”

Harimoto also raised concerns Tuesday about the city’s decision to award a $574 million contract to an Italian rail manufacturer that other cities have called unreliable. He and Transportation Vice Chair Ernie Martin are planning to travel to a number of cities that have done business with AnsaldoBreda.

“There were issues with this contractor,” Harimoto told Civil Beat. “With any large contractor, you will find there are issues reported in the press. That’s a given. But to do our due diligence, and perform our fiduciary responsibility, we need to investigate.”

The thing that’s most widely regarded as uncertain about rail — $1.55 billion in federal funding — is not what concerns Harimoto.

“Visiting the Congressional delegation, talking to the FTA, I came back with a very good feeling about the financial situation despite the unknowns with Congress maybe slashing the budget,” Harimoto said. “The feedback that I’ve gotten has been very, very supportive and positive. I want to be real clear about that. I do have concerns about the finances in general, as how the taxpayers can support this.”

Harimoto emphasizes he remains a strong rail supporter, and says he believes the City Council can pressure the Carlisle administration to level with the public.

“This project is too big and too significant for us not to find a way to work this out,” Harimoto said. “I fully believe the mayor agrees with that statement. It’s just a matter of both sides being candid and honest to find a way forward.”

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