One decision by Honolulu’s rail planners exemplifies problems with the project in the eyes of critics.

A too-cozy relationship between the city and its two main engineering contractors has resulted in taxpayers having to pay tens of millions of dollars for a mistake in routing the train too close to Honolulu International Airport, they say.

Instead, the leading opponents say, the contractors — Parsons Brinckerhoff and InfraConsult — should have to bear that cost.

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, former judge Walter Heen, law professor Randy Roth and businessman Cliff Slater have filed a federal lawsuit to stop the project. They also are waging a public campaign against it. One recent salvo came in an August letter to Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle and members of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) board of directors, calling the failure to place the line in an appropriate location from the start an act of “apparent negligence.”

The issue is complex. Civil Beat has broken it down into three key questions:

1. What Happened?

Short answer: Rail planners initially put the line too close to the airport and ultimately had to move it. They proceeded with the too-close plan for years until they were alerted to the problem by an expert hired by the Federal Transit Administration. The city first tried to address the problem by extending two airport runways before eventually deciding to move the alignment one block mauka, from Aolele Street to Ualena Street.

For more details, read the full story: Rail at the Airport, Part 1: What Happened?

2. Who Was Responsible?

Short answer: It might not be reasonable to expect that the city or its contractors would have the wherewithal to evaluate the size and speed of the planes landing on different runways at Honolulu International Airport, compare those numbers to Federal Aviation Administration standards and then substitute their judgment for the actual airport planning documents provided by the airport manager. But ultimately, the responsibility for ensuring compliance with federal guidelines belongs to the city, and by extension, its consultants. That responsibility was fulfilled before land was purchased or construction bids requested.

For more details, read the full story: Rail at the Airport, Part 2: Who Was Responsible?

3. How Much Will It Cost?

Short answer: The opponents — and, curiously, even the city — have overstated the financial consequences. A comparison of the projected total costs before and after the realignment is not a fair way to determine the cost of discovering the Runway Protection Zone issue in 2009 instead of 2006. It’s not clear how much engineering was required to pursue the “wrong” alignment for two years, but it’s safe to say it’s far less than $65 million or even $29 million.

For more details, read the full story: Rail at the Airport, Part 3: How Much Will It Cost?

Conclusion

While the opponents may be correct that the contractor should have caught the problem with the alignment much earlier and should have to pay for the error, the actual cost of what opponents describe as a “mistake” on the $5 billion project is not material.

The opponents leave the impression that taxpayers are being bilked. They do so by using a cost figure that is not accurate, but that’s understandable given that the city has used the same number itself — until now.

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