Editor’s note: This article is the second in a three-part series examining why Honolulu’s proposed rail line had to be shifted at Honolulu International Airport, who was responsible and how much it will cost taxpayers. Read the overview here.

Part 1: What Happened? | Part 2: Who Was Responsible? | Part 3: How Much Will It Cost?

Even if you give city officials the benefit of the doubt that they weren’t warned that the route of the train at Honolulu International Airport was too close to the runways, it’s undisputed that the problem was not identified by rail planners until after the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (DEIS) had been published. That was years after initial planning work had begun.

Leading rail opponents — former Gov. Ben Cayetano, former judge Walter Heen, law professor Randy Roth and businessman Cliff Slater — characterize the episode as a “glaring mistake.” They said city Department of Transportation Services Director Wayne Yoshioka didn’t identify the responsible party because of close relationships with two of the city’s main rail contractors — Parsons Brinckerhoff and InfraConsult.

Their letter to Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle and members of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) board of directors points out that Yoshioka is a former Parsons Brinckerhoff employee; that his wife still works for the company; and that InfraConsult, tasked with overseeing Parsons Brinckerhoff’s work, was formed by three former Parsons Brinckerhoff employees.

Yoshioka says the suggestion that the city has given Parsons Brinckerhoff or InfraConsult any special treatment is “absolutely absurd.”

“Everything has been absolutely above board and by the books,” he said.

More to the point, though, is that Yoshioka, other city officials and the city consultants dispute that there was any mistake at all.

“The whole purpose of going through preliminary engineering is to identify the very types of issues that were identified and to take care of them,” Yoshioka said. “The process worked exactly like it was supposed to have worked.”

Parsons Brinckerhoff’s James Dunn, director of design and construction for the project, said the alignment change was nothing out of the ordinary.

“That’s the normal process of this early design work is that it’s a give-and-take between major stakeholders,” he said.

“It took the cooperation of HDOT-Air, the cooperation of the FAA, both locally and federally, and the cooperation of the city to come up with an understanding that this alignment is best for us and for all the other stakeholders,” Dunn said. “That’s exactly what we do in engineering. You look at options, you evaluate the cost, you evaluate how it will be operated in the future. … You evaluate all those kind of things before you decide that this is the most appropriate way to go forward, and that’s what we did.

“We’re well ahead of the game,” he said.

Simon Zweighaft, a managing partner at InfraConsult, said there was no delay associated with the alignment change.

“That’s all part of the process. The issue to me is, ‘When is it not part of the process?’ They never presented it as the final alignment,” he said. “To me the final alignment is the alignment we put out to bid.”

Still, the problem could have been caught sooner — long before the summer of 2009. And the city says there’s a perfectly good reason why it didn’t know about the Runway Protection Zone (RPZ) issue for years as it planned the route: The Hawaii Department of Transportation (HDOT), which manages the airport, never told city officials about it.

Toru Hamayasu, the city’s rail chief, says he’s not trying to blame the state. He called the late airport realignment “a good example of agencies cooperating and checking each other.”

“A working relationship with the state is really an important thing to us,” Yoshioka said. “It doesn’t benefit anyone to be adversarial. It usually costs the taxpayers a lot more in that situation.”

But Hamayasu said the reason the state didn’t warn the city about it is because it was using an outdated airport planning map with old RPZ dimensions on it.

The Federal Aviation Administration increased the size of RPZ dimensions for certain runway types in 1994, according to FAA Pacific Division spokesman Ian Gregor. “As a result, the RPZs for the Runway 22L and 22R ends at HNL increased in length from 1,000 feet to 1,700 feet,” he said.

The FAA prohibits residences and places of “public assembly” from the RPZ and cites churches, schools, hospitals, office buildings and shopping centers as specific examples. And while the FAA does not require airports to clear existing nonconforming structures in the extended RPZ, any new development would need to comply with the rules, Gregor said.

“The RPZ has become kind of a hard thing, particularly with the problems we’ve had with runway runoffs,” former FAA Chief Counsel Sandy Murdock told Civil Beat. “If there’s a train in the RPZ, and you’ve got a fully-loaded 747 that’s full of fuel, that’s a problem.”

Adding to the confusion is that the size of an RPZ isn’t uniform across the board. FAA rules governing RPZs have different dimensions for different airports and even different runways at a single airport depending on visibility and the types of aircraft each runway serves. So if an airport starts to serve different types of aircraft, the dimensions of its RPZs can change over time.

Source: Federal Aviation Administration Advisory Circular 150/5300-13

HDOT spokesman Dan Meisenzahl told Civil Beat that the current Airport Layout Plan (ALP) for Honolulu International Airport was produced in November 2010 and is awaiting final approval by the FAA. The previous iteration was dated Oct. 23, 2000, Meisenzahl said.

“Because an ALP update is a large effort that can cost $1M for an airport like HNL we don’t update it with every new FAA airfield requirement but usually only when we do the Master Plan,” Meisenzahl wrote in an email to Civil Beat.

“The 1994 RPZ requirement of 1,700′ for Group C&D aircraft was in effect when the 2000 and 2010 ALPs were done. In 2000 we were only landing Group A&B aircraft and currently that is still what we land. That is why 1,000′ is shown on the 2000 ALP,” Meisenzahl wrote. “When we did the 2010 ALP FAA said we should preserve future capacity of the runway for Group C&D aircraft so we should use the 1,700′ RPZ distance. That is how the RPZ length changed from 1,000′ to 1,700′.”

Civil Beat reviewed relevant portions of both old and new Airport Layout Plans.

The old version, provided by the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART), shows RPZs for Runways 22R and 22L that weren’t identified as a problem.

Source: Sheet 3, Airport Layout Plan, Aug. 31, 1994

Under the old Airport Layout Plan, the rail station would have been constructed in what is today the employee parking lot on the makai-Ewa corner of Aolele Street and Lagoon Drive.

The new version, provided by HDOT, still has 1,000-foot arrival and departure RPZs for Runway 22R. But for Runway 22L, the RPZ in the November 2010 map is 1,700 feet long and extends through the employee parking lot, across Aolele Street and into the properties between Aolele and Ualena Streets.

A table at the bottom of the map shows that Runway 22L is capable of handling aircraft with wingspans up to 213 feet traveling up to 157 knots. Those planes are larger and faster than those that Runway 22R can handle: 117-foot wingspans and 141 knots.

Source: Sheet 2, Airport Layout Plan, Nov. 30, 2010

Hamayasu says the city relied on the old layout plan and counted on the HDOT to provide up-to-date information. He said the city obtained the ALP from the state in 2005 or 2006.

“What happened was we based our initial plan on the available or the official Airport Layout Plan that showed the RPZ in a certain place. So our engineering effort was based on that adopted official layout plan,” he said. “We rely on the cooperating agencies such as Navy for their expertise when we went near Pearl Harbor area. We rely on the Corps of Engineers whenever we have a stream crossing for any additional concerns. We rely on many other state and city sister agencies for their expertise to tell us if there are concerns.”

But Steve Steckler, chairman of the Maryland-based Infrastructure Management Group that prepared the independent analysis of the city’s rail financial plan for then-Gov. Linda Lingle late last year, said it’s incumbent on public transportation developers to make sure they’re not running afoul of FAA guidelines.

“Whenever a highway or a rail line are being built near an airport it is both logical and routine for the entity building the highway or rail line to ensure that they have complied with all federal laws,” Steckler told Civil Beat. “Given the dollars at stake for discovering a non-compliance late in the process, most projects that risk incursion perform sufficient due diligence to reach their own conclusion, not just take the word of the airport, about whether federal law has been satisfied.”

However, if the city indeed received an outdated layout plan from the HDOT and based its analysis on that faulty document, Steckler said, “it’s more understandable than simply taking the airport’s word for it.”

The state, for its part, doesn’t think it bears even a little blame for providing the city with outdated planning maps. Asked if HDOT shares “any responsibility” for the late change to the proposed rail route away from Aolele Street, Meisenzahl, the HDOT spokesman, answered in the negative.

“No, as part of the City’s due diligence in preparing environmental documents, they should be checking for the latest requirements along the entire route, including the latest runway protection zone requirements at the airport,” he wrote. “Any person or entity who wants to develop around an airport is required to comply with FAA clearances and do their/its own research since they know the heights and setbacks of the development and can adjust it.”

Even if the state does deserve some modicum of responsibility, that would still leave some blame for the city to bear. And if that’s the case, some of that would almost assuredly be shouldered by the engineering consultants hired to help plan and design the project.

Parsons Brinckerhoff and InfraConsult both tout extensive experience on transit projects across the country and the world. For example, Parsons Brinckerhoff says on its website that it made “key contributions” to many systems, including San Francisco’s BART and Atlanta’s MARTA, both of which have airport stations. Parsons’ general engineering contract with the city is worth nearly $170 million, according to HART. InfraConsult’s contract is valued at nearly $37 million.

Zweighaft, the InfraConsult partner, said he started his career as a junior engineer for Buffalo (N.Y.) International Airport, but that he’s no longer up to speed on all of the various aviation guidelines and would be surprised if any of the engineers on his team knew that information.

“Certainly they haven’t kept up with current FAA rules and circulars and guidance. My expectation … is that they were vetting this through the airport when they were doing this,” he said. “You would check yourself, you would check with the airport.”

But Zweighaft said while his company reviews designs, it doesn’t do design work. He said InfraConsult expects Parsons Brinckerhoff “to double-check their work.”

Dunn, the Parsons Brinckerhoff alignment designer, said the company did utilize engineers with airport expertise, but still wasn’t able to catch the RPZ issue during the early planning stages.

“I think everybody had good faith going into this. We all had good faith going in trying to solve a complex problem with lot of variables in it,” he said. “There were a lot of things in play that even us, as a rail designer, didn’t have any part of that.”

Even if the expert hired by the Federal Transit Administration contractor hadn’t caught the problem in the summer of 2009, it likely would have been caught eventually. The HDOT and FAA on more than one occasion reminded the city that it would need to file Form 7460, notifying the FAA about its proposed construction.

“If they hadn’t found out about the conflict on their own, the FAA would have pointed it out in its 7460 review,” Meisenzahl wrote.

Bottom line: 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 FAA 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.

Read the next installment of this series here: Rail at the Airport, Part 3: How Much Will It Cost?

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