Editor’s note: This article is the last 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?

Opponents say moving the rail line at Honolulu International Airport is going to cost $29 million.

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, former judge Walter Heen, law professor Randy Roth and businessman Cliff Slater cite that number in their August 2011 letter to Mayor Peter Carlisle and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation‘s (HART) board of directors. They were complaining that taxpayers would have to foot the bill for a mistake by consultants, and demanded an investigation.

The $29 million figure was the same number used by Honolulu Department of Transportation Services Director Wayne Yoshioka in a June 2010 article in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. He was disputing a $65 million figure floated in a memo from the Federal Aviation Administration to the Federal Transportation Administration in April 2010.

“According to the FAA memo, the Ualena Street route was the cheapest of five alternatives studied. Leaving the route on Aolele and moving the runways back would have cost between $102 million and $128 million. Running the track along the median of the H-1 viaduct would have cost an estimated $300 million. Moving the track to Koapaka Street would have added about $95 million, while a ‘Makai H-1’ option carried a $124 million price tag,” reporter Sean Hao wrote in the Star-Advertiser story.

The largest part of the increased costs associated with the Ualena alignment, according to the city, is the increase in right-of-way property acquisition costs. But those Ualena Street properties would have had to be acquired even if the city had avoided its “mistake” and discovered the Runway Protection Zone (RPZ) issue years earlier.

“The adjustment reflected as if it’s an addition … but whether the estimate was done sooner or later, the project cost remained pretty much the same,” rail chief Toru Hamayasu told Civil Beat. “I think you were talking about the additional cost of the effort to put into this after finding out the runway protection zone issue. The time to change may have been a little longer than if (we had) done it earlier, but I don’t think that’s a significant cost. We’re not talking into millions.”

A more appropriate accounting of the cost of the oversight would be to value the resources expended first planning to build along Aolele Street and then later planning to extend the airport runways to allow the alignment to stay on Aolele Street.

Hamayasu said he’s never done a detailed accounting of the cost of the extra work created by the need to move the alignment in 2009.

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, agreed that the appropriate way to evaluate the cost would be not to include property acquisition — except if the city already sunk money into purchasing unneeded rights-of-way along the original Aolele alignment.

HART says the city did not acquire any of those properties.

The city and its consultants say the stage where they were alerted to the RPZ issue — between the issuance of the Draft and Final Environmental Impact Statements, long before construction — is an appropriate time to make changes.

“I would say that’s not an unreasonable time to make them,” said Simon Zweighaft, a managing partner at InfraConsult, the rail contractor that oversees the project, including the work of engineering consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff.

“This is normal engineering progress through an alignment analysis. Construction is the same. The property takes are the same. We resolved the issue in the most effective way possible,” said James Dunn, Parsons Brinckerhoff’s director of design and construction for the project. “There’s no cost to construction here. There’s no cost to the city because of any decisions that were made.”

Yoshioka put it like this: “When there is a situation where we believe the consultant is at fault, we usually ask them to accept the costs. But in this case the consultant wasn’t at fault.”

Bottom line: 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 RPZ 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.


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.

Go back to the overview of this series here: Rail At The Airport: Investigation In 3 Parts

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