UPDATE 6/19/2012 10 a.m. Editor’s note: The House Appropriations Committee moved the transportation funding bill forward Tuesday without changing the level of funding for New Starts or Honolulu rail. The story below was written before the hearing, but remains accurate.

Honolulu rail planners are counting on $250 million from the federal government next year.

But if the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has anything to say about it, the amount could be far less.

The House Appropriations Committee — the lower chamber’s version of the body Hawaii Sen. Dan Inouye chairs in the Senate — will take up the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) funding bill at 10:15 a.m. Washington time Tuesday. The version passed out to the full committee by the THUD subcommittee would give Honolulu $100 million in Fiscal Year 2013 — $150 million less than Inouye had gotten through the Senate and President Barack Obama had requested in his original budget.

In all, the subcommittee recommended New Starts funding about $420 million lower than Obama’s request. The subcommittee, chaired by Republican Tom Latham of Iowa, made its cuts to the appropriations bill June 7 but members had been mum about what changes were made. Neither Mazie Hirono nor Colleen Hanabusa are members of the subcommittee or the full Appropriations Committee. The subcommittee’s markup report was made available online Monday.

The day after the subcommittee made its changes, a publication called Transportation Weekly said the cuts were “bound to set up conflict” with Inouye. (Transportation Weekly is not available online.)

There are many layers of approval remaining before a funding level is finalized. First comes the House Appropriations Committee, chaired by Republican Hal Rogers of Kentucky. After that comes the full House. The final step, at least in the legislative branch, would be a conference with the Senate to hash out differences.

Even if Honolulu were to receive less funding in FY 2013 than had been anticipated, it’s not immediately clear what that means for the project. It should be noted that the THUD appropriations bill is separate from the Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) the city expects to apply for within weeks or even days in order to complete a deal before the election.

Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation CEO Dan Grabauskas, speaking at a press conference last week, said the House and Senate “always start with different numbers” and it would be premature to talk about the impact on the financial plan before negotiations are done.

Any delayed or diminished funding could cost local taxpayers. The current draft financial plan for rail, last updated in September, has this to say (emphasis added):

The timing of New Starts funding is also subject to appropriation uncertainties. The amount of the FTA contribution would be spelled out in a FFGA between FTA and the City. The FFGA will also identify the amount to be made available each year, subject to annual appropriations legislation. History has shown that Congress ultimately honors and appropriates the full amount spelled out in an FFGA. Congress could delay funding for the Project by reducing or stretching out the annual appropriations. Any delay could necessitate additional borrowing or schedule delays, potentially increasing the Project’s capital cost.

Asked about the appropriations process during a press conference at his office last week, Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle said he hadn’t been following closely enough to comment and needed to consult with other people. Grabauskas said he’d have to wait and see, but indicated the cuts aren’t as bad as they would appear.

“I’ve been in touch with them (the THUD subcommittee), and we know that it’s tight on the House side. They’ve reduced New Starts to some degree. But if we can find ourselves in the budget with a good number, almost any number to be honest with you because we’re not yet a full-funding grantee, that’s going to be a powerful strong message that we’re in great position,” he said. “Most of the time the House has been pretty conservative actually. The funding’s primarily only for jurisdictions who are already grantee. So if we can find ourselves with a placeholder, with a good number and we’re not even a grantee yet, that’s a strong message from the House.”

Honolulu rail is one of five projects identified in the subcommittee report as being in line for New Starts funding in FY 2013 despite still being an “anticipated” grantee that has not yet signed its FFGA. The others are San Jose Silicon Valley ($150 million), San Francisco Third Street ($100 million), Portland-Milwaukie ($100 million) and South Sacramento Corridor Phase 2 ($46 million).

The subcommittee report notes that it only funded projects that “have a high likelihood of reaching a FFGA during fiscal year 2013.”

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