A new “deal” for funding rail on Oahu appears imminent and also fundamentally insufficient. It’s really the same raw deal for taxpayers. Billions more of our dollars will be doled out in secretive processes to mysterious profiteers, who one day in the future just might provide rail service from Kapolei to Middle Street, if anyone really is interested in such a route.

Rail critics – including civil engineering professor Panos Prevedouros, who also is the chair of University of Hawaii’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department – allege “waste, gross incompetence and perhaps fraud” in the ways in which Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation has conducted this public business for us.

Colleen Hanabusa, both a former chairwoman of HART and now a U.S. representative, catapulted this criticism into new territory by alleging last week that HART in the past has picked “numbers out of the air” and that $500 million or $600 million of the costs “may be a figure to cover up for something else.”

HART has been notoriously opaque about its dealings, and we as a community are tolerating (or encouraging) such behavior by allowing mismanagement of public resources to continue without recourse or significant revolt.

While west Oahu has become littered with half-finished hulks of the rail line, HART is an organization that — on the public dime — rents Class A office space on the 17th floor of Alii Place in downtown, defined as one of “the most prestigious buildings competing for premier office users with rents above average for the area” and billed as “the most exclusive business atmosphere in town.”

HART Chair Colleen Hanabusa. 21 april 2016

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa was chair of the HART board and has been an advocate for a thorough audit of the project.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As another indicator of its entitled and corrupted culture, HART also is the organization that wasted $35,000 of public monies for a “peer-review” study of its operations — generating banal results apparently not acted upon in any meaningful way — only to have its publicly paid attorneys fight for years to keep that public expense and public report a secret from its public stakeholders (including you).

Why? Not because there was a smoking-gun piece of evidence in there, showing how incompetent HART is.

Instead, this behavior seems to be just because they can. And because no one will take decisive actions to stop them, reminiscent of the commander-in-chief being coddled about his propensity for lying at every opportunity. Why can’t Republicans, in power and complete control of the federal government, simply act intolerant to the lies and demand they stop? In turn, why can’t local public officials turn off the HART river-of-gold spigot until that group acts more responsibly?

Deceptiveness and secrecy in our government are both anti-democratic and anti-American. Hawaii’s Sunshine Law, and its opening declaration of policy and intent, states just how upside-down HART’s culture appears to be:

In a democracy, the people are vested with the ultimate decision-making power. Governmental agencies exist to aid the people in the formation and conduct of public policy. Opening up the governmental processes to public scrutiny and participation is the only viable and reasonable method of protecting the public’s interest. Therefore, the legislature declares that it is the policy of this State that the formation and conduct of public policy – the discussions, deliberations, decisions, and action of governmental agencies – shall be conducted as openly as possible.”

That last little clause, though, causes the problems in the wrong minds, when “as openly as possible” is interpreted as “openly” as is comfortable for the people in power.

Hanabusa, for her part, broke new ground with her insider HART criticisms but still didn’t go far enough. She would have been wiser (maybe not politically but morally and ethically) to have called out, with specifics, what she thinks is happening and who is doing what, by name and by action. Without those specifics, what can any of us do about it?

Why can’t local public officials turn off the HART river-of-gold spigot until that group acts more responsibly?

She, and her elected colleagues, would be better off demanding a full forensic audit, conducted by independent experts directly in the field of rail construction, before another penny is spent by HART. If HART has nothing to hide and wants to put its sketchy past behind it, the group should welcome opportunities to create such an appearance of accountability and transparency. Only with such an audit will HART be able to clear its sullied reputation and move forward without baggage of distrust.

If this doesn’t happen now, we surely will pay a tremendous cost later. Remember the Superferry debacle? Well, eight years after operations ended, the state finally got around this summer to partially audit the project only to report back that taxpayers still will be paying millions for that mess through 2028.

In his analysis of the report, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Marcel Honore highlighted some of the startling context, including that the state paid $38.1 million for the barges and ramps but sold them — after just two years of use — for $382,500, or roughly 1 percent of the original cost. The state also paid $443,000 for repairs to storm-caused damage to a barge, even though the state’s contract with Healy Tibbitts Builders, who made the barges, required durability against just such damage.

One can question where the journalists were when the fire sale of barges and ramps took place (and was that even legal). And where were the journalists when this damage was done and being covered by taxpayers, when we appear to have been exempted from liability in the contract?

But I also really have to wonder who were the government bureaucrats (specifically, by name) bungling this project, costing all of us millions? We pay their salaries and benefits and give them places to work (sometimes even in lavish downtown high-rises), and ask that they simply serve us in our best interests. I have to wonder, though, what were they really doing in this case? And are any of them working on this HART project now?

Ansaldo Honolulu Managing Director Enrico Fontana walks with Mayor Kirk Caldwell after photo op atop the guideway near Waipahu. 30 may 2017

Ansaldo Honolulu Managing Director Enrico Fontana, right, and Mayor Kirk Caldwell met with the press earlier this year to show off new rail cars.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Civil Beat columnist Ian Lind recently clawed past the cover of a group called Friends of Rail, claiming to be a “grassroots” organization but really operating as a front for those who directly (and financially) benefit from the rail project, including labor unions. Lind’s reporting didn’t find a smoking gun, either, but he did provide a blueprint for journalists and community activists who really want to understand what’s happening behind the scenes in these complex and costly civic projects.

Brazenly illustrated by our current “law-and-order” president, who acts lawlessly and disorderly, the national political model today illustrates just how much democracy relies on people of goodwill and honor running our government. When that doesn’t happen, journalists are supposed to swoop in and save the world.

Yet with the sudden Kryptonic injection of bizarro government appointees, “alternative facts,” “fake news,” fake-news bombs from Russia and wacko “news” into our democracy, I’m calling on honorable public servants everywhere to help protect us from this perversion of American ideals.

Journalists, for their part, need to get more specific, to name names and document actions and demand accountability and openness (or keep hammering on those points). As our state’s Sunshine law — which we crafted as a community, as a guide to our ethics — clearly prescribes, a fully transparent approach is the only viable and reasonable method of protecting the public’s interest.”

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard
    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.
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