WASHINGTON — Top city officials, including Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, visited the nation’s capital Monday to reassure the Federal Transit Administration they’re committed to completing the 20-mile commuter rail line despite escalating costs and recent political shake-ups.
The private meeting stemmed from concerns about the city following through on its promise to use some of its own money — $44 million — to help fund the $9 billion project that’s funded mostly with a surcharge on the state’s general excise tax and a $1.55 billion grant from the FTA.
Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin and City Council Budget Committee Chair Trevor Ozawa, who recently ascended to power positions on the council, also met with FTA officials to make clear they fully supported finishing the project despite their recent criticisms of funding prop.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, right, hurried from the U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters in Washington, D.C., after a meeting with transit officials to discuss the city’s $9 billion rail project.
Nick Grube/Civil Beat
Some have worried that with Martin once again at the helm, progress on the largest public works project in Hawaii’s history would stall out.
Those concerns were exacerbated by Ozawa’s recent decision to snip $44 million in rail money from Caldwell’s capital improvement budget.
Neither Caldwell, Martin nor Ozawa would comment about the meeting as they were leaving FTA offices in Washington, D.C. Caldwell said he would instead issue a written statement and Civil Beat reached Ozawa by phone later.
It’s the third time since the beginning of the year that city officials have travelled to Washington, D.C. to meet with the FTA.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz took part in the first half of Monday’s meeting before leaving for another scheduled engagement.
Other federal officials at the gathering included FTA Acting Administrator Jane Williams and U.S. Department of Transportation Undersecretary for Transportation Policy Derek Kan.
Schatz told Civil Beat that the purpose of the meeting was to drive home the point to the FTA that the city will stick to the project despite changes in leadership, whether it’s at the council or inside the mayor’s office. Caldwell’s term is up in 2020, before the rail line is set to be completed.
“They read the headlines too,” Schatz said of the FTA. “It was important for us to convey to them directly that there was no change in the city’s commitment to the project.”
Honolulu City Councilmen Trevor Ozawa, left, and Ernie Martin have been at odds with the Caldwell administration over rail.
Nick Grube/Civil Beat
He also doesn’t see the federal agency backing out of its grant agreement, especially if the city continues to commit money on its side of the deal. Securing funding from the Legislature last year was a big part of that.
“The FTA still wants to finish this,” Schatz said. “I can’t speak for them. But it’s clear to me that they’re still deeply engaged. They’re transit people. They like to set up transit systems across the country. They have no desire to make this the first one that didn’t get off the ground.”
That doesn’t mean the city is completely off the hook. The FTA still wants Honolulu to include $44 million in its upcoming budget to pay for rail. But where that money will come from — operating expenses or capital improvement funds — is still a matter of debate.
Ozawa told Civil Beat later Monday that he and Martin assured FTA officials that they would incorporate the money into their final budget by June, although he couldn’t say what that might look like.
“We wanted to reassure them that we are looking at all options to provide the best and most responsible way of including that money in our city budget,” Ozawa said.
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