The city is saying it wants to start building rail immediately after the governor signs off on the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) recognizes this event by issuing a Record of Decision.

Is this a good idea?

The Record of Decision is the last step in the NEPA process (National Environmental Protection Act). The next step in the FTA New Starts process (the FTA program we are in) is to complete the Preliminary Engineering stage. We are in the Preliminary Engineering stage now (there are 13 other cities that are also in Preliminary Engineering according to the FTA 2011 New Starts report).

After applicants finish the Preliminary Engineering stage, they apply to the FTA to enter Final Design (there are 11 other cities that are currently in Final Design). In the Final Design stage, the applicant finishes the engineering process and develops the bid documents. When the Final Design stage is complete, the FTA will enter into contract talks with the applicant for a Full Funding Grant Agreement (there are 8 other cities that already have Full Funding Grant Agreements). Only when the contract is signed does the FTA funding become a reality.

So, why does our city want to start construction before finishing the engineering and before getting a signed contract for FTA funding? Isn’t this risky?

At this time the city has no idea what the final bill will be for rail. It only has an estimate. Here is a good example. City engineers say that when test drilling is complete (test drilling is only now beginning on the first 6 miles), the appropriate structural engineers will design the underground support for the 700 rail columns (20 miles divided by 150 feet). This underground support system could be 30 feet deep (if the soils analysis allows for caissons) or 150 feet deep (if the soils analysis calls for piles). Either solution will require 700 rectangular construction zones to build the cement cap that will be on top of the underground solution and at the bottom of each rail column. According to the FEIS, underground utilities that are under the caissons or piles will be moved.

As the rail project is engineered through downtown, this underground support system will be problematical. Will utilities be shut off for businesses? Will pile driving cause utility leaks? Will pile driving cause near-by building damage? Will the cement caps over the caissons or piles disturb iwi? Will there be lawsuits? How much will this phase of the construction cost? At this time, we do not have answers to these questions.

The FTA recognizes that New Starts projects like ours get more expensive as the projects move through to the Final Design stage (in other words they finish the engineering). In a 2007 Report on 21 New Starts projects (FTA/Reports & Publications/Other Reports/ New Starts: Predicted and Actual Report on Capital Costs and Ridership), the FTA found that, “On average, for the 21 projects completed between 2003 and 2007 actual construction costs exceeded the inflation-adjusted estimates developed in alternatives analysis by 40.2
percent, the final design entry cost estimates by 11.8 percent, and the FFGA estimates by 6.2 percent”.

The current rail financial plan allocates all 15 years of the estimated transit excise tax and all of the promised FTA funds. If the project costs more, where will the funding come from? The FTA 2007 report suggests that our current (FEIS) project cost of 5.513 billion dollars may continue to rise.

This FTA report should be a warning to Honolulu. Our city leaders should not start any rail construction until the engineering is complete and the FTA has signed an agreement stating their contribution. If we take this prudent approach and wait until the New Starts process is complete, we will know what construction problems lie ahead and if we can afford rail.