Earlier this week, Honolulu officials said they were pleased — though not surprised — to see the Federal Transit Administration recommend $250 million for the city’s rail project, pending review of an as-yet-unfinished updated financial plan.

Federal funding for rail is one of many things at stake in an increasingly heated beltway budget battle. Whatever ends up happening with the national spending plan will trickle down to local governments — and Honolulu needs $1.55 billion from the federal purse.

That $250 million from the Fiscal Year 2012 budget could be removed by Republicans in the House who want to cut spending dramatically. So, too, could the $55 million proposed as part of President Barack Obama’s still-not-approved Fiscal Year 2011 budget.

This week, a city spokesman did not like the way Civil Beat explored this reality, pointing out that we failed to include the fact that Honolulu already has $60 million in federal funds. We thought that was a fair point, and updated our story to reflect it.

But it got us to thinking about when those funds were appropriated. The number has been repeated often, but we found its origins were hard to track. So we asked a more senior city official, Transportation Services Director Wayne Yoshioka.

“Actually,” Yoshioka told Civil Beat. “It’s $65 million.”

But when we asked the FTA, it had a different account. A spokesman for the agency e-mailed the figures in the FTA’s books.

“Here are the correct figures,” spokesman Paul Griffo wrote. “Obligated: $34.99 million, for preliminary engineering work. Appropriated, but not yet obligated: $30 million in FY 10 funding. Recommended, but not yet appropriated: $55 million in FY 11 and $250 million in FY 12.”

We had asked Yoshioka for the total amount Honolulu had in hand from the federal government, and he said $65 million. But the federal government said it was only $35 million. So we went back to Yoshioka and asked again. He said he was confident in his answer, but promised to verify the exact numbers.

When he did, it turned out the city was wrong.

“Technically, the FTA is correct, and I was slightly off with my total,” Yoshioka wrote in a subsequent e-mail. “We have received a total of $39 million: $35 million in New Starts funds and $4 million in (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funds. There is an additional $30 million that has been appropriated, but we are in the process of submitting the FTA grant application to access those funds. Therefore, we don’t technically have the funds yet.”

Bottom line: There’s a reason reporters don’t rely on a single source for their facts. Even the people with the most access to information may be wrong.

About the Author