City Council Transportation Chairman Breene Harimoto says he understands why his silence thus far about a fact-finding rail trip has drawn criticism.
“I’ve already gotten some emails blasting us for this ‘junket,'” Harimoto told Civil Beat on Tuesday. “Making it worse, we’re not publicly reporting it. I can fully understand where they’re coming from. I knew we would be under fire but I’m glad that we went.”
Harimoto finally broke his silence Tuesday, more than a week after he returned from a trip to San Francisco and Copenhagen. His goal was to learn more about those cities’ experience with Italian rail manufacturer Ansaldo, which Honolulu selected for a $1.1 billion rail contract. City Council member Ernie Martin joined Harimoto in San Francisco, then went on to Los Angeles.
Both men have emphasized the extent to which city lawyers cautioned them not to ask certain questions, and not to report certain facets of their trip, while the city continues to assess a pair of protests from two companies that lost out to Ansaldo.
Asked how he would explain his selective reporting with constituents who elected him, Harimoto nodded.
“Valid question,” he said. “When we decided to go, our intention was to come back and share our assessment, but then the protest occurred. The attorneys made it clear that we probably would be called as witnesses in any dispute if we said or wrote certain kinds of things. I don’t want to spend endless weeks or months in court.”
Martin told Civil Beat that his constituents are his priority, and his record of asking tough questions should speak for itself. Harimoto emphasized that if he had encountered something that caused him to have serious concerns, he would be willing to speak up.
“If we found something so huge, I would,” Harimoto said. “We’re in this position where we need to be very careful.”
He says a report on the trip that he and Martin plan to file by next week will offer at least some facts, while they’ll keep their assessments of what they saw “under wraps.”
Asked for some of the facts that will appear in the report, Harimoto gave a brief rundown of what he saw when he and Martin, along with two City Council aides, toured an Ansaldo manufacturing plant in California.
“I can’t say too much about assessing them but we got a lot of information,” Harimoto said. “I can tell you the bathrooms were clean, spotless. That tells me something.”
Harimoto said he had candid conversations with San Francisco officials who worked with Ansaldo, but didn’t share what he learned of their experiences.
“Every day, several times a day, we rode it,” Harimoto said. “I rode it from one end to the other end. I rode it a lot, just to get the feel for it. I can tell you that everything’s very clean. It was very frequent. The most I waited, probably, was two or three minutes. They have wonderful signage that tells you when the next train is coming.”
Harimoto said he plans to ask Honolulu rail planners about the feasibility of adding protective rail doors — doors separating people from the tracks even when the train isn’t present — to the planned system.
He said he also still has questions about Honolulu’s plan for its system — like the Copenhagen Metro — to skip the turnstiles.
“So it’s the honor system,” Harimoto said. “I always scratch my head and think it’d be nice if everyone was so honest, but I’m not sure it would work. You buy your ticket and then you just hop on and off. I’m a little leery about how that would work here. Realistically, I’m not sure.”
Harimoto said he “presumes” there will be guards randomly checking tickets in Honolulu, as is the case in Copenhagen. Harimoto said he saw the control center for the driverless system, which he called “impressive.” He said he asked about security, as well as software safeguards against hackers.
“No compromises that I know of,” Harimoto said of the system.
One of the biggest challenges he learned about is operating and maintaining technology that becomes outdated over the decades-long lifespan of rail system like the one in Copenhagen and the one planned for Honolulu.
“I asked Ansaldo, ‘What is the biggest problem in maintaining the system?'” Harimoto said. “Their response was, ‘Obsolescence.’ Things evolve, right? So once your train cars and your control software-systems get to be older, there are subcontractors that provide parts. Their biggest challenge is getting parts for old equipment. So one take-away from that was, perhaps it’s not like everything else where you can just say, ‘OK, we’ll defer maintenance, we’ll defer maintenance,’ because, one day, the parts don’t exist anymore.”
A pleasant surprise, Harimoto said, was seeing the success of transit-oriented development — “TOD in action,” he said with a grin — around the Copenhagen rail line. He said the government’s ability to sell parcels of land near metro stations to developers is a large part of what has enabled the Copenhagen Metro to be a source of revenue.
Harimoto said he was also impressed by how easily riders could get information. He said he saw “a lot” of information officials walking through stations, and phones that served as information hotlines.
“You can call the control center and they’ll give you help, even if it’s ‘What station do I get off?'” Harimoto said. “It’s a speaker phone.”
Harimoto acknowledged that he framed questions at the advice of city lawyers, and acknowledges there are opinions he has that he believes are valuable but that he is choosing not to share.
“I would love to publicly share my assessment, but I can’t,” Harimoto said. “I think people can understand why. I mean, from the attorneys’ point of view, they’re saying don’t jeopardize the city’s case. But from my point of view, I’m saying, I really don’t want to get dragged into court for months.”
Ultimately, Harimoto said he and Martin were able to accomplish what they set out to do.
“The whole emphasis of why we went: lessons learned from other jurisdictions,” Harimoto said. “That’s always the key. Why reinvent the wheel? There’s no way to prepare for everything but the more you can prepare the better off you are. We can get a running start by looking at what problems other jurisdictions had.”
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