- Special Projects
City Council Transportation Chairman Breene Harimoto traveled more than 7,000 miles to Copenhagen, Denmark, on a fact-finding rail trip and reached this conclusion:
“In short, it’s not only how well you build a system that counts, but how well you operate and maintain it.”
That finding is contained in a 13-page report obtained Monday by Civil Beat. The long-awaited document was filed more than seven weeks after Harimoto and City Council member Ernie Martin returned from the trip to Copenhagen, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The trip was planned after Mayor Peter Carlisle announced the city selected Italian rail manufacturer Ansaldo for a $1.1 billion contract to design, build, operate and maintain Honolulu’s proposed rail system.
Because other cities have reported a wide variety of problems with Ansaldo, Harimoto said he wanted to meet with officials in those cities to learn from their experiences. Once the trip was planned, two other rail companies protested the city’s decision to select Ansaldo. A spokeswoman for the city told Civil Beat last week that officials are “still in the process of reviewing the two protests.”
The trip stirred controversy when Civil Beat revealed that the two council members had been told by the city’s lawyers that Harimoto and Martin shouldn’t ask certain questions and should be careful about what they reveal to the public, given the protests.
Instead, Harimoto promised a detailed report of their observations — facts but no opinions — for the taxpayers who funded the trip.
Martin and Harimoto explained the delay in producing the report, saying Harimoto has been sick in recent weeks. In May, Harimoto said they were too busy with the city budget process to complete the report.
Harimoto and Martin first traveled together to San Francisco. After that, Martin and his senior adviser went to Los Angeles, while Harimoto and his senior adviser went to Copenhagen.
It’s still not clear how much the trip cost. An aide for Council Chairman Nestor Garcia told Civil Beat on Friday that expenses had not yet been submitted. Garcia’s office could not be reached on Monday.
Harimoto spent three days in Copenhagen, examining the Copenhagen Metro, which he reported is “technically and operationally similar to that which is proposed to be constructed in Honolulu.”
Copenhagen’s Metro is a driverless system that encountered so many glitches that it earned the nickname “Blunderground,” according to newspaper reports in the Copenhagen Post from 1999 to 2004.
In the weeks after Harimoto’s return, the operator of another Copenhagen rail line moved to break its contract with Ansaldo, according to a Danish news report.
But Harimoto had mostly positive observations from Denmark. He reported that he met with Anne-Grethe Foss, vice president of Metroselskabet, which owns the system. The report says that Metroselskabet is made up of the city governments of Copenhagen and Fredericksberg, as well as the Danish Ministry of Transport.
Many of his observations sound like common sense more than scrutiny from a fact-finding trip.
For example, Hartimoto wrote that he learned that “it was important to work in partnership with Ansaldo and to facilitate timely communications to address issues as they arose.”
Harimoto did hint at some friction, saying he had learned “it was important to ‘push a little’ sometimes.”
Harimoto reported some operational facts that might be encouraging for those who worry Honolulu’s system will run in the red.
He noted that the Copenhagen system is a revenue generator, and made DKK 65 million — equivalent to about $12.5 million — in 2009. He said Ansaldo is contractually obligated to publicize the system, and receives “financial incentives” for increasing ridership.
Harimoto also visited Copenhagen’s Automatic Train Control center, which he described as “the heart and brain of the entire system.” His hosts included two vice presidents for Ansaldo and the managing director of the metro. Harimoto says they told him that the train control center’s computers are part of a “closed system with multiple layers of protection,” against hacking or failures.
“When questioned about operational glitches, it was noted that there are occasional ‘overshoots’ where the vehicle doors don’t align perfectly with the station platform doors,” Harimoto said. “If this happens, the vehicle can adjust up to a distance of 1-2 meters. However, if the variation is more than 2 meters, the vehicle skips that station and proceeds to the next.”
Harimoto repeatedly emphasized the metro’s 98.6 percent “on-time platform performance” with minimal problems. He also referenced marketing efforts like phone-based metro applications.
In San Francisco, Harimoto and Martin met with directors of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). Harimoto reported that the agency’s executive director, Nathaniel Ford, also worked with Ansaldo in Atlanta.
“In Atlanta, they did have their ups and downs with Ansaldo, but all concerns were addressed satisfactorily,” Harimoto wrote. “It was noted that timely communications were essential to resolving issues.”
Many such observations are peppered throughout the report, but there were some instances in which the council members offered specifics about what other jurisdictions learned. For example, Harimoto wrote about Atlanta opting to station “two or three” employees in Italy, where train vehicles were produced, and the importance of obtaining insurance to cover the cost of damages to trains during shipment.
“SFMTA strongly encourages that our own on-site engineering inspectors be present when the vehicles are built and assembled to monitor the construction process, assure that all specifications are adhered to, and to facilitate timely communications.”
Harimoto reported that he learned delays in Atlanta stemmed primarily from a change to the order, and did not blame Ansaldo for being late. But Ansaldo did miss its “contractual delivery date” and had to pay damages as a result.
“SFMTA notes that the first five years of development and operations are the hardest, but that as the bugs are worked out of the system (and there are always bugs) things go much smoother.”
Many cities have complained about Ansaldo’s failure to meet deadlines, and Harimoto wrote that San Francisco was among them.
“While Ansaldo was behind the contract schedule for delivery of the vehicles, Ansaldo was very sensitive to the issue,” Harimoto wrote. “In-fact, one of the causes of the delay was due to a sub-contractor working on the vehicle, but it was noted that that sub-contractor was picked by SFMTA and not by Ansaldo.”
After meeting with transit agency officials, Harimoto and Martin visited Ansaldo’s vehicle assembly and maintenance plant in Pittsburg, California.
The plant is “most likely the location where the Honolulu vehicles will be assembled prior to shipment to Hawaii,” according to the report.
In Los Angeles, Martin met with LA Metro officials to talk about its metro line. He revealed little detail about the questions he asked — if any — about Ansaldo’s record in Los Angeles.
“The Metro system line uses Ansaldo Breda heavy-rail subway cars and officials noted their satisfaction with the performance of the rail cars and stated that Metro currently has a contract with Ansaldo to repair and upgrade cars,” Martin wrote.
According to the report, transit-oriented development, or TOD, seemed to be the focus of Martin’s time in Los Angeles. He seemed particularly interested in how well-planned development could offset the cost of the system.
“Metro officials emphasized the key reason why the County continues to be successful in developing TOD is that the County owns the property under and surrounding the transit stations,” Martin wrote. “The ownership of the property allows the county to use it as a negotiation tool when partnering with private entities.”
Martin also said that the Metro’s chief development officer “strongly encouraged” Honolulu to establish a division within the city solely responsible for TOD.
In the city budget process, City Council members opted to keep TOD staffers in the city, while other Transit Division staffers are splitting off from the city to become a new transit agency.
One example Martin gave of a successful transit-oriented development model was the Hollywood and Vine Metro Station.
“The development consists of a 300-room W hotel, 143 condominiums which include affordable housing units, 30,000 square feet of ground floor retail, improved public plaza and new subway portal canopy, subway elevator and bike room,” he wrote. “The development also includes a bay for Metro buses to ensure conductivity between the rail system and the county’s bus system.”
Martin visited this and other examples of transit-oriented development in Los Angeles.
For a fact-finding trip intended to explore Ansaldo’s record, much of the report that Harimoto and Martin submitted emphasized the basic merits of the existing rail systems they saw. While transit-oriented development may remain in the council’s purview, the majority of rail oversight is leaving City Hall. On July 1, a new semi-autonomous agency takes over the project’s planning, design, construction, operation and maintenance.
Read the complete report: