If Honolulu’s rail project does indeed come in under budget as advocates hope, the transit authority might look to spruce up the system with some snazzy optional features not currently in the offing.

“Increasing the scope would mean that we add additional, pardon me, bells and whistles to everything from stations to train to technology, et cetera,” Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Finance Committee Chair Don Horner told Civil Beat after his committee wrapped up work Thursday morning. “All I was pointing out was that should be a discussion on the board level and it should be vetted in the public.”

In the meeting, Horner said that in the event that the project has funding left over after construction, two options will be on the table.

HART could either decrease the size of the project and use leftover construction funds toward operations and maintenance, thereby reducing the subsidy that city taxpayers will have to kick in. Or HART can use the money to spruce up the system.

“As the Finance Chair, my first objective would be that any cost savings would be exactly that, would be cost savings,” Horner told Civil Beat. “My goal would be to have excess cash at the end of the project. That’s my goal.”

One major factor that will go a long way toward determining whether there is cost savings is whether contractors come in with a lot of change orders — after-the-fact amendments to their rail contracts. (Read more in Inside Honolulu about how Horner wants a role in the change order review process.)

Change orders to date have had a total value of around $20 million, but that could be on the rise soon. The $482 million contract for building the first segment of the fixed guideway was awarded to Kiewit Pacific, and because construction has been pushed back, the company might attempt to negotiate a delay claim with HART.

HART interim executive director Toru Hamayasu declined to speculate about how much a Kiewit change order might cost. But it could be in the millions of dollars. The price of that contract was $90 million lower than HART’s consultants had projected it would be.

If contract prices continue to come in lower than estimates and change orders are minimized, the project could avoid cost overruns. And savings would open the door to things like a fare gate system.

Later Thursday morning, Simon Zweighaft from InfraConsult briefed the HART board of directors about different options for checking fares. The current system that the rail project will employ is known as a “barrier-free” system that would employ random inspections of transit riders and penalties handed out to those who aren’t carrying their ticket. Much like a parking meter, “fare evaders” are taking a risk and might be fined heavily.

But rail planners would prefer to install gates — like those in the picture — that would limit train access to paying customers. Such a system would allow HART to track where riders enter and exit the system, and would have other benefits for riders.

“It makes the operation simpler and it makes it easier for people to understand,” Hamayasu told Civil Beat.

Los Angeles and Vancouver recently adopted fare gate systems at least in part because they wanted to use that type of data to establish more complex fare programs that were based on distance traveled or time of day, Zweighaft told HART board members.

Zweighaft urged the board to wait until the last possible moment to make a decision on technology because it improves so rapidly. He told Civil Beat after the meeting that HART could wait until 2019 or even 2025 or later to switch from the barrier-free system to the fare gate system because the stations are being designed in such a way that installation of gates will be relatively seamless.

The gates, with “smart card,” “open card” or cell-phone-app-reading could cost $60 million or more to build. Consider that one of the “bells and whistles” that could come to fruition — if rail remains on solid financial ground. (Read more in Inside Honolulu about the capital and operating costs of the fare gate system.)

“The board and us need to make a decision about what’s the best use of that money,” Hamayasu said. “If (the cost of rail) started to shrink, for some reason, then we have serious decisions to make what to do with that money. Do I have a shopping list of things that I want? No, I don’t.”

Hamayasu might not have a shopping list, but there are two other major potential rail-related expenditures that would quickly come up in the event of significant cost savings: lines to Waikiki and to the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“If we have, for some reason, three-, four-hundred-million savings, then we could be talking about an extension someplace. That was always the intent,” Hamayasu said.

Horner, the finance chair, said it’s “really premature” to start talking about additional track. But after the city finishes the Full Funding Grant Agreement and nails down construction costs for the last 10 miles of the line, it might be time to rekindle the conversation.

“Yes, we should look at all of our options for a Waikiki route, we should go out to the University. Those are important,” Horner said.

“I think it depends on how much the savings is,” Hamayasu said.

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