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Even under Honolulu rail chief Dan Grabauskas‘ own timeline, a deal guaranteeing $1.55 billion in federal funding might not be done until after the election that could see anti-rail candidate Ben Cayetano elected mayor.
“We are absolutely on schedule,” Grabauskas told Civil Beat after Thursday morning’s meeting of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Budget and Project Oversight committees. “Can’t you see how relaxed I look?”
Grabauskas’ smile was a holdover from a day earlier, when the Honolulu City Council gave final approval to four key rail bills, including the operating and capital budgets for the coming fiscal year and a line of credit proposal that HART had sought to bolster its financial plan. That last vote clears the way for HART to submit an updated financial plan and application for a Full Funding Grant Agreement to the Federal Transit Administration within a week to 10 days, Grabauskas said.
The bill, which increased the city’s credit card limit from $350 million to $450 million and created a process for HART to access the account, was approved by a 7-2 vote only after three hours of contentious testimony and council discussion.
Tom Berg and Ann Kobayashi were the two dissenters, with Kobayashi frustrated by Grabauskas’ unwillingness or inability to identify the mechanism HART would use to pay back a future loan. Tulsi Gabbard and Romy Cachola expressed reservations, with Cachola irked by the lobbying efforts of a Filipino group connected to HART.
Members of the HART committees on Thursday patted each other on the back for a job well done and expressed their gratitude to the council for moving the ball forward. Grabauskas called the council decision “critical” and told Civil Beat “it was a big deal to get that bill passed.”
But while the vote was the end of a months-long debate at Honolulu Hale and a penultimate step in the FFGA application process, it’s really just the start of the race to get the funding guarantee done before elections change the makeup of government from Honolulu to Washington, D.C. And according to HART’s earlier timetable, it’s already more than a month behind schedule.
Grabauskas said Wednesday’s weekly conference call with the FTA will be one of the more important ones, and said the Project Management Oversight consultant will have “boots on the ground” here next week to talk about the financial plan.
“We’ve already gotten preliminary approvals for sections. We will hopefully wrap up the rest of the sections in the next week to 10 days and be in a position to have a full package for the draft submittal,” he said.
The draft will be available publicly at that point, he said.
HART and staffers at the FTA have already been going back and forth on the application, so it’s almost ready for submittal. The next step is a full review at the top levels of the FTA for about 30 days, complete with tweaks and changes as necessary. Then the draft heads to President Barack Obama and the Office of Management and Budget for “probably another 30 to 60 days.”
After that review, the draft becomes a final product for the FTA to submit to Congress. That’s the finish line on Grabauskas’ horizon.
Let’s take a look at the calendar. Seven days from Thursday takes us to June 14. Thirty days after that (for the FTA review) brings us to July 14. Thirty days after that (for the president/OMB review) takes us to Aug. 13.
Hawaii’s primary election is Aug. 11. Pretty close.
At that point, Congress has 60 days to review the application, but Grabauskas said there won’t be any hearings and no votes are necessary. It’s basically just a notice that the FTA intends to sign a deal, and after the review period is up, the FTA gets one more chance to consider whether to go through with it.
So even if Cayetano does not secure 50 percent plus 1 vote in the primary, the Nov. 6 general election still looms large.
Asked what will happen if the FTA needs to make a decision in late October, when it’s still unknown who Honolulu’s next mayor will be, Grabauskas declined to speak about hypotheticals or speak for the FTA.
“I can just speak to our process, and our process is to deliver them what I think is going to be a really good application in the next week to 10 days or something like that, and every indication, you’ve seen Secretary LaHood and his statements. So we remain very confident that we’re going to get the Full Funding Grant Agreement.”
In a February conference call, FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff said he was “aware” of an early poll showing Cayetano with a lead in the mayor’s race.
“We are mindful of it, because it is important that we have a strong local partner,” Rogoff said in response to Civil Beat’s question about the impact of the mayoral race on the likelihood of federal funding for Honolulu. “We will not move out on a project when we do not have a strong local partner.”
At that stage, HART said it wanted to get its application to the FTA by May 1 so it could secure the funding guarantee by October — before the election. Seven days from now is six weeks late — a delay that could make the difference between getting the deal done and falling prey to election-year politics.