A high-level squabble between an Oahu regional transportation planning organization and the state Department of Transportation is jeopardizing millions of federal highway dollars at a time when Honolulu’s traffic congestion is as bad as it’s ever been and about to get a lot worse.

The Hawaii DOT is refusing to pass some $2 million on to the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization as required by federal law. That’s forced OMPO, as it’s known, to operate on reserve funds since October and prevented it from finishing transportation projects tied to 2014 appropriations.

The state agency has also stripped OMPO of its ability to enter into contracts for transportation services, which is exacerbating the regional agency’s inability to conduct transportation planning.

The state’s actions could lead the Federal Highway Administration to decertify OMPO, according to Brian Gibson, OMPO’s executive director.

And that could put tens of millions of dollars in federal highway funding for Oahu road projects at risk.

“Decertification is kind of the atomic bomb,” said Gibson. “They don’t want to use it if they don’t have to. Nobody wins with decertification.”

The dispute is playing out at the highest levels of government: OMPO’s policy committee includes five City Council members, three state senators, three state representatives, the director of the state transportation department, the director of the city’s transportation services department and the executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation. Many of the elected lawmakers serve on legislative and council transportation committees.

Angry state and city officials say what DOT is doing is illegal. Gov. Neil Abercrombie is being asked to rein in what is seen as a power-hungry state agency bent on controlling road projects and millions of dollars in contracts.

“Basically, DOT is not doing things that the policy committee is asking to be done,” said Sen. Will Espero, OMPO’s chair. “And it’s just deciding on its own not to do it.”

But state transportation officials say the real problem is OMPO, and that it is not following federal requirements.

“We don’t set the direction or policy of the island,” said Ken Tatsuguchi, deputy director of DOT’s highways division. “In terms of the conflict that is being perceived, there really is no conflict. We are really more regulators. We need to make sure the federal regulations are being followed.”

OMPO’s Independence

Oahu’s MPO, like more than 300 other metropolitan planning organizations in cities throughout the country, was set up in the 1970s in response to concerns that state transportation departments were carrying out federal highway projects without consulting local officials and communities.

“What would happen in many cases, DOTs would basically show up in your town and say, ‘Guess what, we are going to build an interstate for your town,’” explained Gibson. “‘All those houses, sorry they have to be torn down. You have to move these families.’”

Traditionally, relocations affected poorer neighborhoods and there was no public input or opportunity for local governments to chime in, said Gibson.

So the federal government tied allocation of its road money to MPOs. The organizations are responsible for bringing together state and county officials, as well as the community, to conduct transportation planning. They coordinate federal, state and city transportation projects and conduct long-term planning studies.

Oahu’s MPO has seven full-time staff, a citizens advisory committee and a policy committee made up of state and city lawmakers and other government officials. The policy committee has decision-making authority for the agency.

The Hawaii Department of Transportation only has one seat on the policy committee, but it also funnels federal funds to OMPO. By withholding money from the agency, DOT has been able to prevent OMPO from issuing contracts, which OMPO officials say is likely illegal.

“From what I know of the federal law, this is not in compliance with federal law because the MPOs are supposed to be independent and not subservient to the state DOT,” said Honolulu City Councilman Breene Harimoto, who is vice chair of OMPO’s policy committee. “It is attached to the state agency just for administrative purposes.”

History of Conflict

While federal law gives the Oahu MPO decision-making power over how tens of millions of federal highway dollars are to be used and prioritized every year, transportation experts say that Oahu’s MPO has traditionally been one of the weakest in the nation.

“In other jurisdictions the MPO is very powerful, like in San Francisco,” said Panos Prevedouros, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “But our MPO here, it has very smart people, but it’s pretty much delegated to rubber stamp what political figures want to do.”

Gibson agrees with that assessment.

“Unfortunately, since 1972 what has really happened here on Oahu is the state has made their decisions on their projects, the city and county have made their decisions on their projects and they give us a list and they take it to the policy committee as the last step because the feds require it,” he said. “The policy committee is really just a rubber stamp. It’s sort of pro-forma — they aren’t really making a decision.”

But since Gibson took over as head of the OMPO four years ago, he’s worked to try to strengthen the agency.

Recent federal regulations empowering MPOs have also added to tensions between the agency and DOT, said Harimoto.

“The problem is that (DOT) operated in this mode for years and years and it is difficult to give up certain authority,” he said.

Problems Are Surfacing

But the conflict has hindered the work of OMPO at a particularly critical time for Oahu.

Government officials are struggling to juggle major transportation projects and Honolulu continues to rank at the top of lists for cities with the worst traffic.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is in the midst of repaving hundreds of miles of crumbling roads, while DOT is doing major repair work along the H-1 freeway.

Meanwhile, roads are expected to grow even more congested for frustrated drivers as HART ramps up construction along the rail line that will run from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center.

Gibson, if given approval from the policy committee, wants to hire a consultant to help coordinate all the projects, but can’t because DOT has taken away his ability to issue contracts.

OMPO staff have also had to stop working on a number of projects, said Gibson.

The agency can’t finalize a contract for environmental justice monitoring or complete a phone survey about Oahu’s transportation challenges, he said.

The agency was also in the process of hiring an attorney to help align state laws relating to OMPO with federal laws. But now it can’t, he said.

DOT’s actions have raised more questions than answers for OMPO officials as to how the agency is supposed to proceed.

“We may be breaking new ground here,” said Gibson. “I sort of think ultimately it comes down to FHA and their willingness to enforce their rules. They either have to enforce it or not. Decertification may be the only tool they have.”

If OMPO is decertified, Gibson said the Federal Highway Administration could withhold 20 percent of the approximately $80 million in funding that normally would flow to Oahu.

The remainder of the federal transportation money also could be delayed because, without a certified MPO, federal officials would have to review the projects themselves.

Abraham Wong, the division administrator for the Federal Highway Administration, has been acting as a mediator between the government departments, according to state and city officials.

The FHA did not immediately respond to Civil Beat’s requests for comment on the situation.

But if the things don’t improve, Harimoto says he hopes the governor will intervene.

“I’m gravely concerned about this issue,” he said. “I hope that we can resolve this on our own, but if not, I hope the governor will step in.”

Abercrombie declined to respond to Civil Beat’s questions for this story.

“DOT is point of contact on this and will respond on behalf of the administration,” Abercrombie spokesman Justin Fujioka said by email.

For its part, the DOT says the regional planning group has not submitted plans for projects that meet federal requirements.

DOT spokeswoman Caroline Sluyter says OMPO money was withheld but the flow has now been restored as of last month.

Gibson insists that’s not true.

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