The Honolulu light rail project is generating far fewer local jobs than originally projected, partially due to legal delays and the hiring of out-of-state workers.
Rail construction was delayed for about a year due to lawsuits, which were resolved in February.
But now that construction of the first segment of the rail project, stretching from East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium, is well under way, recent job numbers released by the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation suggest that employment is falling below expectations.
As of April, rail had created only 1,145 direct jobs in Hawaii, according to the authority. About 40 percent of these jobs have gone to non-Hawaii residents brought in from the mainland or other countries. The figures were provided to the Honolulu City Council last week at the request of Council member Kymberly Pine.
The April job numbers fall well below estimates of direct jobs in the draft environmental impact statement. (Even higher job-creation estimates included non-direct jobs, such as restaurant workers hired to serve rail workers or so-called “induced jobs” created due to an overall improved economy brought on by the rail project.)
For nine years of construction, spanning 2010 — 2019, the rail project was supposed to support an average of 4,200 direct jobs every year.
“When it comes to jobs, this really is the project that will stimulate our economy big time,” said former Mayor Mufi Hannemann during a 2010 public meeting.
Including non-direct and “induced” jobs, he said rail construction was expected to create about 8,000 jobs in 2011, 11,000 jobs in 2012, 17,000 jobs in 2013 and 15,000 jobs in 2014.
HART spokesman Scott Ishikawa said he didn’t have current estimates for overall job creation, including indirect and “induced” jobs.
HART officials attribute the lag in job creation to lawsuits that held up construction and say they expect the numbers to increase significantly in coming months as more design and construction contracts go out.
The delays have altered the project’s timeline, changed the construction schedule and impacted overall job creation, said Ishikawa. HART still wants to complete the project by 2019, but now has to work faster.
Peak job creation of about 4,000 is now expected in the years 2016 and 2017, said Ishikawa. At that time, the entire guideway and 21 rail stations should be under construction.
To build rail faster, Ishikawa said that instead of constructing the project in four segments, HART plans to build it in two. Contracts have already been awarded to Kiewit, a Nebraska construction company, for the first half of the project. HART plans to issue a bid request to design and build the second half of the guideway, stretching from Aloha Stadium to Ala Moana Center, later this year, in addition to contracts for the rail stations. Some $1.3 billion in contracts are slated to go out in the coming months that will nearly complete the procurement process for the $5.2 billion project.
In addition to guideway work and construction of the rail stations, several park-and-ride stations need to be built and utilities need to be relocated.
As of April, most of the jobs taken by non-Hawaii residents have been for engineering work. Some 283 jobs out of 366 jobs in this field have gone to non-residents.
About one-quarter of the construction work has gone to residents who were residing outside of the state at the time of hire.
This balance is expected to tip more toward local hires in the coming years, said Damien Kim, a HART board member and business manager for IBEW 1186, the Hawaii electricians union.
“You have to realize that we never built rail before in Hawaii, so we need expertise from the mainland to teach the locals,” said Kim. “There are certain aspects of jobs we normally don’t do, that we are not familiar with. Moving forward, maybe in a year or two, there will be more electrical work and we can get our guys trained and our guys will be able to take over the whole thing.”
He said that some contractors were hiring locally and sending the workers to the mainland for training.
However, there are also legal constraints when it comes to hiring locally. Because rail is partially supported by federal funds, HART can’t discriminate based on whether workers are local or from outside of the state.
“We want our local people here to work,” said Kim. “But because federal money is involved, it’s open to everyone. So you can’t lock people out.”