Honolulu will likely have to push back the opening of its full 20-mile commuter rail line by at least a year due construction delays and changes in how the project will be built.

The elevated rail line could also cost up to $200 million more than currently projected, which would push its growing shortfall to more than $1 billion.

Officials from the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation revealed those details in a Monday letter to Mayor Kirk Caldwell and City Council Chairman Ernie Martin that provided an update on the $6 billion rail project.

Rail guideway columns along Farrington Highway as construction moves eastward.  21 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Honolulu’s rail project faces some steep financial challenges, especially as construction moves into the city’s urban core. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

HART Executive Director Dan Grabauskas and HART Board Chairman Don Horner said in the six-page letter that various complications have forced the agency to re-evaluate just how much the project will cost and when it will open.

For years, the city and HART have said that the full 20-mile rail line from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Shopping Center would be up and running by the first quarter of 2020. But now HART estimates an opening date sometime in 2021.

Grabauskas and Horner said part of the delay is due to repacking construction contracts and adding new traffic mitigation measures that can cut down on productivity. They also blamed two lawsuits that halted construction in 2012 for pushing back the opening date.

HART is still looking at an interim opening date for a shorter segment of the rail line. Initial plans called for trains to start running the 10 miles between East Kapolei and Aloha Stadium about 12 months before the remainder of the route is completed.

The rail agency is now studying whether the interim route should be extended to include another five miles of rail line, which would take riders to the Honolulu International Airport, Pearl Harbor, Lagoon Drive and Middle Street stations.

Higher-than-anticipated construction costs remain a concern, however, as the project moves from the farm fields of West Oahu into more populated areas. Just over four miles of guideway have been built.

HART based its $910 million shortfall on a 30 percent escalation in construction costs for work that will be performed in some of the more challenging environments, including around the airport and in the urban core.

Grabauskas and Horner said that if that figure goes up to 40 percent, then the total project costs would increase by about $200 million.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell held a press conference Tuesday to discuss the latest information from HART, saying he wanted to delve deeper into the details.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell held a press conference Tuesday to discuss the latest information from HART, saying he wanted to delve deeper into the details. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“The strong construction market in Honolulu remains one of the most expensive in the United States and substantially above where costs were only five years ago when our construction budgets were first estimated,” the letter states. “We believe that the pace of construction price increases may slow due to the cyclic nature of construction demand, but prices are not likely to decrease in the foreseeable future.”

The Legislature approved a five-year extension of a 0.5 percent general excise tax surcharge this year to help cover the project’s current shortfall. Hawaii Gov. David Ige signed the extension into law in July.

Now it’s up to Honolulu City Council members to approve the surcharge, which Martin has said won’t be easy.

HART is expected to release a comprehensive update on its rail budget in October. That budget will be sent the Federal Transit Administration, which has given $1.5 billion to the project.

You can read Grabauskas and Horner’s letter here:

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