Honolulu officials want to form a new agency that would oversee public transit operations once the city’s $6.6 billion commuter rail line is up and running.

Both the city and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation submitted proposals to the Honolulu Charter Commission that, if approved by voters, would create a single entity to operate and maintain the city’s rail, bus and paratransit services.

But there are still many questions about when such an agency would be created and exactly how it would be run, especially when it comes to setting the budget.

City officials believe it will be more efficient to have one agency oversee the operations and maintenance of Honolulu's $6.6 billion rail line and other transit alternatives, such as TheBus and TheHandi-Van.
City officials believe it will be more efficient to have one agency oversee the operations and maintenance of Honolulu’s $6.6 billion rail line and other transit alternatives, such as TheBus and TheHandi-Van. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As it stands today, HART is charged with building, operating and maintaining the 20-mile rail system while the city’s Department of Transportation Services oversees TheBus and TheHandi-Van operations.

DTS Director Mike Formby said that division of labor won’t make sense once the train is operational because it could lead to incongruity when setting fares, scheduling bus routes and otherwise running a multi-modal transit system.

“It’s really hard to run an interrelated system in silos,” Formby said. “Most municipalities have combined transit operations into a single intermodal transit operation.”

There aren’t many specifics on what a new transit agency might look like under the city and HART’s proposals.

The Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization is set to study the issue in the coming years. Part of the organization’s review will be to look at other cities that have combined transit systems involving rail. A committee could also be formed to help define the scope of power for a new agency.

One issue that will need to be resolved is who has ultimate authority over the budget, specifically as it relates to rail.

Formby said that a new transit agency could give more control of the day-to-day operations to the Mayor’s Office and the Honolulu City Council. This is especially important, he says, as the city starts to subsidize rail operations.

The rail system is currently being built using money collected from a general excise tax surcharge and a $1.5 billion federal grant. Under city rules, HART is in charge of spending that money how it sees fit without interference from the mayor or council.

But once the trains start running, the city’s general fund will likely be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars each year to cover the costs of transit not paid for by fares.

“If we’re going to set up an intermodal operation it makes sense to me that the administration and the City Council would want to have the same oversight of that system as they do for TheBus and the TheHandi-Van,” Formby said.

Center, HART Boardmember Michael Formby at HART board meeting held at Kapolei Hale flanked left, HART boardmember Carrie Okinaga and right, HART Board Chair Ivan Lui-Kwan. 18 dec 2014. photo Cory Lum.
Honolulu Director of Transportation Services Mike Formby, middle, says the city should have more control over operations and maintenance of rail once the system is up and running. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

That’s welcome news to City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi. She’s a long-time critic of the rail project and has always questioned whether the City Council has ultimate authority over HART’s budget.

Voters approved the formation of HART in 2010 as a semi-autonomous agency with the hope that it would insulate the entity from undue political influence.

While city attorneys have consistently opined that the council has no authority over HART’s spending, Kobayashi wants to test their legal argument during the upcoming budget cycle.

Rail costs have soared over the past year as the project price tag increased from $5.3 billion to $6.6 billion. Kobayashi says she wants to make some cuts to HART’s operating budget in an attempt to save money.

“Having a single transit authority that oversees all city transit makes sense,” Kobayashi said. “However, the budgeting part should still come to the council.”

Other rail-related proposals submitted to the Charter Commission include recommendations that would force HART board members to ride rail at least once a week as well as require them to have experience in areas such as finance, labor relations and public transportation.

Another submission calls on the commission to ask voters to kill the project and demolish what’s been built so far, or stop construction once the line reaches Aloha Stadium.

The Charter Commission will now spend the next several months deciding which of the proposals it will recommend be placed on the ballot in the general election on Nov. 8, 2016.

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