Honolulu voters haven’t had a real say regarding the rail project since the mayoral election of 2012, but that could change this fall.

The Honolulu Charter Commission is moving forward with ballot measures that could give the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board more power for now and ensure that one city agency — the Department of Transportation Services — handles the operations and maintenance of all public transit services when rail construction is finished.

The recommendations come at a critical time for the biggest public works project in the state’s history, which was originally expected to cost $5.2 billion and begin operating in 2019. A recent federal analysis concluded the project could cost as much as $8.1 billion and be delayed until 2024.

A city audit also recently lambasted HART for poor fiscal oversight and lack of transparency, and its board plans to meet next week Wednesday to discuss alternatives to building the full project, given the City Council’s new $6.8 billion cap on rail spending.

Honolulu Rail HART Train Car
Building the full 20-mile commuter rail project could cost from $6.9 billion to $8.1 billion, based on current estimates. Anthony Quintano / Civil Beat

A group of Charter Commission members, including Kevin Mulligan, Cheryl Soon, David Rae and Nathan Okubo, presented a report with rail-related recommendations for ballot measures Thursday at Honolulu Hale.

The commission adopted the report, which outlined the proposed measures and explained their justifications, and referred the proposals to a Style Committee, which helps determine how to phrase ballot measures. They will also be vetted during public meetings.

The report recommended that the city Transportation Department aggressively pursue revenue-generating opportunities such as partnering with businesses, selling or leasing city land near the rail route, and leveraging advertising, concessions and parking near stations to fund operations and maintenance.

“Without real change now, we will lose the opportunity to achieve a reliable, well-managed, cost-effective, integrated public transportation system.”

The city doesn’t yet know how much it will cost to run and maintain the rail line.

The report additionally recommended that the city establish a seven-member commission to set fares for all public transit.

“Nothing short of bold and urgent action is required,” commissioners wrote in the report. “Without real change now, we will lose the opportunity to achieve a reliable, well-managed, cost-effective, integrated public transportation system.”

The Charter Commission considered a separate proposal Thursday to establish a department of land preservation and enhancement that would maintain an inventory of city land and negotiate public-private partnerships on behalf of the city to create land-use agreements.

A group of commissioners, led by Soon, did not make a recommendation regarding the proposal but said it should be a topic of further discussion and public meetings.

‘Inadequate Oversight’

Restructuring HART to give its board more authority is a priority for its chairwoman, Colleen Hanabusa, who testified in support of the recommendations Thursday.

In the meantime, she and other HART board members are trying to determine the board’s authority, particularly in regard to what matters should come before the board.

Hanabusa, who is planning to run for Congress this year, said she hopes to remain on the HART board through her term in June, and may stay on longer depending on how demanding her campaign is and what Mayor Kirk Caldwell wants.

HART Chair Colleen Hanabusa presser at Fasi Building. 16 may 2016.
HART Board Chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa said she wasn’t surprised the City Council capped rail spending at $6.8 billion. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The report by a group of Charter Commission members called the HART board’s current structure “ineffective because the board is limited to policy and prohibited from involvement with the administrative responsibilities of its executive director.” It continued:

“This leads to inadequate oversight, lack of transparency even for board members, and overall dysfunction. It inappropriately separates HART from accountability expected from elected officials until a crisis emerges such as a major cost overrun. In addition, decisions that impact funding and financial responsibilities are too far removed from elected decision-makers and taxpayers. The status quo, which has real and negative consequences for almost one million people living on Oahu, cannot continue. The rail project requires additional oversight, along with a commitment to openness, new ideas, and real accountability.”

The report added that urgent action is required.

“We must improve the governance structure so that we can plan, operate and maintain a 21st-century public transportation system,” the group of commissioners wrote. “Marginal changes to the governance structure of public transportation on Oahu will produce little or no meaningful improvement for those who will ride the rail project and the taxpayers.”

Click here to read the commissioners’ report.

‘It’s Not PLDC’

A group of commissioners led by Cheryl Soon and including Reginald Castanares, Kevin Mulligan and Nathan Okubo has been discussing since March whether it makes sense to form a new department or division to address land management in Honolulu.

The group drafted a proposal and shared it with the commission Thursday, but did not recommend that the language be adopted. Instead, the group suggested that the commission hold public meetings and seek more input from the mayor’s office and the City Council.

Soon said if no division or office is established, it’s unlikely that the city will be able to capture significant revenue from development around the rail line.

The group’s report noted concerns, however, that the department may be premature and expensive, and could take three years to be in place.

Sophie Cocke/ Civil Beat
The Public Land Development Corporation inspired protests at the State Capital. 

Soon said the group was mindful of the concerns that such an agency would be reminiscent of the Public Land Development Corporation, a now-defunct state agency created under former Gov. Neil Abercrombie that was charged with developing public land.

The PLDC inspired protests at the state Capitol because it was exempted from county land use laws and environmental safeguards.

Soon emphasized the proposed division is not the PLDC, and would have to work with neighborhood boards, conduct public meetings and abide by all land-use ordinances. She said that discussions about how to use city land are “happening anyway” and the proposed department would increase transparency.

“We feel we cannot be handcuffed while having these discussions on these important issues because of these four letters,” she said of the PLDC.

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