The Federal Transit Administration has agreed to give city officials more time to come up with a plan to either find the money to finish the Honolulu rail project as originally planned or end it at Middle Street.

But the federal agency isn’t giving the city as much time as it asked for, and wants to meet by the end of August to discuss an interim plan.

In light of a funding shortfall for the $8.3 billion project, the FTA had asked the city and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation to submit a new plan by Aug. 7. In June, Mayor Kirk Caldwell asked for an extension until June 2017.

Kualakai Parkway HART guideway rail Hoopili top of photo. 2016.
Honolulu doesn’t have enough money to build rail beyond Middle Street. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

In a Thursday letter, the FTA responded that it would grant a shorter extension to the end of the year. The FTA also is insisting on a meeting with HART “to discuss immediate milestones and deliverables” by the end of August, and to produce an interim plan based on that by the end of September.

The city must make a “fundamental choice” whether to reduce the scope of the project, which was supposed to extend to the Ala Moana Center, or seek non-federal money to complete it as planned, acting FTA Administrator Carolyn Flowers wrote in the letter.

The first step should be a plan to contain costs, develop new funding sources and an analysis of costs and estimated ridership of the various options, she wrote. In the meantime, the city should refrain from any actions that would foreclose on possible solutions.

HART board member Mike Formby, who is the head of Honolulu Department of Transportation Services, said Friday afternoon that Caldwell’s request for a June 2017 deadline would have allowed rail project funding to be considered during the 2017 session of the Hawaii Legislature, which starts in January. That’s no longer possible under the new deadline, he said, but that won’t prevent the city from having less formal discussions with legislative leaders to get some idea of whether more money could be forthcoming.

The new deadline also gives the city time to discuss public-private partnerships that could help underwrite the costs of building stations, Formby said, perhaps in return for easing restrictions on density and building heights.

“We haven’t gotten far at all yet,” he said.

The FTA stated in its letter that the city should seek money from non-federal sources. But Formby said the city, in cooperation with Hawaii’s congressional delegation, will continue to explore options for additional federal money.

Eliminating planned rail stations would make it more feasible to get rail to downtown Honolulu. But Formby pointed out that would mean cutting off some neighborhoods from the benefits.

“We’re looking at not disengaging communities,” he said.

One source of funding the city will not consider, he said, is raising property taxes.

Any revised funding proposal will have to be approved by the HART board before going to a Honolulu City Council committee and then to the full council. The whole process is likely to take two months, Formby said.

Given the end-of-year FTA deadline, that means the HART board should be considering a revised proposal by early November.

Read the letters here:

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