Honolulu’s tardy, overbudget rail project just got tardier and more expensive.

Oh, and the part that’s already been built? Some key components fell apart.

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s official estimate for the total cost is now $8.6 billion, staff members told the HART board Thursday.

That’s up about $300 million from the most recent official estimate and leaves the project’s funding gap at around $1.8 billion. City officials are seeking alternative ways to pay for rest of the 21-station, 20-mile line from Kapolei to the Ala Moana Center.

The new estimate also includes a revised completion date, now pushed back from 2024 to December 2025.

Some shims and electrical insulation pads used for Honolulu's rail project have already started cracking
Some shims and electrical insulation pads used for Honolulu’s rail project have already started cracking John Hill/Civil Beat

The HART board was briefed on failures of some of the “tendons” that hold together segments of the train’s guideway. Workers have also discovered cracks in the shims being used to level the guideways and pads used for electrical insulation.

The contractors say they are fixing those problems at no cost to HART. But HART board chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa questions whether they’ve done a thorough enough investigation to gauge the extent of the damage.

“I am not comfortable with that and I want to be sure,” she said to reporters after the board had adjourned.

Getting Ready To Ask For More

The rail project was originally expected to cost $5.2 billion and be finished by 2019. It’s been plagued by cost overruns, delays and escalating labor costs.

HART recently ran the numbers again in light of shifting estimates and the need to get a good handle on the size of the funding gap. City and HART officials likely will be asking the Legislature to cover the shortfall and want to use as accurate a figure as possible so they won’t have to return a few months later asking for more. Thus far, the project is being paid for by federal funds and a surcharge on the general excise tax.

The new total of $8.6 billion includes $2.3 billion already out the door, another $4.5 billion in expected costs, $1.4 billion for contingencies such as cost overruns, and $400 million in finance charges.

Staff members said they aim to spend significantly less than that total, but wanted to included contingencies for every item.

The estimated costs of contracts has also gone up, especially the section of guideway into the city center. As the project moves closer to downtown, it faces an increasingly complex web of utilities in its path.

So is this the final figure, or just another dot on the graph of mushrooming costs?

Officials acknowledged that it’s impossible to foresee every complication.

“It’s estimates,” Hanabusa said.  “We’ve asked staff to be as accurate as they can on this.”

The later completion date is no surprise, given delays and uncertainties caused by the funding shortfall.

Issues With What’s Already Built

No one had expected problems with the part of the guideway already built, however.

Tendons, made of 7-wire strands, are installed in the guideways and encased with grout to protect them from corrosion.

In recent months, HART workers discovered that three tendons, out of a total of 1,586, had to be replaced because of fractured strands. Another three were replaced because of corroded anchors holding them in place. Six other tendons were taken out because the grout failed to harden properly.

Water appears to have been the culprit. Open drains near the tendon anchors were supposed to be fitted with downspouts, but before that happened, may have allowed water to enter through the anchors.

The contractor, Kiewit Infrastructure West, did a random sampling of 25 of the remaining tendons and found no corrosion.

“Can you imagine if we have to replace a tendon when the train is running?” — HART Chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa

HART, however, is in the process of evaluating whether that was a big enough sample.

Hanabusa has her doubts, especially since a failure of a tendon after the train starts running could shut down the whole system.

“I don’t think the board will accept that,” she said. “How are we going to tell people, ‘yeah, there’s 1,586 of these. They tested 57 and we’re satisfied.’

“Can you imagine if we have to replace a tendon when the train is running? The whole system is going to have to stop. That makes no sense. And now when you can do it is when they should do it.”

In 2009 and 2010, before HART was created, the City and County of Honolulu, which was overseeing the project, agreed with a proposal to save about $7.5 million by using polyethylene shims to level the track instead of much thicker concrete plinths.

But early this summer, HART workers noticed cracks in the shim material and the pads that insulate the rail from the guideway. Cracks were found in 2,104 of 110,000 shims and isolation pads. A different type of material used in other shims and pads showed no damage.

The contractor reported that the isolation pads may not have met specifications for ultraviolet light protection and is replacing them. HART has asked the contractor to verify that the shims met specifications.

Hanabusa said the contractor should also provide a guarantee that it will take care of any future problems.

“It’s got to be something more than that,” she said. “They’ve got to give us a warranty, they’ve got to be willing to come back and fix it or pay for the fix.”

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