A Honolulu rail contractor is getting paid $1 million to come up with a plan for an electric bus system that would connect Waikiki to a rail station that may never see the light of day.
The city awarded the contract to the engineering and design firm AECOM in April. As Civil Beat reported last week, the idea was that the bus system would help riders from the rail’s final stop at Ala Moana Center into the tourism mecca of Waikiki.
Whether that stop will ever be built, however, has been thrown into doubt this year as city and rail officials have had to confront the reality that the rail project is vastly over-budget and behind schedule. About two months after the bus contract was awarded, Mayor Kirk Caldwell proposed shortening the rail line by nearly five miles, meaning it may never reach the shopping center.
Ever since, officials have been weighing various options, including slashing the length of the rail line, reducing the number of stops or finding a way to raise more money to fund the whole project. Caldwell has said he still hopes to find a way to build the entire line. Yet even with the those plans in flux, the city is moving forward with planning the bus system, called the Waikiki Circulator, that would connect to the Ala Moana Center rail stop.
Mark Garrity, the city’s acting transportation director, said last week that AECOM was working with a sub-contractor, Weslin Consulting Services, to come up with a plan for the potential electric bus system. No one involved in the project, however, was willing to say how much of the $1 million Weslin is getting.
When asked about it last week, a city spokesperson told Civil Beat to ask the sub-contractor. The president of Weslin, Wes Frysztacki, told Civil Beat he didn’t know how much of the contract his company was receiving and recommended asking AECOM. When Civil Beat had previously reached out to AECOM, a representative of the firm said all questions would have to be directed to the city.
The city decided in 2014 to spend the money to design the circulator when plans were still in place for the shopping center rail stop. The money is coming from the city’s Fiscal Year 2015 Highway Improvement Bond Fund, which pays for public improvements, Garrity said. The contract is paid as invoices are submitted and reviewed, he said.
AECOM has been a major player in Honolulu rail, the largest public works project in Hawaii’s history. The company has existing contracts with the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation to design the rail’s airport stations and guideway, city center guideway, West Oahu stations and Farrington Highway stations. AECOM is also handling the construction, engineering and inspection of the rail’s east section.
Under a plan conceived about a decade ago, the circulator would use electric buses that travel in a loop on two routes to frequently transport commuters from the rail at Ala Moana to Waikiki. The routes would have fewer stops than existing bus lines in the area.
Since April, the consultants have been looking into how the circulator would run, where the stops would be located and what they would look like. A draft of the plan is expected by the end of the year, Garrity said.
The projected cost of the rail system has ballooned from $5.2 billion to $8.6 billion in recent years. Officials recently said they are facing a $1.8 billion shortfall and construction of the project is in limbo. Rail authorities recently asked the Federal Transit Administration, which is helping fund the project, for more time to come up with a plan to deal with the shortfall.
Given that, Council member Ann Kobayashi said she doesn’t think it’s worth paying to plan the Waikiki Circulator. But, she added, the city can’t do anything if the money has already been paid.
“I think it’s a bit early,” she said. “We should wait to see what the FTA says and what could or might happen.”
State Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said if the city has a $1 million contract to do planning work – which she hadn’t seen – it needs to be clear that the circulator is part of an integrated transit system, one where the buses will operate in tandem with the rail when it’s up and running.
“It cannot be a static planning effort for just this one piece of the puzzle,” she said. “It’s got to be flexible enough to consider all possible options to be able to make sure that this is about helping to move people not just within Waikiki and just to Ala Moana Center, but really making sure that it is part of some kind of integrated transport system for the entire island.”
In fact, she would like to see the city produce an operating and maintenance plan to show how such an integrated transit system would work and be financed.
Garrity said AECOM was hired for the circulator project based on its experience, past performance and ability to accomplish the work on deadline.
A team of three transportation services engineers and one planner evaluated 21 firms that were listed on the city’s Fiscal Year 2015 Professional Services list of qualified consultants under the Transit Planning and Design category, Garrity said. Each firm was evaluated on the degree to which it met the requirements of the project, and the one with the highest score was awarded the contract.
Garrity said the cost of implementing the circulator will be determined in the design phase and will depend on the level of infrastructure needed to support the circulator stops and the number of electric buses needed, which is still being determined.
Frysztacki, the president of Weslin, said there has not been an official estimate for how much implementing the new bus service would cost.
To actually build and implement the circulator, the city plans to ask for more money from the federal government to use in combination with city funds, Garrity said. These funds would include federal TIGER and Low or No Emission Vehicle Program grants, he said.
The date when the buses would begin running would depend on a number of factors, including the available funding, but it could potentially happen by 2019, Garrity said.
“We have seen increasing support for the electrification of transportation, and grant applications for battery-powered electric buses have been favorably received,” he said.
Kobayashi said she would want to know how much federal funds would cover.
Panos Prevedouros, a civil engineering professor at University of Hawaii Manoa and a frequent critic of the rail project, said he doesn’t think the circulator will be beneficial and that it’s a special project for special interests.
The circulator stems from the 2013 Waikiki Regional Circulator Study, which was conducted to define a transit link between the future rail station at Ala Moana Center and Waikiki. The $350,000 study expanded to look into improved modes of transportation for surrounding neighborhoods, like UH Manoa, McCully and Moiliili.
The city has also considered a larger circulator project. Earlier this year, the City Council reviewed an application for a $25.5 million federal TIGER grant, which would have helped pay for a Honolulu Urban Bus Circulator System. The larger project was projected to cost nearly $32 million, including the Waikiki Circulator, and would connect rail stations to UH Manoa, Kakaako, Downtown and Makiki.
Until the city has a better idea of what is going to happen with the rail project, the idea for a larger circulator system is on hold, Garrity said.