Hawaii Department of Transportation officials told state lawmakers Wednesday that they need dozens of new positions and millions of additional dollars to continue with plans to modernize airports, repair harbors and maintain roads.

Transportation Director Ford Fuchigami discussed his department’s $3.6 billion overall budget request for the next two fiscal years and fielded questions from members of the House Finance Committee, chaired by Rep. Sylvia Luke, during a three-hour morning briefing. He and his deputies made a similar presentation to senators in the afternoon.

The Legislature will be considering the department’s budget request along with those of other state agencies during the legislative session that opens Wednesday.

Hawaii Transportation Director Ford Fuchigami discusses his department’s budget request during a legislative briefing Wednesday. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

The Department of Transportation’s spending plan tilts more toward general upkeep than making significant improvements. Widening roads to ease traffic congestion, for example, is not a priority; making sure those roads don’t crumble into the ocean is.

And it does not account for expected future needs, be it a replacement of aging and breakdown-prone ZipMobiles to reconfigure lanes during rush hour or more resources to clean up vacated homeless encampments.

Each cleanup along the Nimitz Highway, for instance, can take a few days and cost upwards of $300,000. And because the department does not have staff members dedicated to this work, they’re pulled off other jobs, Fuchigami said.

“We get a tremendous amount of calls about the homeless,” he said. “It is a huge cost.”

Climate change is also affecting the department. A major sea-level rise study is due in December, which Fuchigami said would help determine what roads may need to be moved or fortified.

The Highways Division is seeking $38 million for fiscal 2018, which starts July 1, and $12 million for fiscal 2019 for highway shoreline protection statewide — with much more eventually needed to address the issue.

Fuchigami said he’s been dubbed the “sustainability czar” since his department is now working on far more than just roads and harbors. He noted a recent agreement with clean-energy nonprofits, the electric utility company and others that commits to facilitating an increase in electric vehicles by working to establish more charging stations.

Large pile of fermenting and rotting trash along and under the Nimitz highway next to refuse collection center. 12 aug 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The state spends a a lot of money each time it sends a crew to pick up the trash along Nimitz Highway that’s left by homeless residents, as seen here in August. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There are now more than 5,000 electric vehicles registered in the state, which has some 1.3 million cars and trucks overall.

There’s concern about the impact that an increasing number of electric vehicles, hybrids and newer cars with better fuel economy will have on the gasoline tax that the department relies on to fund projects and provide services.

Lawmakers are aware of this dwindling revenue stream but have yet to find an answer. After it cleared the Senate in a split vote last session, House lawmakers killed a bill that would have increased taxes and fees on motor vehicles and fuel to help the department raise $70 million.

The state currently charges a liquid fuel tax of 16 cents per gallon, which brought in about $86.6 million in fiscal 2015. The department wanted to increase it to 19 cents. Each cent is estimated to cost drivers an average of $5.50 a year.

A tax increase may be considered again this session, but the focus during the budget briefing was on a pilot program under development.

The state received a $4 million federal grant in August to study alternatives to the gas tax. The department plans to use that money to see if road maintenance fees based on the number of miles driven could work. West Coast states are also considering this.

Gerald Dang, who works in the department’s Highways Division, said it’s shaping up to be a three-year project, starting in April. Volunteers will be sought to participate.

Rep Andria Tupola at Finance Committee mtg Transportation. 11 jan 2017
Rep. Andria Tupola said she sees value in the state Department of Transportation joining Honolulu agencies at the Joint Traffic Management Center that’s under construction. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Some lawmakers were lukewarm, at best, to the idea.

Rep. Matt LoPresti, who grilled Fuchigami over everything from alleged human trafficking at harbors to arbitrary rule enforcement at airports, said it’s “absurd” to blame electric vehicles for decreasing funds, given they constitute less than 1 percent of all the cars in the islands.

He said the plan to pursue mileage-based user fees has not proceeded in a transparent way. Instead, he said, it’s being sold to lawmakers, complete with talking points to use when discussing it with taxpayers.

“I would appreciate facts more than salesmanship,” LoPresti said.

Fuchigami told the lawmaker he’d be happy to sit down with him to go over it and encouraged him to give the pilot program a chance before dismissing it.

The director received accolades, including from LoPresti, for his openness and accessibility. But even Fuchigami acknowledged from the outset that his department has a lot of work to do.

“The other thing we’ll be looking at — and I know every single one of you hate us for that — we don’t communicate well,” he said. “We know it’s a weakness of the department.”

Improving communication — with lawmakers and the general public — is one of his priorities for the coming year.

Another top priority for this coming session is getting approval for 12 positions to establish the Intelligent Transportation Systems Branch. Fuchigami said he’s been seeking these positions the past two years so the department can provide 24-hour staffing at the Joint Traffic Management Center that’s being built near the Capitol.

Beretania Street traffic heading west bound near the Punchbowl Street intersection. morning traffic. 3 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Beretania Street traffic heading west near Punchbowl Street. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

The center is expected to facilitate coordination among the Department of Transportation and five Honolulu agencies, including police, fire, emergency services, transportation and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.

The goal is to operate the transportation network in a centralized, multi-agency manner to reduce traffic delays, respond to accidents and issue public alerts.

“We need to be part of that,” Fuchigami said. “We cannot be separate from where all the first-responders are going to be. … This will help traffic.”

Rep. Andria Tupola said she expects the center will help with the traffic woes.

Another response to not only traffic congestion but also the high cost of interisland travel is a new look at a car and passenger ferry system. The department has $550,000 lined up to conduct a study.

Fuchigami said officials are looking at Washington state, which he’s told has the country’s best ferry system. Hawaii would clearly need a different approach than the last time it tried to establish a ferry system.

The Hawaii Superferry, shown at Pier 19 in Honolulu, sailed between Maui and Oahu from 2007 to 2009. Flickr: Bill Sodeman

The privately owned Hawaii Superferry operated for two years before shutting down. The state made harbor improvements for it to unload passengers and vehicles, but it ultimately ended after public protests and legal challenges, including a fight over an exemption it received from an environmental review.

Fuchigami said the ferry systems the state is looking at now involve the government owning the ferries and generally subsidizing the service 30 percent — “totally different than what the Superferry was.”

“We know what needs to be done,” he said, noting a need for an environmental impact statement and broad community outreach.

The director also envisions an intraisland ferry service that could transport passengers and vehicles on leeward Oahu or from place to place on Maui.

There’s no money in the budget to buy ferries.

The issue struck a chord with Rep. Lynn DeCoite, whose constituents on Molokai recently lost ferry service between Molokai and Maui that a private company had been providing. She asked if the state was exploring any alternatives.

“The shutdown of this ferry system on Molokai has a tremendous effect, especially on the kids,” Fuchigami said.

He said he’s been in touch with Molokai High School’s athletic director about the struggles the football team is facing in terms of traveling to Maui to compete.

“We have a big problem on our hands,” he said, adding it looks “almost impossible” to find a different vendor to provide the ferry service.

“At this particular time, unfortunately, the DOT will not be able to assist in any way,” he said.

Honolulu Airport wet floor leaky roof arrival. 6 dec 2016
The Department of Transportation wants millions of dollars to modernize the state’s airports. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

When it comes to air travel, the department is asking for 81 positions to boost staffing at ID offices for security badging and fingerprinting, visitor information centers, airport operations controllers, rescue, firefighting and grounds maintenance.

Ross Higashi of the Airports Division said there are plans to renovate another 35 bathrooms in addition to the couple that have already been done.

“Within the next two years you should see some physical changes as far as restrooms are concerned,” he said. “We’re working on that.”

In anticipation of bigger planes coming in from Japan and possibly elsewhere, the department is planning to build a $30 million bridge on the third level of the airport so they can unload. The Airbus A380 planes could hold about 550 passengers.

“This would be important for Hawaii’s economy, basically doubling the amount of passengers traveling from Japan,” Higashi said.

Rep. Gene Ward, one of six Republicans in the 51-member House, encouraged Fuchigami to hit up President-elect Donald Trump, since he said during the campaign that infrastructure would be a priority.

“If that’s the soup du jour, I’d say get to the menu and order that,” Ward said, adding that he is “embarrassed” when his relatives from southeast Asia come to visit.

Read the department’s complete testimony to lawmakers here.

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