The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation. Hawaii Tourism Authority. UH Board of Regents. Would anyone point to these government creations as models of openness and accountability to taxpayers? Drivers of innovation and positive change? Entities that inspire effective and efficient government? I think not.

Does anyone think the City’s quasi-independent rail transit project has been transparent and efficient? In fact, obtaining legitimate budget numbers from HART has been impossible. Let us keep in mind, they are managing only one massive construction project on Oahu rather than a statewide airport system.

Yet legislators and others are now pushing for another of these semi-independent organizations to oversee the development and operation of our state airports.

This is not to question the sincerity or dedication of the board members who volunteer to serve on these bodies, only to point out that there are inherent shortcomings in governance by part-time, politically appointed boards that are not accountable to the voters.

Hawaiian Airlines and Aloha Air cargo. Interisland terminal 22 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Hawaiian Airlines and Aloha Air planes at Honolulu’s interisland terminal. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

I agree that our airports desperately need stronger, more effective leadership. I have been a long-time critic of the Department of Transportation, concerned with its airport contracting practices, use of federal highway money, wasteful spending, and general inefficiency. The glaring discrepancies in the stalled Hawaiian Airlines hangar construction is yet another example of that agency’s beleaguered performance.

I would love to see the airports envisioned by the proponents of this airport corporation and I would be the first to support changes in the airport governing structure. However, my concern is another costly bureaucracy as proposed will only further hide and bury the problems at the airport and the multibillion-dollar airport modernization program.

The legislation for an airport corporation (Senate Bill 658) calls for its governance by a nine-member board of unpaid political appointees who will likely meet monthly.  Again, the individual board members are not at fault, but the nature of governance by nine volunteers will not produce quick answers, nor timely and transparent solutions.  Their decisions will be dependent on the recommendations by the executive director and staff.

In reality, this airport corporation will be run by a highly paid executive and a handful of employees, who will draw their information from the ranks of the Department of Transportation, meaning the same folks who have brought us to our current state of affairs.

Who will hold the airport corporation accountable for shortcomings in management especially since these boards are political appointments, who will come and go with every new administration?

And when the public criticism grows, the board will just fire the chief executive and hire a new one, as has been the case with HART and other agencies.

Proponents point to classic arguments like the state’s procurement code for the lack of quick progress at the airports. The code, though, is not the major problem. As the Hawaiian Airlines hangar issue demonstrates, it is the department’s management that is flawed. They hired a multi-million-dollar consultant expert to oversee the project and it was still plagued with change orders, deficiencies, 3,500 issues, and lawsuits. Who is overseeing the overseer? Is that not the job of the airport managers? To suggest that this new organization will not repeat this kind of process is naive.

Another argument is that most U.S. airports are run by an authority of some sort. But most of them are operated by municipalities where there are multiple airports within driving range, plus train and bus alternatives.  Whereas, Hawaii is a state-run airport system with no transportation alternatives.

The solution to an inefficient government agency is not to insulate it with another costly layer of bureaucracy. We must address the core problem with strong public servants who are held accountable, and that means everyone from the governor, to the department directors, to supervisors, to the employees, and, yes, to the Legislature.


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