Millions of dollars set aside years ago for station design work were actually just “placeholders” with no real study of whether they were sufficient. But they were included in Honolulu rail’s official budget anyway.

Project officials acknowledged that Thursday while presenting the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board with a $5.7 million change order for continued design work on the nine west side stations, from East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium.

The board approved the order to more than double the “design during construction” funding for those stations. It awards another $3.5 million to the design firm AECOM for six of the stations, and $2.15 million to Anil Verma Associates for the remaining three stations.

Construction proceeds on the Waipahu Transit Center in December 2017. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

So far, each of those firms has paid $845,000 out of pocket to keep the work going after the 2011 funding that the city set as part of its previous $5.26 billion rail budget ran out, HART officials said Thursday.

“So there was no analysis, or due diligence, put in at the time that the financial numbers were crunched to specifically identify the amount of funds that would be needed to support the design work of the nine stations. Is that correct?” HART board member Ember Shinn asked.

“That is correct,” responded In-Tae Lee, HART’s deputy director for engineering and design.

Since December 2014, Honolulu rail has seen its costs spike and it has struggled to stay on budget. Officials now estimate it will cost about $9 billion, including financing, to complete the 20-mile, 21-station elevated rail transit system.

Thursday’s change order led Shinn to say that she and her colleagues must watch out for other “elements like this that were totally not budgeted for” in rail’s original $5.26 billion spending plan, and other “assumptions that were made way back in 2011” when the project was being pushed forward.

“Things like this, the board would appreciate if this was brought up earlier,” board member Glenn Nohara told the HART staff. “You’re kind of putting the board on the spot here.”

HART Board Member Ember Shinn asks questions about the budget line items during meeting today.
HART board member Ember Shinn said the board needs to be on the lookout for other spending needs based on bogus estimates — or no estimates at all. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It wasn’t all bad news Thursday for rail costs, however.  HART officials also presented a change order that they say will save the project some $5 million in utility relocation work — another benefit of rail’s recent deal with Hawaiian Electric Co.

Taxpayers now avoid paying $5.7 million to bury the lines on nine electrical poles near the airport on Kamehameha Highway.

Instead, they’ll pay about $750,000 to remove the poles’ “arms” that extend over the roadway and then attach the electrical lines directly to the poles, creating more clearance with the rail guideway, explained John Moore, HART’s acting east area construction manager.

Overall, the meeting’s two change orders about canceled each other out.

“Today we did OK,” HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins quipped after the board adjourned.

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