It took two tries, but Honolulu’s rail board finally managed to approve a deal that spares taxpayers from paying an additional $130 million in utility relocation costs for the transit project.

Under the agreement approved on an 8-0 vote last month, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation will pay more than $20 million for 15 new specialized Hawaiian Electric Co. trucks. Those Altec and Versalift vehicle models should give HECO crews the safe access they need to work on most of the power lines that run along rail’s western guideway, both parties say.

HART still faces an estimated $70 million price tag to relocate west side power lines where those trucks won’t solve clearance problems. But without the vehicles, transit officials say the city would have to pay $200 million in utility-relocation between Kapolei and Halawa.

Hawaiian Electric Co. crews have a difficult time accessing utility lines that run along the rail guideway with their existing bucket trucks. Hawaiian Electric Co.

And the new trucks won’t solve the utility-clearance problems heading into town — including issues with poles along narrow Dillingham Boulevard. Rail officials expect that separate utility-relocation work in town to cost at least $200 million.

For years, HART and HECO have wrangled over what to do about the overhead utility lines that run too close to the rail guideway that’s being built. Consultants flagged the issue in 2009 but there’s no record of any follow-up until 2013.  In 2015, HART and HECO officials started meeting as a task force to figure out what to do about the clearance issues.

In February 2017 they announced that shipping in Altec and Versalift trucks from the mainland would solve most of the problems on rail’s west side, as far as Aloha Stadium. A year later, at the HART board’s Jan. 24 meeting, rail and HECO officials presented the deal for formal approval.

They ran into a snag, however.

With the board’s recent expansion to 14 members, eight of its nine voting members must now vote affirmatively for a measure to pass. Only eight voting members attended the January meeting and one of them, John Henry Felix, voted against the agreement because he didn’t believe the city had negotiated a good deal with HECO.

His “no” vote stalled the agreement. It also elicited noticeable surprise among his board colleagues, with one member uttering “oh, good Lord” and board Chairman Damien Kim swiftly moving the discussion to a closed session.

HART Board member John Henry Felix at board meeting.
HART Board member John Henry Felix at a 2017 meeting. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Once they emerged from that session, other board members besides Felix questioned whether the city was getting the best deal it could with HECO. The utility will likely use the new trucks to service other power lines, not just those next to the guideway.

“Since HART bought those vehicles, there should be some benefit back to the city,” board member Wes Frysztacki said.

Kathy Sokugawa, a non-voting HART board member who leads the city’s Planning and Permitting Department, wondered during the meeting if HECO might get more benefits from the trucks that HART doesn’t know about.

HECO Project Management Division Director Kathy Yonamine appeared surprised by the sentiments.  The only reason HECO needed those trucks was because of rail and the clearance issues that its elevated guideway created, she repeatedly reminded the board in January.

The number of trucks was based on the length of the rail line, and HECO expects it would need to deploy several trucks at a time to the same site to service different utility poles.

“We already have issues with what was built” on the west side, Yonamine said. “We’re in a situation where for us it’s difficult for us to do our maintenance at this point.”

On Feb. 22, Felix was absent but another voting member, Glenn Nohara, attended. With Nohara’s vote and Felix’s absence, the board unanimously approved the HECO deal. Rail leaders hope that they can change the quorum issues that nearly scuttled the deal with a city charter amendment on the ballot later this year.

Rail’s construction officials, meanwhile, have stressed that  the HECO trucks will only be a one-time purchase for the rail agency under the deal. They’ll have a useful service life of about 15 years and then it’s up to HECO to replace them, according to Frank Kosich, HART’s design and construction director.

City leaders have said they envision the rail line operating for about a century.

“The priority was finding a practical, right-now solution to the clearance issue,” HECO spokesman Jim Kelly said of agreeing to HART’s one-time purchase in an email Thursday. “In 2033 we’ll see where things are and figure it out.”

It’s also up to HART to cover the trucks’ land and storage costs. In February, Kosich said that rail officials are working with the University of Hawaii to acquire land for storage and they “don’t expect there to be costs associated with that.” They do, however, expect the storage construction to cost about $800,000.

Officials expect it’ll take about a year for the new HECO trucks to arrive.

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