As the state takes more control over rail, whoever wins the Hawaii governor’s race this year could play a larger role overseeing the beleaguered Honolulu transit project than any prior occupant of Washington Place.
Since 2015, state lawmakers have bailed out rail with billions of added dollars in hopes of getting it done. Last year’s Act 1, the latest, $2.5 billion funding package, includes new strings with increased state oversight of rail spending.
The state’s top financial officials now sign off on all expenses before giving the city its millions of rail dollars each quarter. Four new state-appointed members sit on the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board to monitor the project’s progress.
Les Kondo, the state auditor, has raised red flags that the city might not be entitled to all the rail money that it thinks it is. City leaders continue to discuss with legislative leaders which expenses they must cover out of their own budget.
But the final decision could ultimately fall to Hawaii’s governor.
The three candidates polling strongest so far in the race — incumbent Gov. David Ige, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and Clayton Hee, a former state senator — voted in 2005 to support the general excise tax surcharge that got rail going.
Since then, however, the three have taken different approaches to the state’s largest-ever public works project. Here’s a breakdown:
As governor, Ige has firmly supported rail’s completion.
But he’s also shown reluctance to wade into the biggest financing challenges of what’s ultimately a city project, preferring to let the Legislature hash out those issues instead.
Perhaps the best example came in spring 2017, when negotiations to rescue the project with more cash abruptly crumbled at the end of the legislative session. That collapse came as a surprise, and it left the future of rail uncertain.
A few days later, during a press conference wrapping up the session, Ige listed several legislative accomplishments. He didn’t mention rail. When reporters brought it up, Ige said he wasn’t interested in extending the session unless lawmakers already had a funding deal in place.
When reporters pressed further, the governor replied that a special session would be a waste of time without an agreement.
He added that he was not part of any talks with legislative leaders on rail. “No, none at all,” he said.
Could the rail project afford to wait for lawmakers to try again in 2018? Such a delay would mean the city would miss its deadline to show how it planned to address rail’s budget shortfall, jeopardizing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.
“You’d have to ask the mayor,” Ige told reporters that day, referring to Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. “I don’t know.”
Some lawmakers at the time expressed their frustration that Ige wasn’t playing a more active role in how to resolve the matter.
“Where’s our governor?” Hilo’s Sen. Kai Kahele vented the day before Ige’s press conference. “There is not a sense that someone is taking charge.”
Nonetheless, the Legislature managed to schedule a special session and hash out a deal — and Ige then swiftly signed Act 1 into law. Ige also signed rail’s previous funding bailout package into law in 2015.
“I believe that this measure allows this most important project for the City and County of Honolulu to move forward in a way that will allow it to be completed,” he declared at the Sept. 5 signing ceremony held in his office.
Hanabusa, the candidate leading in the gubernatorial polls, saw her political comeback begin a few years ago with rail, although she wasn’t fully on board with the controversial transit project’s design.
“I am a supporter of the people’s will,” Hanabusa said in 2015 after Caldwell appointed her to fill a vacancy on the HART board. “I may not have agreed necessarily that steel-on-steel may have been the best thing, but that’s not relevant anymore. The people have spoken.”
As a congresswoman, Hanabusa opted not to run for re-election in 2014 and instead challenged the state’s then-vulnerable freshman senator, Brian Schatz, for his seat. She lost by 1,782 votes.
During her time on the HART board, Hanabusa had a reputation for attention to detail, raising red flags on potential issues that had not received much attention otherwise and sometimes publicly haranguing top HART officials for their project management. Board meetings lasted longer as Hanabusa oversaw lengthier conversations on agenda items.
Despite fresh scrutiny with Hanabusa joining the board, the local oversight body continued to approve change orders as before and could not reverse rail’s overall mounting costs.
Within a year of joining, Hanabusa swiftly ascended to become the HART board’s chairwoman. The project’s official cost estimate had already started to climb as the agency’s former chairman, Don Horner, resigned. Within weeks of her taking the reins, HART stunned the public with a new construction cost estimate of more than $8 billion.
As soon as she became chairwoman, the HART board began a lengthy, closed-door process that eventually led to the August 2016 resignation of the agency’s embattled executive director, Dan Grabauskas, under mutual agreement.
Exactly what the Hanabusa-led board said about Grabauskas’ job performance remains unknown. But as those private proceedings continued, Hanabusa publicly flagged a cost figure buried in a 2014 report on rail’s risks that she said showed Grabauskas and other officials knew the project could cost as much as $7.6 billion.
As Hanabusa and the board closed in on Grabauskas’ resignation, Hanabusa also mounted a campaign to reclaim the congressional seat she had left in 2014. She won handily.
In Hanabusa’s final days at HART before returning to Congress, the board hired an interim executive director, Krishniah Murthy, at a $400,000 annual base salary. Murthy led the project until his permanent replacement, Andrew Robbins, came on board last year.
Once back in her congressional seat, Hanabusa participated in talks with the Federal Transit Administration as the Legislature hashed out Act 1. Both she and her former political rival, Schatz, testified during that special session that the FTA did not need to see extra dollars for a so-called “stress test” in case the project encountered severe problems.
Her testimony clashed with Caldwell’s, the mayor who appointed her to HART two years earlier.
On her current campaign website, Hanabusa says she’ll “take an active role advocating on behalf of the taxpayers and will work closely with the Legislature and state auditor to monitor rail progress.”
When Hee kick-started his latest political comeback bid in February, the video announcing his gubernatorial campaign took aim at the beleaguered transportation project — and firmly established himself as the candidate intent on stopping rail construction.
“Government projects like the rail have been grossly mismanaged,” Hee told viewers.
As a state senator, Hee represented a North Shore area that’s considered a stronghold for rail opposition. Hee’s successor, Sen. Gil Riviere, has staunchly opposed the Legislature’s rail bailout measures in 2015 and 2017, arguing they essentially amounted to a blank check.
Further, Sean Quinlan, who represents much of the North Shore in the House, has also voted against rail bailouts despite serving as vice-chairman of that body’s Transportation Committee.
Hee’s second campaign video this year mostly hit on rail, too. To drive his views home, Hee posed with the elevated rail project’s staunchest opponents: University of Hawaii engineering professor Panos Prevedouros, retired UH law professor Randy Roth and retired businessman Cliff Slater.
The three activists had previously teamed with a former governor — Ben Cayetano — in an unsuccessful federal lawsuit to stop rail construction. In the video, Hee appears intent on taking the mantle from Cayetano to oppose the transit project.
“The best available option at this stage is to stop the rail at Middle Street because the $8.2 billion funding is already in place,” Hee said in the video. “As governor, I will use every tool I can to prevent rail from taking any more of your hard-earned money.”
That funding is in place, but stopping at Middle Street would jeopardize that budget. The Federal Transit Administration has already told city officials that doing so would breach their funding deal, meaning that the rail project would forego its remaining $744 million in federal dollars, at least.
“The financial blight in the state of Hawaii is rail,” Hee said at a candidate’s forum in April that focused on Hawaiian issues. “If you stop the bleeding, money can go to other areas, like climate change” mitigation.
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