Rep. Sylvia Luke, the influential chairwoman of the House’s Finance Committee and an architect of last year’s rail bailout package, made a surprise appearance at Thursday’s rail board meeting and urged project leaders to consider moving the route inland.

By running rail underground along King Street instead of on an elevated pathway above Nimitz Highway, the city could avoid the spate of severe, high-tide flooding that its own Climate Change Commission recently projected will hit Oahu’s southern shoreline by mid-century.

If sea-level rise eventually climbs to six feet, the rail project would find seven of its eight final stations along the planned route to Ala Moana Center in the flood zone, Luke testified before the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board.

“Changing the route brings different challenges,” Luke testified to the board Thursday. “However, there’s an opportunity to get the rail done right.”

Rail officials say they’ve already taken steps that will better protect transit stations from the encroaching waters.

But that one of the state’s top political leaders would, at this juncture, propose such drastic changes to rail signals just how much uncertainty the controversial transit project continues to face.

House Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke on Thursday proposed moving rail’s final stretch inland, to King Street, in order to avoid sea-level rise. She is pictured here in a 2017 photo. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Luke told the HART board that the House plans to hold hearings on sea-level rise and rail in mid-August, and that her colleagues expect the agency to provide information.

Speaking with reporters after her testimony, Luke added that the House would use subpoena power to compel HART to provide documents if necessary. Lawmakers have had difficulty getting pertinent information from rail leaders in the past, she said.

Her proposal comes as the HART board weighs whether to pursue a public-private partnership to help complete rail. Changing the route and taking the last leg underground would create more options for such partnerships, she said.

In 2013, the city concluded that tunneling a mile through downtown along Beretania Street as part of an alternative route to reach the University of Hawaii, Manoa campus would have added about $1 billion and two more years to rail’s construction.  At that point, the project was still officially on-time and on-budget.

On Thursday, Luke acknowledged that tunneling several miles along King Street would almost certainly add to rail’s costs. Project officials currently estimate that to be about $9 billion with financing.

But in the long run, tunneling under King would probably be cheaper to get to UH than connecting to that campus through Ala Moan Center, she argued.

Adversaries cross paths at the rail board

Moments after Luke testified, her longtime political adversary, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, also testified before HART.

Caldwell vented his own recent frustrations with the agency on Thursday. His administration has repeatedly asked HART to specify the risks of using private partners to help complete rail. But the agency has disregarded those questions, and its recent white paper on switching to a public-private partnership to complete the rail project did not address his concerns either, Caldwell said.

The mayor further chided HART leaders for putting a positive spin on the recent federal oversight report that concluded rail’s budget was still short by some $134 million. Earlier this month, HART Executive Director Andy Robbins said the report showed his agency’s risk-management efforts were working because their respective cost estimates were so close.

“Some folks have said that’s good news,” Caldwell said. “I get concerned when I hear that because it’s that kind of thinking that got us from $5.2 (billion) to $8.16 billion.”

Mayor Caldwell testifies at HART meeting held at Kapolei Hale.
Mayor Caldwell testifies at Thursday’s rail board meeting, held at Kapolei Hale. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The city would have to shoulder the added expense – and it would lead to an increase in property taxes, Caldwell told the board.

“It’s not good news,” he added.

But Caldwell also took at aim at Luke’s proposal. “If that was to be followed, rail would die,” Caldwell said. “It’s a red herring to kill the project altogether.”

An Aug. 2, 2015 HART report looked at the potential impacts of sea-level rise on the rail’s stations in town and close to the coast. The agency plans to require that whomever eventually builds those stations elevate their ground-level platforms to deal with those impacts, according to HART spokesman Bill Brennan.

“HART has proactively been considering impacts of climate change and sea level rise on the rail project,” Brennan said in an email.

Luke acknowledged those efforts by HART in her testimony. But she added that rail isn’t just about transit – it’s also aimed at spurring development around the rail route.

She further argued that rail might not need more local tax extensions to fund that pricier route. The $2.5 billion spending package that state lawmakers approved last year assumed a general excise tax growth rate of 3 percent. In recent months, however, that rate has been much higher, at around 8 or 9 percent, Luke said.

If the trend continues, the 2017 spending package would “potentially” reap about twice the funding for rail – an additional $2.5 billion – than was originally estimated, she said.

Luke added that it wasn’t a “back-of-the-envelope” calculation that she had just made up. Instead, Luke said, she verified that figure she with HART’s  chief financial officer, Robert Yu.

On Thursday, Yu declined to comment on whether he had verified. He did say that GET revenues came in at a 7 to 8 percent growth rate during the past fiscal year. HART’s own financial plan assumed that growth rate would be 3.9 percent.

State leaders have taken more control and oversight of the city’s rail project after having to bail it out twice amid crippling cost overruns. Luke is only the latest state official to challenge HART during its board testimony period.

In May, City Auditor Les Kondo came before the board to accuse rail leaders of interfering with his office’s review of their financially challenged transit project. HART, by recording its employees’ interviews with audit staff, said it was merely trying to protect those employees.

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