Honolulu rail faces yet another precarious moment this week, with more soon to come.

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board, which oversees Oahu’s multibillion-dollar transit project, will decide Thursday whether to pursue a public-private partnership in order to complete rail’s final and most difficult stretch of construction.

That vote had already been scheduled, but it has now taken on greater urgency.

On Friday, the Federal Transit Administration sent HART and the city a letter giving HART 30 days to decide whether to pursue such a partnership. If it misses the deadline, the FTA could pursue “remedies” under its funding deal, which include withholding rail’s remaining $744 million in federal money.

A lot has to go right for the partnership proposal to succeed.

Under the HART board’s unusual quorum rules, at least eight of the nine voting members need to show up and vote in favor for it to pass. That’s because the board also has five nonvoting members, and the quorum requirement reflects all 14 members.

At a press conference Tuesday, Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he hoped that HART officials were checking that they had at least eight voting members attending Thursday, and that they were counting whether they had the “yes” votes.

Mayor Caldwell testifies at HART meeting held at Kapolei Hale.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell at a recent HART board meeting. On Tuesday he said “trust is evaporated” with some members of the City Council. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The HART vote is just the beginning, however, as the rail agency and the city look to comply with the FTA’s blunt ultimatums in the next two months.

The federal agency’s letter further demanded that HART update its recovery plan in the next 60 days so that it reflects the FTA’s estimated total cost for the project, which is $134 million higher than HART’s. It also gave the city 60 days to commit its first $44 million in city dollars to the project.

“It’s not simple,” Caldwell said Tuesday.

For the city to even release those dollars it must first pass Bill 42 to lift the ban on using city funds for rail construction. That would require special, expedited hearings if the City Council is to pass it by the FTA’s Nov. 21 deadline.

Bill 42 is also politically volatile. Neither Caldwell nor the council actually want to pass it, but they’re facing FTA pressure and the requirements of the state’s bailout package for rail last year.

Tensions have resurfaced between Caldwell and Council Chairman Ernie Martin. During his Tuesday press conference, Caldwell, flanked by council allies Ron Menor and Joey Manahan, accused Martin and other council members of delaying for months the appropriate legislation to keep rail moving.

In an unusual move, Caldwell then sat at his desk and signed his most recent letter to Martin, which urged him to act on Bill 42, in front of reporters and cameras.

“Trust is evaporated,” Caldwell said moments before. The mayor added that he’s writing more letters to keep a record on rail.

About an hour later, Martin responded to Caldwell’s public display of concern by saying, “There’s no reason to panic.”

“There’s ample time” to schedule special hearings and pass Bill 42 within 60 days, Martin said.

New Chair Honolulu City Council Ernie Martin.
After being called out at Caldwell’s press conference, City Council Chairman Ernie Martin said, “I think the mayor lost my number.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Instead of a press conference, Caldwell simply could have called him, Martin added.

“I think the mayor lost my number. If you can pass it on to him, he can call me any time. I can walk upstairs. I don’t want to have to burden him with having to come downstairs. It’s easier for him.”

It remains to be seen, however, whether Martin will be able to corral the council votes to pass Bill 42. Two council members, Ikaika Anderson and Kymberly Pine, have expressed interest in running for mayor in 2020.

Notably, Caldwell refused to commit to the additional $134 million for the rail project that the FTA is also demanding.

Instead, “HART needs to find where they’re going to find that money,” he said. “The taxpayer’s on the hook enough.” Since HART assured the Legislature that it wouldn’t need any more cash, the responsibility should fall to them, he said. “I say, you come up with the solution.”

Some of that money, both Caldwell and HART Executive Director Andy Robbins said, could come from stronger general excise tax collections, which are outpacing projections listed in rail’s 2017 recovery plan.

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