After the release of each audit last month — two from the state and one from the city — Honolulu’s mayor issued statements welcoming and applauding the findings of each. What was missing was any acknowledgment of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s own substantial role in rail’s history.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell was all smiles as he checked out the Honolulu rail project’s first train car in 2016.
Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat
Three statements tsk-tsking about HART and not one word of contrition regarding his own performance since he was elected in 2012 on a promise to get the rail project right. But the auditors make it clear that the city — not just HART, but the folks in Honolulu Hale — should have seen the problems coming. Particularly, since they were warned of exploding costs by their partners at the Federal Transit Administration.
Indeed, the mayor’s fingerprints are all over the project’s massive shortcomings. While he may not run HART or select its executive director and CEO, the mayor does appoint three of HART’s 14 board of directors. Two others are ex-officio members of the mayor’s Cabinet, one of whom is a voting member.
Caldwell’s board appointments have been among the most high-caliber, including Colleen Hanabusa, Ember Shinn and Colbert Matsumoto. Shinn served as Caldwell’s managing director for almost two years. But the mayor’s three post-audit statements never mention his board appointments.
Caldwell is also the point man on lobbying the Hawaii Legislature to fund the rail project, which is now nearly double its original price tag and years behind schedule. And he along with the council are the contacts with the FTA in securing partial funding for rail.
In spite of his integral role, the mayor has a history of trying to sidestep blame for the project’s monumental shortcomings. This simply must stop.
After all, Caldwell and rail go a long way back. He was the city’s managing director when then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann was pushing hard to get the rail rolling and he briefly served as interim mayor when Hannemann resigned in 2010 to run for governor.
Then came the dirty political season of 2012. Former Gov. Ben Cayetano came out of retirement to run on an anti-rail platform at a time when early construction was being stymied by legal action and incomplete architectural surveys.
There appeared to be a real chance of stopping the project, especially after Cayetano outpolled two rail proponents — incumbent Peter Carlisle and Caldwell — in the summer primary. But labor unions inspired by the prospect of the biggest public works project in Hawaii’s history didn’t let that happen.
The Hawaii Carpenters Union PAC spent $3.6 million on a campaign that smeared Cayetano, but Caldwell — the prime beneficiary of the smear — argued he had nothing to do with the nastiness aimed at bringing Cayetano down because campaign finance laws prohibit independent expenditure campaigns from coordinating with the candidate.
As Caldwell took office, the estimated total construction cost for rail was $5.26 billion. Under his “Build Rail Better” watch, it has grown to more than $9 billion.
The mayor was happy to own responsibility for rail in the early construction days as the guideway began rising east of Kapolei. He is ever present when flattering photo opportunities arise such as when the rail cars arrived and were tested. But when reports surfaced of escalating expenses, delays and lack of accountability, he pointed fingers at others.
When HART board chairman Don Horner resigned in 2016 amid concerns about cost overruns, Caldwell said he was on the verge of asking for Horner’s departure anyway. And when HART CEO Dan Grabauskas was out the door a few months later, Caldwell campaigned for re-election in a race in which the mayor himself declared “rail is the issue.”
Facing harsh questions about the project’s out-of-control spending, the mayor briefly declared the route should stop at Middle Street instead of continuing on to Ala Moana until financial matters were straightened out. But he was quickly back on board even as the campaign played out, pushing for completion of the full 20-mile route to Ala Moana Center.
Caldwell has gone through other gyrations as well. He convinced the Legislature in 2015 that if it extended Oahu’s general excise tax surcharge for rail, all would be hunky-dory. Then he was back at the Capitol in 2017, hat in hand, eventually gaining a much bigger rail bailout but far less than he wanted. Legislators, feeling burned, wouldn’t budge.
The mayor congratulated himself for appointing Hanabusa to the HART board to clean up the mess, then blamed her for rail’s woes when she ran for governor last year. Honolulu Star-Advertiser columnist David Shapiro had it right when he wrote at the time, “Rail hangs around Caldwell’s neck like a stinking dead papio.”
And now Caldwell is complicit in a City Council decision to basically break a pledge made back when Hannemann was mayor to not use city tax revenue, including property taxes, to build rail. We realize he has little choice, as the Legislature did not give him the money he wanted. But it still stinks and many Honolulu taxpayers and property owners, like state legislators, feel burned.
HART leadership has changed over the years. Same goes for the Honolulu City Council, which awaits a special election April 13 to vote for either a Caldwell ally or a Caldwell foe. A contract is still to be awarded for the rail system’s final segment. And it is still not clear how we will pay for operations and maintenance.
The one constant in all this is Caldwell, who remains to this day the public face of rail. Two more audits from the state are expected in the coming weeks, and their findings and conclusions are not expected to reflect well on the project and all those involved.
When the next audits are released, the mayor needs to take responsibility rather than ignore his own culpability. He should apologize to his constituents and commit to finding a way out of this quagmire.
Caldwell’s second and final term as mayor expires right around the time that officials say the first 10 miles of the rail line — from Kapolei to Aloha Stadium — open for business. His political future and the city’s fiscal viability are riding on that actually happening.
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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Jim Simon, Richard Wiens, Chad Blair and Jessica Terrell. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at email@example.com.