WASHINGTON — Hawaii Gov. David Ige has a meeting set up with U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao this week, but there’s one thing the two agreed not to discuss — Honolulu’s $9.2 billion rail project.
That might seem like an odd omission considering the Federal Transit Administration, which is under Chao’s purview, has promised the city $1.55 billion to help build the 20-mile rail line from East Kapolei to Ala Moana.
But a recent U.S. Justice Department investigation has complicated matters, Ige said during a brief Sunday interview with Civil Beat.
“Because of the federal investigation she said she’s not at liberty to discuss transit so we won’t be discussing transit on this trip,” Ige said.
“We are meeting on a number of other issues. As you know highways, airports and harbors are a big part of what we receive federal funding for in Hawaii.”
Ige is in Washington to participate in the National Governors Association annual winter meeting. On Sunday, he was on a panel talking about the challenges he faced in 2018 as the state responded to major flooding, hurricanes and a volcanic eruption.
But he told Civil Beat that he’s also been using the opportunity to meet with officials in the Trump administration to discuss topics important to the islands.
He said he’d already met with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to discuss a pre-clearance program that allows Japanese visitors flying out of airports in Narita and Kansai to go through customs before boarding their planes to Hawaii.
Ige also planned to discuss the state’s interest in purchasing the Federal Detention Center in Honolulu to help ease overcrowding within its own jails, which are in a state of disrepair.
“We will be talking about whether that would be an option and an opportunity,” Ige said.
As for rail, Ige said he hasn’t heard anything yet that would put the multibillion project into further peril, at least in regards to federal funding.
The city is still waiting for the FTA to release $744 million in grant funding for the project, money that officials say is necessary to complete the rail line to Ala Moana Center.
Ige said he fully expects the Honolulu rail project to receive that money. He also doesn’t see Hawaii’s participation in a lawsuit challenging President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration on the border as a threat to the project.
One day after the lawsuit was filed, the Trump administration announced it was cancelling nearly $1 billion in funding for California High-Speed Rail Authority.
The U.S. Transportation Department also said it was actively exploring ways to get California to pay back $2.5 billion in grants that have already been spent.
California’s governor Gavin Newsom, said in a statement after the DOT announcement that the maneuver was “clear political retribution by President Trump.”
Ige said he doesn’t see a battle over border wall funding playing out the same way in Hawaii, in large part because the city isn’t backing away from its commitment to build the full rail line.
In California, Newsom had said he was scaling back the project in his state due to cost.
“The situations are not similar,” Ige said. “We continue to implement the project, we have an agreement to fund it and we have a financial plan. In California, they’re saying they’re not going to finish the project. It’s entirely different.”
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