When word of the Honolulu rail project’s federal grand jury subpoenas surfaced, the project’s executive director estimated his agency’s recovery plan would still be approved by April, allowing federal dollars to start flowing again.
Almost halfway through April, however, there’s still no such approval from the Federal Transit Administration. There’s also none expected through the end of the month.
Now, Robbins and HART officials say they expect rail’s federal partners to provide a “provisional” approval by the end of May or early June instead. This would likely be some sort of nod from the FTA that it intends to fully approve the plan later, Robbins said Tuesday.
At stake is $744 million in federal funding.
This latest reset in the timeline for federal approvals HART has sought since late 2017 comes amid growing skepticism by project critics that the city and rail agency, now ensnared in a federal criminal investigation, will ever see the remaining federal money.
But Robbins and other HART officials said the project’s recovery plan approvals are still on track. The federal shutdown this past winter delayed the FTA from reviewing HART’s latest version of the recovery plan and discussing it, Robbins said.
In-person discussions with the FTA that Robbins previously thought would occur in March are now scheduled for the end of this month, when the federal agency’s new Region IX director, Ray Tellis, travels to Honolulu.
“I think we’ll get the thumbs-up on the recovery plan,” Robbins said Tuesday. “We intend to, based on whatever factors are discussed at the meeting.”
In a statement Wednesday, FTA officials did not directly address whether the agency looks to provide provisional approval as described by Robbins. They did, however, allude to what they see as lingering issues to be resolved.
The FTA continues to work with the city and HART “to address concerns related to the Honolulu Rail Project, including the progress of the City Center procurement and commitment of City funding for the project,” the statement read.
“City Center procurement” refers to HART’s efforts to switch to a public-private partnership in order to finish the remaining $1.4 billion worth of construction bids that haven’t been awarded yet.
Numerous questions from potential partners on how the deal would work have helped push that award back four months, although Robbins has asserted there’s enough padding in the schedule to open the full line by the end of 2025. The new consultant watching rail for the FTA, Philadelphia-based Hill International, listed the delay as one of rail’s “major issues” in its most recent report.
The FTA’s Wednesday statement further read that it “will approve the Recovery Plan after HART makes the required updates to its financial plan.” The most recent version that HART submitted, in November, included cost and revenue updates that the agency hoped would address the FTA’s concerns.
Without approval of the plan, the project won’t receive its remaining $744 million in federal dollars under its funding deal with the FTA.
Technically, the rail project is already in breach of that deal, with the opening date pushed back at least six years and the cost having nearly doubled. The recovery plan aims to show the FTA how HART and the city might still deliver the 20-mile, 21-station line and convince the federal agency to keep the money flowing.
Payments on the FTA’s total $1.55 billion commitment to Honolulu rail abruptly stopped in 2015, and the project has made due with its state tax revenues and bonding ever since. HART’s most recent version of the recovery plan calls for federal dollars to resume “around” July. On Tuesday, however, Robbins said with the city’s latest bonding on behalf of the city, rail has enough cash flow to get through 2019.
Getting the plan approved is “more about the future, and certainty,” Robbins said Tuesday.
“Federal funding is a fundamental component of our funding plan,” he said. “We want to definitely get the recovery plan approved and we want to get the federal money flowing again.”
HART is now on its fourth version of that recovery plan, dating back to 2016.
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