Should HART be dissolved?

A draft Honolulu City Council resolution proposes putting that decision before voters in the November 2020 general election.

It would have them weigh a charter amendment to divert oversight of rail’s remaining construction — including its most difficult four miles of elevated guideway and eight stations — to the city’s Department of Transportation Services instead.

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s well-documented missteps and mismanagement, the draft language states, have “resulted in the Rail Project being grossly over budget and years behind schedule.”

“There is a need to bring fiscal responsibility, management and effectiveness … to complete the Rail Project efficiently and in a cost-effective manner, and to restore public faith in the rail project,” it adds.

HART officials provided a copy of the draft resolution Saturday, saying the proposal came from Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson’s office. The council leader plans to introduce it next week, they added.

HART rail guideway car photo op Farrington Hwy Waipahu Sugar Mill train wide1. 30 may 2017
Why not run electric vehicles on Honolulu’s rail guideway, rather than rail? Here is the train along Farrington Highway near the Waipahu Sugar Mill. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Anderson, a staunch supporter of completing the 20-mile, 21-station rail project, did not respond to a call and a text seeking comment.

HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins refrained from commenting on the merits of the idea Saturday — it would be up to the rail agency’s board to consider its stance once a final resolution is introduced,

However, Robbins did express concerns about the timing of the idea and HART’s would-be demise late next year, calling it “problematic.”

Leaving HART’s future in the hands of a proposed charter amendment next year could affect the Federal Transit Administration’s long-sought approval of rail’s recovery plan, since that plan details how HART intends to manage the rest of construction, he said.

It could also affect HART’s handling of the so-called “public-private partnership” it hopes to finalize early next year to finish rail’s last leg into town, Robbins added, although that deal’s slated to be reached months before the general election.

Finally, Robbins said, the uncertainty could affect morale at the agency precisely as it hustles, amid intense public scrutiny and three federal subpoenas, to open the first half of the line for interim service by December 2020.

If HART manages to do that — which remains a big if — it would launch service on the island’s first modern, rail commuter line about one month after the vote to determine the agency’s existence.

The move could hinder filling key vacancies at the approximately 135-member agency, Robbins said.

HART is already slated to end once it’s finished the full 20-mile, 21-station line to Ala Moana Center — as long as there aren’t any extensions immediately planned. But the FTA estimates Ala Moana completion won’t happen until September 2026.

An Earlier Expiration Date

The draft language in Anderson’s resolution would move HART’s expiration date up to June 2021.

DTS initially oversaw rail construction until HART, a semi-autonomous government agency similar to the Board of Water Supply, launched in 2011. In 2016, Honolulu voters opted to move rail’s eventual operations and maintenance oversight to DTS.  The city transportation agency is already preparing for that.

Last year, voters rejected a charter amendment that would have helped HART better handle the project — it would have fixed board voting and quorum rules so that the board could more easily to address pressing issues.

The ballot language was confusing, however, and the measure failed. Some officials, including Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, questioned whether HART had done enough outreach so the public could understand.

Honolulu City Council Ikaika Anderson.
Rail officials say the draft resolution proposing to end HART came from Honolulu City Council Ikaika Anderson, who recently became the council’s chairman. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

During HART’s eight years, estimated rail costs have nearly doubled from just over $5 billion to what’s most recently projected to be more than $9 billion. The local rail agency has faced withering criticism for its handling of the project,

Anderson’s language largely makes its case for dissolution using the state and city audits performed earlier this year.

Those audits found that HART ignored repeated warnings about cost and schedule, that it had lacked internal controls to keep those in check. Further, that the agency withheld the true costs associated with the project from public view, among myriad other findings.

Robbins, who came aboard in September 2017, has often stressed that the agency has a better process for risk management and that it’s taken meaningful steps to right the ship.

One reason for forming HART was to keep the state’s largest-ever public works project as buffered as possible from political whims, while still lending public oversight. Three of the volunteer board’s voting members are appointed by the mayor, while another three are appointed by the City Council.

After the project’s 2017 $2.4 billion state bailout, the state added four non-voting members to sit in on meetings, although only one of those members — Michele Chun Brunngraber — has regularly attended meetings in recent months.

Anderson’s draft resolution states “the current structure of HART’s appointed board has not provided the anticipated level of accountability … that the public and the Council expected.”

Read the draft here:

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