The Honolulu City Council has tabled a proposal by its chairman that would have dissolved HART years ahead of schedule, stopping an effort to seize control of rail construction before it could gain traction.

The council’s vote to defer Resolution 19-170 was unanimous Wednesday once it became clear the proposal would fail.

It followed about 90 minutes of testimony and discussion in which members vented their frustration that despite being held accountable to Oahu’s voters they’ve had limited oversight over the island’s massive transit project and its runaway costs.

Currently, the council wants more say in the public-private partnership that HART is crafting to finish the project. That deal looks to include an operations and maintenance component that would lock in the city for the next 30 years.

The city’s leaders don’t want to be bystanders in that process.

“This is a new territory that we’re going forward with,” Councilwoman Kymberly Pine said. “Because we are going to be obligating future councils to a contract that we’ve never had before, it’s important that we have some involvement.”

Honolulu City Council  Chairman Ikaika Anderson’s proposal to dissolve HART failed to advance Wednesday. Cory Lum/CIvil Beat

Pine and other council members called Wednesday’s discussion a good start in addressing their latest rail concerns, even if the resolution that spurred their talk was tabled.

Nonetheless, Chairman Ikaika Anderson was visibly upset that his resolution died. It would have allowed voters to decide next year whether to kill HART and transfer control to the city’s Department of Transportation Services.

He had strong words for the rail agency’s CEO.

“It hasn’t gone unnoticed, the full-court press that you and your staff made to kill this resolution on first reading,” Anderson, while standing at the chairman’s podium in Kapolei Hale, told HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins.

“That will not go unnoticed, sir,” Anderson added.

To be sure, HART did get out in front of Anderson’s proposal. Robbins hastily convened a press conference in Manoa District Park on July 20 — a Saturday — cautioning against the timing. Last week, HART board members swiftly approved their own resolution opposing Anderson’s.

Honolulu City Council Kymberly Pine.
Councilwoman Kymberly Pine says she and her colleagues must stay involved as rail pursues a public-private partnership since the award will impact future councils in the years to come. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But on Wednesday, a parade of construction-industry representatives and political leaders joined HART in urging the council not to move forward. Changing governance right now would only extend the litany of problems that rail has endured under HART, they said. It would only make things worse.

Mufi Hannemann, a former mayor, testified that taking over rail construction would be a “Herculean task” — one that no Honolulu transportation director could handle.

Kurt Fevella, the state Senate’s lone Republican, cautioned that the change could invalidate the state’s 2017 rail bailout package since its language is specifically tailored to HART.

Many in the Legislature are already tired of dealing with rail’s budget shortcomings and they might not be willing to take up the matter again, Fevella added.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s managing director, Roy Amemiya, advised the council to proceed with caution.

Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi wondered whether the city would be liable for the subpoenas in the federal criminal investigation that has ensnared rail if DTS assumed control.

“We have not discussed it in great detail,” Amemiya told her. All the more reason to move carefully, he said.

Keeping An Eye On Rail’s Last Major Contract

Still, HART isn’t communicating with the council sufficiently on consequential choices that will affect the city for years to come, Anderson said.

Further, Robbins had crossed a line when he discussed the proposed resolution with Federal Transit Administration Region IX Administrator Ray Tellis without consulting the council first, Anderson added.

“Your run-of-the-mill conversation I can understand,” Anderson said. Robbins’ conversation with Tellis dealt with council policy, however.

“That’s on me,” Robbins said, adding he would try to do a better job keeping city leaders in the loop.

Going forward, the council looks to consult with state officials on just how closely it can monitor the procurement process for rail’s last major, pivotal construction contract — especially the operations component that goes with it.

The members said they plan to confer with Sarah Allen, who heads the State Procurement Office.

HART, meanwhile, lives to fight another day. The agency has presided over numerous missteps in the past, including cost increases and schedule delays that have nearly doubled the budget to just over $9 billion. Robbins, who came aboard in 2017, has repeatedly insisted they’ve taken steps to better assess risk.

The agency’s Project Oversight Committee is expected to be briefed Thursday on the latest report of the key risks facing rail.

HART aims to award the last major construction contract via a public-private partnership early next year.

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