Rail’s federal partners in Washington aren’t confident “at all” that the trains will be ready to run in October for interim service and they want local rail officials to “step back” from that promise, according to the city’s top leadership.

The Federal Transit Administration is “extremely concerned that we may not be able to meet some of the goals that we’ve set” to open, Honolulu City Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson told rail board members Thursday.

He was joined by Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Councilman Joey Manahan, and the trio of city leaders urged the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation to reconsider its bold, public promise to have the system ready to ride this year. 

When they met with the FTA in Washington last week, the federal agency repeatedly asked them to “please cease overpromising and underdelivering,” Caldwell told the HART board. Local residents are eager to use even part of the transit line, but “If we don’t deliver on the promises made, what remaining trust we have is going to evaporate.”

HART Caldwell Anderson Manahan
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, left, joined by council members Ikaika Anderson and Joey Manahan, tells the HART board that the FTA is extremely concerned about the project’s progress. Marcel Honore/Civil Beat/2020

Instead of aggressively working toward the interim opening, FTA believes that HART should be focusing the bulk of its efforts right now on locking in the long-anticipated public-private partnership to build the rail line’s last four miles and eight stations through town, Caldwell said.

The FTA is still worried about the decision to move to a so-called “P3 model” midway through construction, and ahead of the most difficult and challenging stretch to build through the urban core, he added. The deadline to submit bids for that work has been pushed back at least three times — now slated for April.

On Friday, FTA officials confirmed that they raised during the meeting that HART had not met its own deadline in awarding the P3 as specified in its recovery plan, and that “substantial work” remains before any interim opening — including safety approvals.

Robbins said he would confer with the HART board, FTA officials and the city about whether they should make adjustments, but he believed that they should “keep our foot on the pedal and get the project done — in a responsible matter, totally not compromising safety.”

Residents have been waiting for years for the controversial project to come online, and if the city’s able to get the system running on the west side then the experience will be a valuable boost to completing the more challenging eastern half, he added.

Still, Caldwell noted that the project has already burned up all but about three months or so of its schedule contingency, with six years of construction still estimated to go.

He called that worrisome.

‘A Warning Shot Across Our Bow’

Caldwell further noted that it would take time to get the proper city, state and federal safety certifications for the rail line between east Kapolei and Aloha Stadium before it would be ready to run. “We don’t want to rush, cut corners” in ways that could endanger the public, he said.

After Caldwell, Anderson and Manahan left, HART officials briefed the board on their detailed plan to finish safety certification, system testing and pre-revenue operations. 

As part of that plan, Hitachi Rail Honolulu has to be able to perform a trial run where the system operates 30 days straight, virtually without stop. They’ll have 90 days to do this — if there’s any interruption in the trial run, they’ll have to start over, Robbins said.

Last week, Caldwell told Civil Beat that there was “no real news” coming out of the city leaders’ meeting with the FTA. “It was an update from them and us on how things are going. It was informative and helpful,” he said.

On Thursday, however, Manahan told the HART board that the FTA had “fired a warning shot across our bow” during the Washington meeting.

He added that with the agency’s concerns it didn’t sound like the feds would start releasing the rail project’s remaining $744 million in federal funding any time soon. The FTA has stated it would turn that spigot back on provided the last major construction bids appear sound.

Robbins said there appears to be confusion over HART’s October goal, which is to have the system “ready to ride,” and the actual opening of passenger service goal, which Caldwell’s own Transportation Services director has tentatively set for Dec. 20.

That confusion was most recently evident earlier this week in a Hawaii News Now Sunrise segment that featured the October target date.

Hoyt Zia
HART board member Hoyt Zia on issues with interim opening: “This has been very confusing, and it’s been very upsetting.” Marcel Honore/Civil Beat/2020

HART’s most recent meeting with Hill International, the firm contracted to oversee rail for the FTA, predated the city leaders’ meeting in Washington, Robbins said. At the Hill meeting, they discussed the October goal “and I felt we had a good understanding of what I was trying to accomplish,” Robbins said.

On Thursday, however, HART board member Hoyt Zia said that he thought he had understood what the October date meant but “now I realize, I had no idea what you were talking about.”

He added that he’s still not quite sure.

“This has been very confusing, and it’s been very upsetting,” Zia said.

Another board member, Glenn Nohara, did want the agency to consider backing off the interim start date. “There’s too many parts,” he said.

Robbins, however, asserted that it’s important to set aggressive goals, and that he didn’t go too far in proclaiming they’d have the half of a transit line that’s already endured its share of problems ready for service by October.

“I understand the history of the project, and why people would say ‘overpromise-underdeliver.’ I understand that,” Robbins said. “But I guess it’s my private-sector experience … that if you don’t set a goal, and you don’t motivate people towards that goal, then we’re going to be in a situation of potentially slipping — and that has been the history of the project as well. So, that’s my motivation.”

Read Caldwell’s summary of the FTA concerns here:

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