Rail’s remaining utility relocation work through Honolulu’s urban core is now seven months behind schedule, according to official estimates.

If it doesn’t speed up, the lag could have a ripple effect that impacts future rail line construction through Kalihi, downtown and Kakaako — potentially causing more delays and driving costs even higher, project officials worry.

Some 7% of the complex effort to get the maze of sewer, telephone and voltage lines buried underground and hanging overhead out of rail’s path is done. Project leaders had expected 30% to be finished by now.

“We’re not moving quick enough,” Frank Kosich, rail’s director for engineering and construction, told Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board members Thursday at their oversight committee hearing.

One of the key factors that’s slowing progress, Kosich and other project leaders said, is that crews remain limited mostly to the night shift along the busy, crowded Dillingham Boulevard and surrounding areas.

Dillingham Boulevard looking towards Costco near Honolulu Community College. Kapalama area.
Dillingham Boulevard remains a daunting challenge for rail officials as they look to relocate utilities ahead of heavy construction there. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

HART is eager to get that utility work, which is valued at up to $400 million, going around the clock in two, 10-hour shifts.

The sooner that crews with the local firm Nan Inc. can start working during the day, the more likely the agency says it is to have the Dillingham corridor between Middle and Mokauea streets — a stretch that HART has dubbed “1A” — ready by its target date of October 2021 for major rail construction.

However, reducing Dillingham to just two lanes is not something that the city’s elected and transportation leaders take lightly. Wes Frysztacki, the city’s transportation services director, said Thursday it will likely have the most severe traffic impacts in Honolulu’s history.

Thus, city transportation officials are moving carefully before approving their latest so-called “transportation management plan” to help reduce the traffic problems as best they can as rail work plows along Dillingham.

HART can’t secure the permits it needs to work during the day until that plan is done, project officials say.

The local agency had a consultant prepare an earlier version of that plan with fewer traffic impacts back in 2014, before the transit project slipped years off its original schedule.

Now, it’s hired the Walnut Creek, Calif.-based consultant Fehr & Peers to help develop a new, more intense version, in which Dillingham would be trimmed to two lanes for a little over two years while heavy construction dominates the area.

“Yes, it’s been frustrating — but it’s also essential we do this right,” HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins told board members Thursday.

Secret Bidders Watching Closely

As many as three unidentified groups are vying for the rail project’s last major construction contract, as well as a deal to operate the system during its first 30 years, under a public-private partnership with HART and the city.

They’re following the utility relocation progress closely and meeting with HART officials as they continue to assemble their bid prices, Robbins said.

HART has also given the bidders target dates on when they can expect to have access to certain stretches of the rail path, and they’re using that to help calculate their bid prices, project officials said.

Frysztacki said that the agency he leads, the Department of Transportation Services, wants to ensure that rail’s latest traffic management plan will follow requirements laid out in the project’s environmental impact statement.

Specifically, DTS wants to make sure the Honolulu Police Department has enough special-duty personnel to help direct traffic and keep the area safe. It also wants to maintain the existing bus service through Kalihi.

HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins at HART Board Meeting.
HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins on rail’s remaining utility relocation: “It’s been frustrating, but it’s also essential that we do this right.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I don’t want to discourage (transit users) while we’re building them something that’s going to serve them extraordinarily well,” Frysztacki said.

Further, DTS wants to make sure that the public and residents have access to the area’s businesses, schools, churches and other facilities before it signs off on the plan, he added.

Traffic plans aren’t the only outstanding issues for the utility relocations — Kosich and other officials also flagged 15 parcels that have yet to be acquired. Kosich also noted incomplete design work for the relocations.

“I need them to do better,” he said of the global firm AECOM, which is handling rail’s utility relocation designs. “Doesn’t mean they’re performing poorly — we’ve changed some things and given some guidance late but, you know, we need them to step up a little bit more.”

Robbins said HART is considering bringing in another contractor in addition to Nan Inc. to help do the $400 million relocation work in order to expedite things.

HART also spent much of its planning efforts last year on how to avoid relocating a 42-inch water line that runs along Dillingham. The water main serves Honolulu’s urban core and one of the state’s main economic drivers in Waikiki, Robbins said.

The good news is they’ll now avoid relocating that line — but the time spent figuring that out helped lead to the schedule crunch that HART now faces, according to Robbins. In September, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell pressed rail agency board members to “make sure you’re on HART’s ass” to keep the relocation work moving in a timely fashion.

Caldwell and other city leaders, including Kalihi-area Councilman Joey Manahan, were alarmed at how little planning had been done to that point for the major disruption awaiting the community.

“This is so critical” with major rail construction expected to start along parts of Dillingham in 2021, HART board member Glenn Nohara said Thursday. “We need everybody’s efforts … in pulling this off.”

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