Honolulu’s top rail official kicked off 2020 proclaiming that despite its history of setbacks the transit system’s first 10 miles and nine stations will be ready for passenger service this year.

“This is the year that HART will have the system ready, ready to ride,” Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Executive Director Andrew Robbins told reporters Wednesday outside the system’s future Halaulani rail station, next to Leeward Community College.

The local rail authority is now racing to have the rail line from the fields east of Kapolei to Aloha Stadium ready by Oct. 20, Robbins said.

“We’re pumped and ready to go to make this happen,” he said, with a four-car driverless train strategically placed on the tracks behind him.

“I’m willing to stick my neck out on behalf of HART that we will have that done by October.”

HART rail guideway car photo op Farrington Hwy Waipahu Sugar Mill train. 30 may 2017
Workers test a driverless train on the elevated track above Waipahu. HART now asserts it will have the first 10 miles to Aloha Stadium ready for service by Oct. 20. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s an arguably bold marker for Robbins to lay down 10 months in advance. The complex megaproject has endured a history of setbacks, construction snafus and cost increases. Previously, rail officials and city leaders have over-promised and under-delivered in regards to project cost and schedule.

Under its original schedule, for example, Honolulu’s full 20-mile, 21-station transit line was supposed to have been completed last year at a cost of around $5.26 billion. The full line’s now slated to be completed in December 2025 at the earliest, at a cost of at least $9 billion.

Still, Robbins said Wednesday that the project is now stable, and that he’s confident HART will hit its October target.

“What gives me confidence in saying that is, you’re seeing it right here,” Robbins said, motioning to the Halaulani station site. “We have station construction essentially finished, or very close to being finished. We know what risks are ahead, and what challenges are ahead, and we’re far enough along that I have full confidence that we’re going to get there.”

There’s no room for any more west side construction delays, however. The latest available report from Hill International, which oversees rail for the Federal Transit Administration, says there’s no “float” left in the schedule leading up to interim opening, meaning it’s run out of contingency time.

“This is a megaproject … and we can’t escape that … but we’re up to that challenge,” Robbins said.

HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins during press conference at Alii Place 2nd subpoena.
HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins: “We’re up to the challenge” to finish the first 10 miles by Oct. 20. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“This is the year not to slow down but accelerate,” he added. “Any of us who have been involved in start-ups, when you have a commitment date of when you’re going to launch the system, we accelerate into that.”

Rail officials and city leaders have said for years that they’re eager to finally get passengers on board — a move they hope might tip public opinion in favor of the service and shift focus from all the project’s construction woes.

Even if HART hits the October target, it’s not clear when the city would open the line for passenger service.

Department of Transportation Services Director Wes Frysztacki said  Wednesday that his agency plans to submit a budget that would start rail operations on Dec. 20, giving the public a few days to preview the service in 2020.

“If we don’t have any money, we’re not going to be operating anything whether it be October or December,” Frysztacki said.

He declined to specify how much money they’ll be asking for to operate rail at first. The amount should come out during the council’s budget deliberations early this year, Frysztacki said.

Robbins, meanwhile, said he hoped trains could start carrying passengers during this year’s University of Hawaii Rainbow Warriors football season, which would require trains to start running this fall.

Speeding Up, Slowing Down

Even as HART accelerates toward passenger service, it’s slowing down toward its ultimate award of the project’s last major construction contract via a public-private partnership.

Robbins said Wednesday that the local rail agency has once again extended the deadline for finalists to submit their bids to build rail’s final four miles and eight stations into town, as well as a transit hub at Pearl Highlands.

The multi-billion dollar contract would also see the winning bidder operate the rail line for 30 years. It’s a joint procurement between HART and the city.

Instead of the most recent deadline — Jan. 20 — the finalists will now have until April to submit their bids. HART now expects to award that contract in May. The extra time came at the bidders’ requests, Robbins said.

Initially, HART had expected to award that contract this past September. The agency has gradually pushed back the date of award since early last year.

“Overall, we see no major impact from that,” Robbins said of the latest extension. “It will not interfere with our ability to open the full system. It increases the amount of due diligence that we can do during the procurement phase, rather than after the contract award.”

Hill International, however, has flagged the delay in its reports as a major issue to watch.

HART will hold a Feb. 8 “community day” for the public to tour the Halaulani station at Leeward Community College, Robbins said.

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