It has become more than apparent that Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit should be dissolved.

In 2010 we were told that a separate “semi-autonomous” agency would “timely and efficiently manage the planning, construction … and expansion of the City’s [rail] system, with sound principles and objectives for project delivery.”

The Authority would also “be required to properly maintain the agency’s financial status” and “work hand-in-hand with the City Council and include the public in crucial issues such as . . . adopting a budget, further enhancing transparency and accountability.”

That all sounds great, but oversight has become fractured and ineffective.

Oh, I know, we have the federal government, the state government and the Honolulu City Council as well as the board of directors that are each covering certain things, but important pieces are missing.

The federal government is doing a pretty good job on its end, so much so that we may not see the remaining $744 million of the federal grant.

HART Rail guideway construction near the airport.
The Honolulu rail guideway construction near the airport in January. Is it time to do away with HART? Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

(Despite questions regarding Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s motivations for his abrupt halt of major improvements at the Blaisdell Center, that was a signal that city taxpayers are probably in for a rough ride.)

The state also appears to be doing a pretty good job of reviewing certain invoices and requiring additional documentation prior to payment approvals.

Poor Partners

The main piece that is falling apart, however, is the connection between HART and the council. HART’s draft strategic plan devotes an entire section to relationships, but does not even list council members or the Honolulu City Council as one of its partners.

There is almost an attitude of disdain between HART’s executive director, Andrew Robbins, and the council, as evidenced by a recent line of questioning between council members and Robbins.

The discussion revolved around the public-private partnership for the last major rail contract and the city’s responsibility for operations and maintenance. Ikaika Anderson, council chair, asked Robbins about “affordability rates” that HART had given to bidders.

Robbins acknowledged the mayor was apprised of those rates but would not provide that same information to council members, even in the confines of an executive session.

How can council members make good decisions if they aren’t even provided with this information?

The strategic plan also does not include any kind of statement about fiscal responsibility or the need (or even desire) to use taxpayer funds wisely and/or efficiently.

Significant deficiencies in internal controls continue to be cited in HART’s audits, most recently in its financial audit for June 30, 2019.

Auditors noted some reconciliations had not been done in a timely manner and that HART is using a cash basis for accounting purposes during the year with adjustments to the accrual basis made only at the end of the year. That doesn’t sound like good fiscal policy to me.

The board has had difficulties meeting quorum requirements and is therefore hindered when it comes to making important decisions. For example, in October four agenda items had to be deferred because quorum was not met, and no meeting was held in December also due to quorum issues.

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns regarding the current set up is the inclusion of 30 years of O&M costs in the P3 for the City Center Guideway and Stations contract.

Significant deficiencies in internal controls continue to be cited in HART’s audits.

HART is in control of that bidding process, and its motivation is to bring rail construction in on budget, potentially at the cost of higher O&M down the line.

(It should be noted the reason the bid request was put out at 30 years is that Ansaldo Honolulu JV, now known as Hitachi, already has a 10-year contract with a three-year, three-month option to extend.)

Granted, a charter amendment now may not be able to address the issue with this particular contract, but what happens down the line, when requests for extensions are made?

How will taxpayers be able to hold decision makers accountable if each party responsible for part of the oversight has different objectives?

In order to dissolve HART, a majority of voters would have to support a charter amendment, and in order for a question to be placed on the ballot, a resolution would need to be supported by at least six council members.

I urge everyone who is concerned with oversight of rail and the continued problems with HART to contact their council member and ask him or her to support a charter amendment to dissolve HART.

Let’s not wait until we find out city taxpayers are on the hook for hundreds of millions more than already planned.

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