COVID-19 is taking its toll on Honolulu rail, threatening to delay even further a $9 billion transit project whose completion was already pushed back at least six years.

Specifically, the global pandemic has further slowed the award for rail’s last major construction contract, a package that’s been valued at $1.4 billion.

That so-called public-private partnership to finally get the 20-mile line to Ala Moana and operate the system for 30 years was originally supposed to be awarded in late 2019. The deadline was extended four times, and the latest date was May 15.

Then, the coronavirus hit.

“There will be a delay,” Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Executive Director Andrew Robbins told reporters in a conference call Thursday. “We were on track.” But due to COVID-19’s mass-disruption “all of the bidders are having difficulty finalizing their bids.”

“Their ability to put the pricing together involves a lot of interaction with their suppliers, with their subcontractors, and (they) just don’t have the ability to meet these schedules at this point in time,” he said.

HART Rail Guideway columns near Eliot Street and Daniel Inouye International Airport.
Rail columns run near the Honolulu airport. The COVID-19 crisis has further stalled the award for major construction work past Middle Street. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s not clear yet whether the virus will impede the city’s main goal: to deliver the 20-mile, 21-station rail system by December 2025.

“There is a threat to the date,” Robbins said.

He wouldn’t say how long HART estimates it would take to award rail’s long-sought public-private partnership at this point. Robbins plans to brief the agency’s board next Thursday.

Under rail’s current master schedule, the project has about 120 days of contingency, or “float,” before the award delay would threaten the December 2025 completion, Robbins said.

Regardless of that schedule, however, HART will now have to discuss with its bidders when they think they could realistically finish construction, he added.

The rail’s partners at the Federal Transit Administration informed HART almost exactly a year ago that they won’t release the project’s remaining $744 million in federal funding until they see the prices of the P3 bids.

On Thursday, Robbins said that HART is already discussing that matter with the FTA and “we’re working on a potential solution with them.”

Longer To Ride?

The virus has also pushed back by a month HART’s goal to have the first 10 miles to Aloha Stadium “ready to ride” — the point where it’s passed all the operational tests and received its safety certification.

Robbins had hoped to deliver the rail line’s western half to the city’s transportation department in October. Now, HART’s slated to hand that over at the end of November, Robbins said Thursday.

Multiple work crews have been held up in the state’s 14-day self-quarantine order, including those needed to erect the remaining fabric canopies on west-side stations, he said.

Honolulu Rail HART Train Car
Honolulu’s 20-mile commuter rail project is expected to cost about $9.5 billion. Anthony Quintano / Civil Beat

Meanwhile, the plant that’s assembling rail’s driverless trains in Pittsburg, California, was temporarily shut down to deal with the virus, and test engineers for those trains were also held up by the quarantine order, he added.

It’s not clear whether the city will open rail’s western half for passenger service on Dec. 20 as planned, once HART hands it over. The city “is carefully weighing all options for future operations, including strong considerations regarding schedule, budget, and workforce,” Department of Transportation Services Deputy Director Jon Nouchi said in an emailed statement Thursday.

Plowing Ahead

Despite those setbacks, the local agency says it’s trying to take advantage of the island’s eerily low traffic counts — and lull in local business — to get more of the intrusive construction work out of the way.

Utility relocation crews with the local contracting firm Nan Inc. have ramped up along the usually crowded Dillingham corridor in recent weeks.

Kalihi street has been narrowed to a single lane in either direction between Middle Street and Mokauea Boulevard. HART has dubbed that stretch “1A” in its $400 million effort to get utilities out of the way for future rail columns.

Soon, those Nan crews will creep further east, into section “1B,” Robbins said Thursday.

In January, HART officials reported they were about seven months behind schedule in that utility work, and the agency’s design and construction director said they weren’t moving fast enough. In the agency’s February report, it said crews had gained three of those months back. With fewer cars on the road, the agency hopes to make up even more time.

Dillingham Boulevard looking towards Costco near Honolulu Community College. Kapalama area.
Work crews have started heavy utility relocation work along Dillingham Boulevard amid the coronavirus lockdown. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As things stand, the utility work is slated to run through May 2022 and overlap with construction of the rail line itself.

Amid staggering job losses, Hawaii’s largest public works project has now been classified as an essential infrastructure project. It should help keep at least some employees working and spending in the local economy, Robbins said.

But the $9 billion rail project largely relies on tourism dollars to fund its construction, specifically state general excise and transient accommodation tax revenues. The sector has vanished for the time being, thanks to the coronavirus.

“We have cash to work with,” but if restrictions persist then “at some point this year … we’ll be tapping into our borrowing capacity,” Robbins said.

The rail project relies on the city to float bonds for its financing. HART would have to work with city budget officials and its federal partners to revise its financing plan if the crisis goes on too long, Robbins said.

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