The Honolulu rail project reached a key milestone this week: The city finally received much-anticipated proposals from private industry to finish the project’s major remaining construction work and then run the system for its first 30 years.

Those public-private partnership proposals arrived at the offices of the city and Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation on Thursday, rail officials said, after nearly a year of delays.

But who those firms are — and whether their price fits within the rail project’s more than $9 billion budget — won’t be known until the P3 contract is awarded. That’s not expected to happen for another month or so, at the earliest.

HART rail guideway columns leaving Airport industrial area as construction moves towards Middle Street. July10, 2020

More of rail’s guideway is erected near Middle Street earlier this month. HART and the city finally received the P3 bids Thursday as they look to keep building into town.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Furthermore, HART officials aren’t disclosing how many proposals they received. HART last year selected as many as three finalists.  Agency spokesman Bill Brennan did not respond to follow-up questions Thursday on how many proposals ultimately came in.

Language in the state’s procurement law doesn’t explicitly preclude the agency from providing that information. Nonetheless, any agency following that process is expected to withhold the number of bids or proposals until the award, said Sarah Allen, administrator of the state’s procurement office and its chief procurement officer.

Rail and transportation officials originally planned to award the P3 contract Sept. 30, 2019. However, the P3 model represents a significant change midway through the project and the contract’s procurement kept getting pushed back. Most recently, it was delayed after the COVID-19 pandemic hit — HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins said that the bidders asked for more time.

The contract would complete rail’s last four miles and eight stations into town, as well as a transit hub and parking garage at Pearl Highlands in Central Oahu. Rail officials have previously put the cost of that work at around $1.4 billion.

Robbins said that an “affordability cap” was built into the procurement to let the firms know how much the city could afford to spend.

In the past year, HART’s own risk managers have repeatedly flagged the affordability cap — and the chance that the P3 proposals might exceed it — as a top risk to the rail project. A panel of unidentified officials will now evaluate the proposals to make the award.

HART and the city could also ask for a “best and final offer” from the firms — a step that would push the award sometime past August.

The nearly yearlong delay in the P3 procurement will leave Oahu’s voters without a clear idea of whether the strategy worked when they go to the polls on Aug. 8 for the Democratic primary where they’ll choose candidates for mayor and Honolulu City Council.

The timing has left the island’s top mayoral candidates with only general sentiments on how they would approach the project.

Civil Beat reporter Kevin Dayton contributed to this report.

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