Honolulu’s rail transit project is suddenly in trouble again, although the full scope of its latest costs and scheduling problems won’t be known until after Oahu voters select a new mayor.

That leaves the two candidates vying to succeed Mayor Kirk Caldwell — nonprofit director and former insurance executive Keith Amemiya and retired Hawaii News Now executive Rick Blangiardi — unable to say precisely how they would handle the crises emerging with the megaproject.

Nonetheless, in interviews this week, both candidates said they still plan to push as mayor for completion of rail’s full 20-mile, 21-station route to Ala Moana Center from Kapolei, despite all the recent snafus and, significantly, no clear path to secure additional funding.

Keith Amemiya, 2020 Honolulu Mayoral candidate.
Keith Amemiya: “The cost to not complete rail to Ala Moana Center is greater than the cost to complete it.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The mayoral race is not shaping up to be a referendum on rail, as it was when Caldwell in 2012 faced former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano, a staunch opponent of the project. Both Amemiya and Blangiardi said Monday that rail remains a key part of Honolulu’s long-term future.

The candidates did offer some subtle yet key differences in their responses on rail, however.

Amemiya said he’s troubled by how the project has gone, but he added that “the cost to not complete rail to Ala Moana Center is greater than the cost to complete it.”

“Rail is an integral part of any thriving city,” Amemiya said. “It’ll lower the cost of housing for working class families, provide them an opportunity to live closer to town, if that’s their preference, and it’ll stimulate the economy for decades to come.”

“My hesitation to pause or delay the project in any way is that it’ll cost the taxpayers even more … over the long run,” Amemiya added.

Blangiardi offered similar but slightly qualified support for rail during a separate interview.

Rick Blangiardi Job Interview Mayor Elections 2020
Rick Blangiardi: “Until I know better, we need to fulfill rail as planned, if possible.” Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

“This project is so important for the city that you can’t just walk away from it,” the former television executive said.

“I can’t get the answers I want,” he said, referring to a recent meeting with rail CEO Andrew Robbins, “but I want to fight for this project.”

“I’m not in a position to say, ‘we should stop it,’” Blangiardi said. “Until I know better, we need to fulfill rail as planned, if possible.”

Blangiardi said the rail line at least needs to get across Dillingham Boulevard to serve that bustling and heavily populated Kalihi corridor. He added that stopping at Middle Street, a move that many rail critics have advocated, is not an option.

The candidates had subtle yet key differences in their responses on whether they would commit to not raise city property taxes to help finish rail construction.

“We are not going to raise property taxes,” Blangiardi said.

Amemiya, meanwhile, said that “increasing real property taxes to fund rail is not on the table for me right now.”

Pressed further on whether raising property taxes for that purpose represented a “red line” that he wouldn’t cross, Amemiya said, “Realistically, you can’t put a red line through anything if all else fails.”

“But I don’t think we’re at that point yet,” he added.

Such a move would also require City Council approval.

City leaders have already committed $214 million from city coffers to fund rail construction as part of the project’s latest recovery plan.

On Wednesday, however, the City Council considered on first reading a bill that would end that commitment. The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation is also slated to further discuss how the rail project got to this point and the path forward during a special meeting Thursday.

Problems Mounting Fast

In just the past two weeks, the all-important effort to relocate utilities on Dillingham Boulevard has abruptly stalled. The two-year effort to land a private partner to finish construction is on life support. And the COVID-19 pandemic is draining the more than $9 billion project of hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.

Costs continue to rise. The delays are increasing.

Caldwell, who has championed rail during his eight years in office, said this week that he hopes to avoid leaving his successor with “a shipwreck.”

Rail guideway supports near the intersection of Nimitz Highway and Middle Street near the bus terminal. September 30, 2020
Construction of rail’s elevated path has made it as far as Middle Street. Snafus relocating utilities along Dillingham have helped stymie the construction past that point. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Both Amemiya and Blangiardi pointed to a federal low-interest loan program for infrastructure projects under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or TIFIA, as a potential new source for rail cash if needed.

Both candidates also said they would consider going before the Legislature to ask for a third extension of the 0.5% general excise tax surcharge for Oahu that’s providing most of rail’s funding.

“Yes, I would, in the context that we need to do anything and everything we can to figure out how to pay for this,” Blangiardi said.

Know Your Candidates

Amemiya said he’ll explore any available cost-cutting measures first, such as re-engineering the stations, before seeking a surcharge extension. He said he hoped that Congress might eventually pass an additional CARES-like stimulus package that could include millions of dollars for rail to help make up the revenue it’s lost during the pandemic.

Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board members recently speculated about that possibility too.

“Even the GET option is not on the table yet — let’s explore the other options first,” Amemiya said.

“What’s different from the first two GET requests compared to this one is the third request is the result of a global pandemic, which obviously wasn’t caused by the city,” he said.

In the first two instances, it’s “incompetence and mismanagement,” Amemiya said. However, city officials on Monday, including Caldwell, pointed to HART delays on utility relocation and contract procurement that started well before the pandemic hit.

Officials have previously said that the elevated steel-and-concrete path and utility relocation are the most expensive elements of construction by far.

Both candidates agree that they need more answers on what’s happening before they can specify what they’ll do.

“Until you know how much something costs, it’s all speculative,” Blangiardi said.

“This is such a fluid and dynamic situation. Who knows what’s going to happen in the next month, before the election?” Amemiya added. “It’s hard for me to be definitive because a lot can happen between now and Jan. 3.”

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