A new city estimate pushes rail’s completion date to 2033 and its total price tag, including financing, to around $11 billion.

If that rough estimate holds true it means the troubled transit project’s cost will have more than doubled since 2012, when Honolulu city leaders signed their funding deal with the federal government, and that its full opening will now be delayed 13 years.

Originally, the 20-mile, 21-station system was supposed to start carrying passengers in 2020 under that Full Funding Grant Agreement with the Federal Transit Administration. But the project has encountered a constant litany of problems since then, including most recently the COVID-19 pandemic and a key utility-relocation effort that completely stalled.

Rail guideway construction at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic. September 18, 2020
Rail guideway construction at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic, September 18, 2020 Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

In recent months, local rail officials aimed to have the full line ready by fall 2026 but now seemingly no one considers that outcome likely.

The city’s latest, jarring estimates, which push rail further over budget and behind schedule, were part of a Friday correspondence to the FTA in which Mayor Kirk Caldwell pleaded that Honolulu not lose $250 million of its federal funding. The letter was also sent to Hawaii’s congressional delegation.

Those dollars are slated to lapse at the end of the year. Caldwell asked for a year’s extension. The FTA is withholding additional federal dollars until the city can demonstrate how it will get the full line as far as Ala Moana from Kapolei.

“Let us reiterate what we have said in our meetings with you over the last eight years: We are so very grateful to the FTA’s partnership … and your patience with us as we continue to surmount both the challenges of the past and those we confront today,” Caldwell’s letter read.

“We are grateful for your steady support.”

Honolulu City Councilman Joey Manahan and Toby Martyn, who chairs the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s volunteer board, also signed the letter.

Notably absent from the letter, however, was any input from HART staff or its embattled executive director, Andrew Robbins, highlighting the ongoing rift between city officials and the local rail agency.

“This plan was developed by the City, without the benefit of the technical expertise and the detailed cost information that is available at HART,” Caldwell’s letter states. “However, this plan describes what we believe is a reasonable approach to the completion of the project.”

Caldwell’s office did not immediately respond Wednesday on how it developed its new cost and schedule estimates without HART’s help.

Martyn said that he didn’t know the methodology either but that he signed the letter because securing the FTA funding remains critical. “We’ve got to do everything we can to get those lapsing funds extended,” he said Wednesday.

Robbins and HART staff, meanwhile, presented a separate report to city budget officials Tuesday that asserted the whole project could be completed in late 2027 or early 2028.

Agency spokesman Bill Brennan said that “2033 is not (a) HART number” when asked whether HART agreed with the city’s later schedule estimate.

Nonetheless, the agency’s latest budget figures do show the project’s cost rapidly rising similar to the city’s estimates.

On Friday, the HART board’s Finance Committee will review a new construction budget estimated at nearly $9.9 billion total. That’s up from the $9.1 billion estimate that the agency’s project control director presented just a month ago and said was sure to increase further.

Neither of those construction figures include the additional $1 billion or so in financing costs, however. HART’s own estimates aren’t far off from the city’s new $11 billion estimate when the financing costs are included.

Robbins continues to press for a novel public-private partnership, or P3, as the best option to get rail done. City leaders, including Caldwell, now strongly disagree. They’ve fiercely lobbied in recent weeks to cancel the ongoing P3 procurement, but Robbins has persisted.

His report Tuesday argued for awarding all of rail’s remaining major construction under a single contract and then do that work in phases as additional funding becomes available.

Caldwell and the city remain steadfast that the P3 can’t happen, even if they can’t provide the justification yet under state procurement rules. The mayor’s message to the FTA also suggests finishing rail in phases, but it proposes doing that work under separate contracts.

Both HART and the city agree that they need to get a clearer picture of rail’s latest, massive budget shortfall. It’s the beleaguered project’s third major fiscal crisis since 2014.

They’ll also have to find the money to make up the gap.

Read Caldwell’s letter to the FTA here:

Read HART’s report on P3 procurement to the city here:

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