Honolulu rail remains in disarray as project officials and their embattled chief executive continue their dogged pursuit of a long-term public-private partnership to finish the line, even though the mayor, city leaders and most rail board members staunchly oppose the move.

Andrew Robbins, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s executive director, said Thursday that his agency would report to the city in the coming days what they’ve learned in recent meetings with bidders for the so-called “P3” deal, weeks after the city withdrew from its role in it.

“Our best foot forward is to complete the P3,” a defiant Robbins told HART board members during a briefing Thursday that was supposed to cover “alternative delivery methods” to get rail done. 

Costs to finish the project have recently surged by more than $832 million and it’s not clear yet how the city will cover those added expenditures, if at all. The costs to build rail’s last four miles and a key Pearl City transit hub will only increase if the latest procurement is canceled, Robbins said. 

Workers build a large rail guideway support near the intersection of Dillingham Boulevard and Middle street as the rail enters the city core. September 30, 2020
Rail’s elevated guideway has made it about as far as Middle Street. As costs go up and it runs out of funds, it’s not clear how it’s going to make it much farther into town. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

That effort has already endured more than a year of delays, drawing the ire of Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and members of the City Council.

Robbins’ long-shot attempt to draw the city back in comes as the HART board has indicated it intends to replace him when his contract expires at year’s end. On Thursday, the full board voted to start looking for an interim director after its Human Resources Committee weighed the matter in closed session.

Several members later criticized Robbins on Thursday for continuing to pursue the P3 after a majority of them previously indicated they wanted HART to stop. Board member Hoyt Zia told Robbins he would be considered “insubordinate” in the private sector. 

Toby Martyn, the board’s chairman, described the P3 pursuit as an “adventure.” In testimony, Roy Amemiya, Caldwell’s managing director, called the two-year endeavor a “big colossal waste of time … knowing what we know now.”

But HART officials asserted Thursday that they were closer than they’ve ever been to awarding the contract. 

Under the P3 deal, a private joint venture would finish rail’s remaining major construction and oversee operations for 30 years. Robbins acknowledged Thursday that the deal can’t be awarded unless the city participates, and that it can’t just be HART.

Whether he manages to convince the city to reverse course or the city compels HART to cancel the P3 quest, both parties agree that they’ll soon need to be on the same page in order to secure rail’s remaining $744 million in federal funding. That includes a $250 million tranche that’s slated to lapse at the end of the year.

The Federal Transit Administration has thus far declined to directly address what they’d like to see.

An Unusually Tense Debate

On Thursday, Robbins said that it was possible to award construction under the P3 in phases as the funding became available. It’s similar to a phased approach that Caldwell has endorsed. But in that scenario the city would still have to agree to the 30-year operations deal, Robbins added.

It’s still not clear what led the city’s evaluation team to withdraw from the deal as early as they could because the procurement is still technically active at HART.

City officials including Caldwell have nonetheless defended the move.

“I don’t like the slight intimation that all of the (expertise) lies in HART’s court. I can’t believe that we’re still arguing about this right now,” Acting Transportation Services Director Jon Nouchi said during his first meeting as a HART board member.

“The intent of the city is clear and we should be looking more forward,” Nouchi said. He acknowledged, however, that he wasn’t a member of the city’s P3 evaluation team and didn’t know the specifics of why it withdrew.

Other members countered that Robbins should continue to brief them on P3 in order for the board to make an informed decision. Vice Chairman Terrence Lee questioned why the board failed to form a special subcommittee to learn more details about the P3 procurement when it had the opportunity.

HART Vice Chair Terrence Lee during board meeting held at Alii Place.
HART Vice Chair Terrence Lee: Shutting down P3 discussion now would be “short-sighted and irresponsible.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It was an unusually tense and at times heated meeting for the HART board. 

Lee said that Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi had told him he’s open to the P3 idea. Shutting down P3 discussion just because Caldwell’s administration opted to withdraw was “short-sighted and irresponsible,” Lee added.

After the meeting, Blangiardi said it’s up to the Caldwell administration to decide and that he’s “standing down.”

“This conversation takes place before I go in,” Blangiardi said. “The decision-making has to happen now.”

Blangiardi said that he also spoke with FTA officials on the matter. The federal agency “wants to see harmony between the city and HART,” Blangiardi said.

He declined to specify further.

Rail’s phased construction into town could include what HART officials described Thursday as a $250 million “pre-construction” phase to do the design work while the city works to get its utility relocation work done.

HART is also looking at building the remaining elevated guideway without stations either as far as downtown or the full length to Ala Moana and then filling in the missing stations later as funding becomes available.

Robbins said the decision on whether P3 is happening should be done by Thanksgiving.

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