City transportation officials say they’re weighing whether to postpone the much-anticipated interim opening of Honolulu rail’s first 10-miles to Aloha Stadium for another year or so.

“We’ll be discussing with the next administration,” Acting Department of Transportation Services Director Jon Nouchi told the City Council’s Budget Committee on Tuesday, referring to Mayor-elect Rick Blangiardi. 

“It’s something that we’ve heavily considered.” 

HART rail guideway car photo op Farrington Hwy Waipahu Sugar Mill1. 30 may 2017
City transportation officials are weighing whether to postpone the much-anticipated interim opening of Honolulu rail’s first 10-miles to Aloha Stadium for another year or so. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The possibility came as the city faces a COVID-19 related budget shortfall of around $400 million, including a shortfall of $40 million to $50 million for transit service, Nouchi said Tuesday. Postponing rail’s interim opening could help “save a bunch of money” and preserve existing service on TheBus and Handi-Van.

It also followed the disclosure last week by local rail officials that the intensive 90-day trial run required for the driverless trains before they can carry passengers is facing at least an additional four-month delay.

Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation officials said Thursday that Hitachi Rail, which is building those trains and the transit line’s communications systems, informed them of the setbacks the previous week, and that HART didn’t consider the company to be as “forthcoming” as it should have been on the matter.

The testing delays were the latest in a spate of big setbacks that have hampered the 20-mile, 21-station project.

HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins has described rail’s opening, even in limited capacity, as a critical milestone to reach. The ability of riders to use the service could help change at least some of the negative public perception of the beleaguered transit project and its ballooning costs, he has said. 

Before the pandemic hit, Robbins declared in January that “this is the year” for rail service to finally arrive. His agency aimed to deliver rail’s western half to the city with the proper safety certifications and “ready to ride” in October. City transportation officials will oversee rail’s operations, as they do with TheBus and Handi-Van, and it’s up to them to decide when to start that service.

In October, Robbins told the City Council that he expected to have rail ready in March

Now, amid the testing issues with Hitachi, HART says the earliest it could deliver those first 10 miles to Aloha Stadium will be in July.

Hitachi has been having trouble securing visas during the pandemic for its personnel coming from Italy, according to HART Senior Project Officer Robert Good. That’s led to “manpower” challenges in which some Hitachi workers in Italy have been trying to manage on-site issues on Oahu, Good told the HART board Thursday. 

Hitachi doesn’t have the licensing it needs to install all of the closed-circuit cameras that will run along the full 10 miles, Good said. That’s helped push the trial run to April 17, he added, and thus the 90-day trial run would persist through July.

DTS officials say they’re looking to start rail sometime between next July and December. That would push the launch into the next fiscal year — which is what Nouchi meant, according to an agency spokesman — but still before the end of 2021.

“We’re clearly not ready,” outgoing Councilwoman Kym Pine said Tuesday in response to Nouchi’s testimony. “We should focus on survival and current services.”

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