WASHINGTON — The message from the nation’s capital is becoming increasingly clear when it comes to Honolulu’s $12.4 billion rail project, which is now nearly 150% more expensive than originally promised and at least a decade behind schedule.

Don’t come begging for a bailout.

The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package signed into law last month by President Joe Biden included $70 million to help make up for lost tax revenue for the project due to the pandemic.

But Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, admits those funds were secured more through the art of legislative linguistics than as a part of some grand bargain to fix a multibillion-dollar deficit.

Aloha Stadium rail station with Holo readers and entrance to the station.
Honolulu’s rail system was supposed to be up and running by January 2020. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“The expectation should be that as long as local agencies can provide a path forward for completing the rail, that all of the federal funding previously committed will be made available, but not a penny more,” Schatz said.

The time for “magical thinking” is over, he said. Billions of dollars will not “fall out of the sky from Washington.”

Such strong words from Hawaii’s senior senator have done little to deter city officials from asking for more money, especially after Biden announced his $2 trillion infrastructure proposal earlier this month.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi sent a letter to Schatz and the other three members of Hawaii’s federal delegation Tuesday asking them to lobby for an additional $800 million for rail to help build the final four miles from Middle Street to Ala Moana Center.

City Council Chairman Tommy Waters and Lori Kahikina, who is the interim executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, also signed the letter.

“There’s obviously a very high standard for quality and delivery when it comes to the outlay of federal dollars.” — Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg

Blangiardi did not agree to be interviewed by Civil Beat, but HART spokesman Joey Manahan said the city had to ask — even if approval is a long shot.

“We understand the perceptions of the project right now, and we understand there are challenges with the ask,” Manahan said.

“But we also want to show our stakeholders here, especially the state Legislature and the City Council who are also paying for the project, that we are making this effort and that we are exhausting all possibilities and funding opportunities. We’re leaving no stone unturned.”

He added that even if the delegation balks at the request for the full $800 million, any sized appropriation “gives us a lot of hope.”

Senator Brian Schatz takes questions during his town hall meeting held at Washington Middle School.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz says city officials shouldn’t expect the federal government to make up a multibillion dollar shortfall for rail. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

When the public was first pitched on the current iteration of the project, officials pegged the cost at $5.2 billion and in 2012 entered into a grant agreement with the Federal Transit Administration, which promised to pick up $1.55 billion of the total.

At the time, officials said the trains would be running from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center by January 2020. They missed the mark by at least a decade.

The project is now estimated to cost nearly two and half times the 2012 projection, and the system won’t be ready for passengers until at least 2031.

The problems have been myriad, with one of the most recent snafus involving a mistake in which the wheels installed on the train cars were too narrow for portions of the track.

The slip-ups, delays and cost overruns have added up over the years to the point where the FTA has refused to give Honolulu $744 million in grant funding until the city outlines a reasonable plan for how to proceed.

The U.S. Justice Department, meanwhile, has launched its own criminal investigation into the project.

Kahikina, who took the helm of HART after the previous executive director was forced out, has begun the task of trying to restore trust and revamp rail’s image in the community.

One of her first moves was to purge nearly half the HART staff that had been working on the project, a move even she admitted was “alarming” but necessary to start filling a $4 billion budget gap.

Civil Beat asked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the state of Honolulu’s rail project Monday during a press briefing on Biden’s infrastructure proposal.

Buttigieg conveyed the administration’s desire to upgrade and expand the nation’s passenger rail system but acknowledged the difficulties certain projects, such as Honolulu’s, might face when it comes to actually securing federal money.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said that Honolulu’s rail project, like others receiving federal funds, will have to “meet a very high standard for quality and delivery” to get more federal money. 

“There’s obviously a very high standard for quality and delivery when it comes to the outlay of federal dollars,” Buttigieg said. “So any grant program that the department is administering is going to look for a really good plan and then really good execution and delivery throughout.”

He added that the administration will also weigh positively other projects that address issues such as climate change, racial inequity and affordable housing.

“What’s attractive about transit or a rail project is its potential to create more options for individuals and while doing so reduce congestion, reduce pollution and create a more environmentally sustainable and, often, equitable way to get around,” Buttigieg said.

The question now is whether Congress will even be able to pass Biden’s proposal as Democrats hold slim majorities in both the House and Senate, where the split is 50-50.

Republicans already have begun to line up in opposition to the package, arguing that it’s too expensive and that they don’t want an increase in corporate taxes that were rolled back when President Donald Trump was in office to pay for it.

Schatz already has had preliminary discussions with Buttigieg about rail and has talked to him about his own anxieties and worrying that the project will become a “stranded asset” should it not be completed all the way to Ala Moana.

“He acknowledged that’s a real risk,” Schatz said.

Schatz said he wants to temper Honolulu’s expectations about Biden’s infrastructure proposal, which includes $85 billion specifically for public transit.

“I’m going to try as hard as I can to make sure this project gets completed, but the first step toward success is to diminish the credibility gap and the trust gap we have with the federal government and with the public,” Schatz said. “That starts with telling the truth and not just asking people if they’ve got a spare billion.”

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