Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi said Friday that his administration is weighing whether to stop building the city’s elevated rail system short of Ala Moana Center, casting more uncertainty on the future of the megaproject as it faces a new $3.6 billion dollar budget hole.
The comments indicated his administration is seriously considering presenting a plan this summer to the Federal Transit Administration that doesn’t reach Ala Moana, given the project’s myriad problems combined with slumping tax revenues, a sluggish economy and record unemployment across the state.
“When I go to the FTA, it’s going to be with them on where we think we can get and how far we can build it. Whether or not Ala Moana is in that plan I don’t know,” Blangiardi told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” online interview show. “This notion of how far we can take the rail, or building to Ala Moana, is almost out of context with the reality that we’re in.”
“If the numbers don’t make sense (then) the strategy doesn’t make sense,” Blangiardi said. “Right now, the numbers don’t make sense.”
Blangiardi did not specify what the new endpoint might be, should the line not make it all the way to Ala Moana. Several years ago, during a previous rail budget crisis, HART and the city floated a “plan B” that would stop the line downtown near Aloha Tower. State officials later delivered a financial bailout, however, putting it back on course to Ala Moana.
The city has a long-standing funding deal with the FTA, dubbed the Full Funding Grant Agreement, which obligates the city to build a 20-mile, 21-station transit line from east of Kapolei to Ala Moana Center. The city has long been in breach of that contract, however, because it didn’t have the rail line ready for service by 2020.
The FTA has tolerated the mounting delays – rail now isn’t expected to be ready for full service all the way to Ala Moana Center until 2031.
It’s not clear what if any penalty the city would face for failing to build the entire line, however. City leaders previously have said they think the city would at a minimum forfeit its remaining $744 million in federal funding. They’ve also raised the possibility that the FTA might also demand the city repay the $806 million that it’s already used.
Last Friday, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation spent about an hour in executive session discussing what that agency and the city are obligated to do under the FFGA. The discussion was originally intended to take place in public, but concerns that the discussion would involve legal interpretations of the federal deal prompted the HART board to talk in private instead.
That same day, Blangiardi and HART Executive Director Lori Kahikina canceled their scheduled appearance to discuss the future of rail on this week’s episode of Insights on PBS Hawaii, a public affairs program. They cited “unforeseen circumstances” and declined to provide other members of the administration in their place.
During the mayoral campaign, Blangiardi said the rail line at least needs to get across Dillingham Boulevard to serve that bustling and heavily populated Kalihi corridor. He added at the time that stopping at Middle Street, a move that many rail critics have advocated, is not an option.
“I’m not in a position to say, ‘we should stop it,’” Blangiardi said in October. “Until I know better, we need to fulfill rail as planned, if possible.”
Rail’s total price tag is now officially estimated to be $12.4 billion. Besides the $1.55 billion in federal funding, rail is mostly paid for via a state general excise tax surcharge for Oahu and some city general fund dollars. It’s not clear how the city would close the latest ballooning budget gap.
“I told the FTA not more than 48 hours ago, we will come at you with our plan, and that’s where we are in this moment,” Blangiardi told Spotlight Hawaii on Friday.
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