With Honolulu rail facing its biggest budget hole yet, calls are growing for the city to explore alternatives, including approaches that might replace the remaining stations and elevated path to Ala Moana Center altogether. 

Notably, those requests are starting to come from prominent rail supporters, not just vocal critics of the project, now estimated to cost $12.4 billion. 

“While I personally support the rail project, I agree with the general public that there has not been a robust discussion on other options, if any, that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) may find acceptable as well as the corresponding costs of those options,” Manoa-area Councilman Calvin Say wrote in a letter last week to Lori Kahikina, rail’s interim executive director. 

Say said those alternatives must be considered and vetted in public, at least for the sake of transparency.

HART rail construction as the guideway construction nears Middle Street.
HART has been internally evaluating potential changes to the rail project past Middle Street, now that it faces its largest budget deficit ever. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

His comments come several weeks after Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, in a departure from his predecessor, Kirk Caldwell, declared he would discuss potentially stopping short of Ala Moana in his meetings with the FTA later this summer. 

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, meanwhile, has been internally exploring various potential changes to the project, both large and small, since January. 

The local agency also recently flip-flopped on whether to share its so-called “matrix” of those changes publicly. It first assured board members who wanted to see the matrix go public that it would release it. Weeks later, it withheld the document when the board’s chairman and vice chairman suggested it should stay confidential. 

Ultimately, however, HART released the matrix in April when the conservative-leaning policy think tank Grassroot Institute of Hawaii pressed for its release in a public records request. 

Marked “confidential,” the matrix includes 27 changes to rail’s design, technology and route past Middle Street. It aims to address the new budget deficit, estimated at around $3.6 billion. 

That figure nearly equals the funding that’s expected from the rail project’s two state bailout packages, which lawmakers approved in 2015 and 2017. 

People-Movers, Tunnels And The Middle Street Pause

Some of the changes, such as switching to an at-grade or street-level design in town, were examined during the project’s previous budget crises.

The hotly debated suggestion of stopping at Middle Street and switching to bus rapid transit beyond that point is also listed. 

The matrix also evaluates building an “automated people-mover” with a “lighter guideway structure” past Middle Street. It considers powering the trains with maglev technology, as well as tunneling past Middle Street to end either at Ala Moana or at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

The matrix also includes relatively smaller adjustments to rail’s design, such as shifts in station locations, guideway alignment and private financing schemes to build some of the stations, among others. 

Eight of the 27 suggested changes specifically focus on potential fixes for the project’s massive utility relocation woes. 

HART lists more cons than pros on almost all of the proposed changes in its matrix. In several cases, such as a proposed route shift to Nimitz Highway, the cons list is significantly longer than the pros:

Rail alternatives
HART listed just three pros and 23 cons in its analysis of whether to shift the rail route from Dillingham to Nimitz Highway. Courtesy: Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation

Only three entries contain more pros than cons, and one of those entries is building rail as planned to Ala Moana Center. That “baseline approach” lists 12 pros and just two cons. Both of the cons deal with utility relocation. The project’s multibillion dollar deficit under that approach isn’t listed.

Another entry with fewer cons than pros is the so-called “mauka shift” of the guideway along Dillingham Boulevard, which HART is currently pursuing.

FTA Watching Closely

Looming, as always, are the questions of how the FTA would respond to any changes that stray from what the city agreed to build under its 2012 $1.55 billion federal funding agreement.

The federal agency has withheld Honolulu rail’s remaining $744 million for the past six years.

Previously, city and rail leaders have suggested the project could face severe financial penalties from the FTA for deviating from what’s laid out in the Full Funding Grant Agreement.

Some current city leaders, including Say, aren’t so sure.

Say’s May 25 letter cites comments in a 2016 report from rail’s then-project management oversight contractor, Jacobs Engineering. Jacobs was monitoring the project for the FTA at the time. As rail faced a budget crisis that year, Jacobs wrote “If HART cannot complete the project to Ala Moana with its current funding availability, it should nonetheless pursue a viable project” that can still serve the island. 

City Councilman Calvin Say: “I previously was under the impression that the FTA has been clear about the City’s commitment to completion of the rail project to the Ala Moana terminus.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Say wrote: “I previously was under the impression that the FTA has been clear about the City’s commitment to completion of the rail project to the Ala Moana terminus … However, the PMOC statement above suggests otherwise in light of insufficient project funding.”

Since 2015 the Legislature has delivered two bailouts for the project valued at about $4 billion total. 

Say’s colleague, Heidi Tsuneyoshi, a North Shore city councilwoman and prominent rail critic, recently introduced a resolution to pause the line at Middle Street. 

Tsuneyoshi’s resolution cites language from a 2016 letter from then-FTA Acting Administrator Carolyn Flowers to Caldwell that seemed to suggest the federal agency would be open to a plan that falls short of Ala Moana, given rail’s immense budget crisis that same year. Flowers stated that the city faces a “fundamental choice” and that it might consider an “interim terminus” among other measures to deal with the shortfall.

No hearing has been scheduled for the proposed resolution.

Last week, when asked whether the city had any flexibility to make changes to rail without being penalized, the FTA said it will evaluate the latest “cost overruns, schedule delays, funding shortfalls and completion strategies,” and that it “will discuss all possible options with (HART) and other decision makers.” 

Privately, the FTA has called Honolulu rail the most challenged and troubled project that the agency is dealing with, according to local rail officials.

‘We Need To Be Very Careful’

Before the matrix was released, HART’s board grappled with whether it could release the list of alternatives under its obligations to the FTA to build rail all the way to Ala Moana.

It’s also gotten bogged down in debate over how much it can discuss those alternatives and its obligations to the project in public.

On Feb. 18, Natalie Iwasa, a longtime rail watchdog whom the Legislature recently appointed to the board, asked Kahikina to release the agency’s internal matrix, and “not just to me or not just to the board.”

“Absolutely, Natalie, that’s my intent,” Kahikina replied, adding that her staff assumed it would go public and that they were “scrubbing it and making sure that it’s good for public view.”

HART board member Natalie Iwasa pressed for the agency to release its alternatives matrix to the public. Natalie Iwasa

A month later, however, Kahikina deferred to the board when Iwasa asked again about releasing the matrix to the public.

HART Board Chairman Toby Martyn said HART is trying to regain the FTA’s confidence and that “we need to be very careful about the way that we engage on discussions about the commitments and responsibilities that we have.” 

Hoyt Zia, the board’s vice chairman, added that HART produces many things internally that aren’t intended to be made public. “We believe (the matrix) should be shared among the board members … but not for the purposes of then making it public,” Zia said.

Nonetheless, HART released the matrix to the Grassroot Institute, and subsequently to Civil Beat.

In April, the board tied itself in knots arguing how much it could even discuss its obligations under the federal grant agreement in public.

“It’s not prudent to proceed in public” with disagreements over what that contract says, Martyn said. Zia added that discussions over how to interpret the city’s deal with the FTA should be held in private with the board’s legal counsel. Such conversations amount to “privileged communication” and fall under attorney-client privilege, Zia said, without specifying further.

Board member Joe Uno disagreed that the move was necessary.

“I don’t understand why that has to be done in executive session,” he said. “These are public documents that anyone can read, and no one is asking for an interpretation.” 

Nonetheless, that conversation took place behind closed doors and lasted more than an hour.

Read HART’s previously confidential alternatives matrix here:

Read Councilman Say’s letter to HART here:

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