Anthony Aalto easily cleared his first hurdle toward joining the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board on Tuesday after a Honolulu City Council committee unanimously advanced his nomination.

If the full City Council approves it at a later meeting, Aalto, an Oahu-based investigative journalist, documentarian and former Sierra Club Oahu Group chair will replace Joe Uno, a construction-cost estimator who’s called for a pause to rail construction at Middle Street.

Uno’s term expired June 30 but he had hoped the Council would re-appoint him.

During the Transportation, Sustainability and Health Committee hearing Tuesday, Aalto testified that despite his lack of transit or construction expertise he’d bring a much-needed inquisitiveness that’s been lacking on the HART board historically. 

Sierra Club Anthony Aalto speaks during Mayor Caldwell presser, announcing the endorsement of Caldwell by the Hawaii Sierra Club at Magic Island. 1 nov 2016
Anthony Aalto criticized oversight of Honolulu’s troubled rail project by the HART board as he seeks to join that volunteer group. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

As a filmmaker he’s explored land-use, housing, emergency preparedness and other issues that have challenged Hawaii, including rail.

“Needless to say I’ve been horrified by the mismanagement and cost overruns,” Aalto told Committee members, as well as Council Chairman Tommy Waters. Waters sat in on the meeting after previously asking Aalto if he’d be willing to volunteer for the board.

Aalto said that he could use his skills as an investigative journalist to be the “eyes and ears” of the City Council for rail, pressing for answers and offering better oversight of the project, whose costs have now soared above $12 billion.

“The one qualification we’ve missed is an inquiring mind,” he said. Aalto did praise one of the board’s non-voting Legislative appointees, Natalie Iwasa, for her longtime, dogged scrutiny of rail’s finances.

Critics of Aalto’s nomination, however, contend that Uno already offers those qualities. 

Uno contends he’s being replaced because he wants to stop at Middle Street given rail’s latest budget hole, which is estimated at $3.6 billion. The stance puts him at odds with most of his fellow board members and city leaders, who say the rail line must still make it past that point. 

During Tuesday’s hearing Waters recited to Aalto some of the HART board duties listed in the Honolulu City Charter, including board members’ obligation to seek out funding to complete the system. “It’s not ‘may,’ it’s ‘shall,” Waters emphasized, before asking Aalto if he was comfortable accepting those duties.

Aalto said he was willing to accept the responsibility. 

During the hearing he also said he preferred a “plan B” rail route past Middle Street that would run along King Street to the University of Hawaii Manoa instead of to Ala Moana. 

In fact, Aalto testified, he pressed former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell so strongly to change the route that Caldwell eventually stopped talking to him and wouldn’t acknowledge him during a more recent joint meeting with the current mayor, Rick Blangiardi.

Nonetheless, Aalto told Waters that he was willing to carry out the obligations listed in the charter.

There was no mention of Uno during that exchange, although Aalto said later that he had been surprised to see his nomination framed in the media as a competition of sorts with Uno for the HART seat. 

“I did not seek this job. I did not want it,” Aalto told the Council members of the volunteer post Tuesday. “But nevertheless, I believe I have an obligation to serve.”

‘A Cascade Of Small Decisions’

Uno, meanwhile, has been sharply critical of his would-be successor’s qualifications. 

During Tuesday’s meeting, Ewa Beach Councilman Augie Tulba repeatedly expressed worry that Aalto’s background doesn’t fit the qualifications sought by the Council and outlined in Aalto’s nominating resolution

Tulba, a local comedian and actor who joined the Council this year, added that “I’m the last person who should be critical because I was criticized during my campaign.” Nonetheless, Tulba said, “I’m concerned.”

Specifically, he pointed to the five years of senior leadership experience in mass-transit, construction or a similar industry that’s listed in the resolution. Tulba pressed Aalto to say whether he thought he was qualified.

Workers assist in track installation on the rail guideway located at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
Rail work winds through the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. Aalto has said he would prefer the route past Middle Street run along King Street instead of through Kakaako. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Aalto said it’s up to the Council to decide, but added that his experience with rail and public policy matters affecting Oahu over the past decade would be a strong addition to the board.

The semi-autonomous body has seen heavy turnover since its formation in 2012 and none of its original 10 members remain. Many of the board’s former and current members lack the qualifications that Tulba highlighted.

Aalto contended that HART staff makes unnecessarily expensive choices for construction without keeping Oahu taxpayers in mind. 

He said it would be great for a city-commissioned forensic audit to reveal a main “scapegoat” that’s caused rail’s costs to skyrocket so dramatically. It’s more likely, however, that the cause is a “cascade of small decisions” that have added up due to incompetence at HART, he said. He further chastised former board leadership.

In fact, Aalto said Tuesday that HART never should have been created, and that the project would be in much better shape if it had been managed under the city’s Department of Transportation Services and under the direct oversight of the City Council.

Aalto also said the city never should have accepted the $1.55 billion federal grant to build rail because the regulations that come with those dollars have forced HART to buy essential parts at a higher cost. 

Specifically, he cited air-conditioning systems that are needed along the route that could have been purchased more cheaply if not for the federal requirements. 

Furthermore, as rail’s projected costs have soared above $12 billion, the federal funding has become a smaller share but the city must still scramble to comply with the federal requirements. “It has ultimately turned into the tail wagging the dog,” Aalto said.

Despite all the problems, Aalto said he continues to support rail on behalf of Oahu’s Westside residents. 

Those communities deserve the benefits of the public works project after taking on the island’s main landfills, the H-Power waste-to-energy facility, the Kahe power plant and other industrial sites, plus enduring long daily commutes, he said.

Several construction industry groups, including Pacific Resource Partnership and Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters, were among those to testify in support of Aalto’s nomination. Nonetheless, Aalto insisted he’s not “in the pocket” of developers. He pointed to his advocating to change the route as evidence.

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