The board of directors for the Honolulu rail authority unanimously elected former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa chairwoman of the board on Friday, marking the second time she has filled that role for the troubled transit project.

The HART board also was told that the rail authority is seeking a share of the new city hotel room tax of up to 3% that the Legislature authorized earlier this year. Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi told the board Friday that “we have our eyes set on Ala Moana” as the end of the rail line.

Hanabusa is a politically connected Democrat who served as president of the Hawaii Senate and unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2018. She previously served as chairwoman of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation in 2016.

The HART chairwoman’s job is unpaid, but earlier this year members of the HART board tried to hire Hanabusa as a consultant under what would have been a contract worth nearly $1 million.

HART rail cars at the Rail Operations Center (ROC) located in Waipahu near Leeward Community College.
Colleen Hanabusa has been elected chairwoman of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation for the second time. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The contract specifications were written to mirror Hanabusa’s resume, and HART board Chairman Tobias Martyn met with Hanabusa and said he wanted her for the job months before the contract was awarded.

Hanabusa then began doing rail-related work before she was actually awarded the contract in April, but she canceled the contract in May as questions swirled around the way the contract was awarded. Instead, she chose to fill a vacant seat on the volunteer HART board.

On Friday, Hanabusa was elected by all eight board members, including her. Dean Hazama was elected vice chairman.

Republican State Sen. Kurt Fevella, who has criticized Hanabusa’s involvement in rail in the past, said he was “very disappointed” in her election as chairwoman. Fevella said he believes that was the plan from the time Hanabusa was appointed to the board.

The board’s decision to elevate Hanabusa to the top leadership role on the HART board comes as the rail authority faces a budget shortfall of about $3.5 billion and is trying to develop a recovery plan that will allow the city to finally complete the 20-mile elevated train line from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center.

HART has no way to raise the money it needs to complete the project on its own, and Hanabusa’s political connections in Washington, D.C., at Honolulu Hale and at the state Capitol are seen by some as critically important in that effort.

Lori Kahikina, interim executive director for HART, told board members that HART is in touch weekly with City Council Chairman Tommy Waters and Mayor Rick Blangiardi. The authority plans to develop a recovery plan for the rail project and submit it to the Federal Transit Administration sometime after the end of this year, she said.

Board member Kika Bukoski noted that the Legislature just authorized the city to levy its own 3% hotel room tax.

“I think a lot of people have been talking about this as a potential vehicle,” Bukoski said. “Do you see that being a part of what is submitted to the FTA, or would that come after?”

Kahikina replied that “yes, that is an opportunity. It’s not concrete yet. There’s still a lot of logistics that need to be done on the council side.”

She said the city needs to use some of the money from the new tax to cover its own costs, so “we’re not sure exactly what we’re going to get, but I think there’s some confidence that we can expect something.”

“Right now it’s still in administration and (the) council chair, the ball is in their court right now to address that. So, once we get that information, that will roll up into our financial plan,” she said.

Kahikina also told the board a city bond issuance is about to close that would provide $425 million in borrowed money for HART. Of that sum, $275 million will be used to pay off short-term debt HART already incurred, and another $130 million will be available for HART to cover the cost of ongoing construction.

“This should carry us, (it’s) enough cash flow for the next year,” she told the board.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi answers questions about Tier 4 at a press conference held at Honolulu Hale.
Mayor Rick Blangiardi said “we have our eyes set on Ala Moana.” Earlier this year he said the rail line might have to stop short of that goal. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Blangiardi addressed the board publicly for the first time Friday but did not announce any specific plans for helping HART to cope with its financial crisis.

He said his administration walked into an “almost toxic” situation with the firing of former HART Executive Director Andy Robbins, the failure of a public-private partnership that was supposed to complete the last four miles of the rail project, a budget shortfall of $3.5 billion, and years of additional delays for rail.

Blangiardi said the FTA told him he needs to develop collaborative relationships with the council and the management of HART, and he has tried to do that.

“Recently we’ve had very good conversations with the FTA — I’m not allowed right now to go into any of that — but I’m feeling really good about where we are and what we’ve been able to say, and the plans that we’ve been developing.”

He said the city has “made up a lot of ground” in recent months.

“We’re really committed here. Lest anybody be confused about it, we’re very committed to this project, we’re very committed to building the most functional and best system we can, and we have our eyes set on Ala Moana.”

Earlier this year Blangiardi suggested the rail line might have to stop short of Ala Moana.

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