With Honolulu rail facing its latest, seemingly insurmountable budget deficit, the city’s mayor proposed Tuesday that the future transit line be trimmed from 20 miles to 18.75 miles and that its two easternmost stations be eliminated.

The move, which Mayor Rick Blangiardi unveiled during his annual State of the City address, would have the rail line end near Halekauwila and South streets instead of its long-planned terminus at Ala Moana Center, leaving the system with 19 stations instead of 21.

The plan would also “defer” construction of a Pearl Highlands parking garage that’s been needed for commuters coming from the North Shore and Central Oahu – but is also currently estimated to cost some $330 million. Blangiardi said that hub would eventually be built, although he didn’t say when.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi speaks at podium located at the Mission Memorial Auditorium while reading speech from teleprompter.
Mayor Rick Blangiardi delivered his annual State of the City address at Mission Memorial Auditorium on Tuesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The goal, he said, is to build a “functional rail system … that serves the riders by going as far as possible based on the available funding sources.” Currently, the city expects to collect some $9.8 billion for rail from its city, state and federal funding sources, he said. That’s enough to build the shortened rail system, he said. 

It’s not enough to get rail to Ala Moana, which local rail officials now estimate would cost some $11.4 billion

The shorter line might be completed in May 2029 instead of the current 2031 estimate, Blangiardi said Tuesday. It would affect the city’s ridership projections, the mayor acknowledged, although he didn’t have numbers on that.

The mayor’s announcement follows his first in-person meetings in Washington, D.C., last week to discuss the struggling project with Federal Transit Administration officials. On Tuesday, Blangiardi said that the FTA hasn’t yet approved the proposed reductions in scope or vetted his plan. 

Rail guideway construction near the OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Major rail construction has made it as far as Middle Street. The city doesn’t have enough money to make it to Ala Moana, and the mayor is proposing to shorten the route to end on Halekauwila Street. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The agency did agree to his sharing the idea with the public, he said.

The FTA will have to approve Blangiardi’s idea in order for it to work. The agency has withheld rail’s remaining $744 million in federal funding since 2015, when the project first ran into serious financial problems. It has refused to release those funds until the city can demonstrate its ability to get rail all the way to Ala Moana.

For years, city leaders have pointed to the threat of losing that federal funding to insist that trimming the rail line or cutting stations wasn’t possible.

Whether the FTA would reconsider its stance remains to be seen. 

The city and its local rail agency, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, are poised to deliver the project’s latest so-called “recovery plan,” which will detail the shortened proposal in greater detail, by June 30. There’s no timeline on when the FTA might approve or reject that plan.

The 20-mile, 21-station line was already referred to as the “minimum operable segment” under the city’s agreement with its federal partners.

For years, city and rail leaders have described Ala Moana as a crucial terminus for the rail line because it would connect transit riders with the various bus routes that pass through there.

It also remains to be seen how Blangiardi’s proposal would impact the myriad high-rise towers and so-called transit-oriented development projects that are either already built or underway in anticipation of rail’s arrival but now find themselves east of the new proposed Halekauwila endpoint.  

The mayor declined to speculate on whether the change would prompt legal action against the city. 

Blangiardi added, however, that city and transit officials hope the line might eventually be built as far as Ala Moana Center in some future phase.  On Thursday, HART Executive Director Lori Kahikina told the agency’s board members that building to Ala Moana was still the goal.

The city has also already purchased numerous parcels for rail in Kakaako and Ala Moana beyond the new proposed endpoint. The city has been locked in a high-stakes legal battle for several years with prominent developer Howard Hughes Corp. over land needed near Ward Avenue for rail to get to Ala Moana.

Homelessness, Affordable Housing Are Top Of Mind

Beyond rail, Blangiardi spent the bulk of his speech Tuesday discussing his administration’s efforts to help create more affordable housing across Oahu and reduce homelessness.  

That includes the city’s new Crisis, Outreach, Response and Engagement program, or CORE. The new approach aims to remove Honolulu Police Department and Emergency Medical Service personnel from having to respond to nonviolent, homeless-related emergency calls. 

Nonetheless, the two city departments that focus on housing and homelessness – the Office of Housing and the Department of Community Services, face an 8% cut and 22.54% cut, respectively, in the mayor’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported on Tuesday. 

But those budget line items don’t reflect the ultimate funding that the mayor’s housing and homelessness initiatives will actually get next year, city officials said during a press conference after the speech. Federal and grant funding would help balance out the proposed cuts, they said.

Blangiardi further said in his speech that the search for a new Honolulu police chief has taken “far too long.” The former police chief, Susan Ballard, retired on June 1 and HPD has been led by interim Chief Rade Vanic.

The mayor again praised Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau and others at the department for their “courage and strength” during the Navy’s Red Hill water contamination crisis. 

Blangiardi has declined to comment on the crisis since January, saying that he did not want to “get in the way” of Lau’s efforts. The Navy earlier this month announced it would permanently close its decades-old, aging underground fuel storage facility at Red Hill.

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