The board of directors for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation approved a proposed new recovery plan for the troubled city rail project on Friday that envisions a shorter rail line that ends on South Street, and would cost nearly $10 billion.

HART Executive Director Lori Kahikina emphasized the city is still committed to extending the rail line to Ala Moana Center as the city has planned and promised for the past decade, but after years of cost overruns HART does not have the money at the moment to reach that goal.

The Federal Transit Administration, which pledged $1.55 billion to help finance the rail project, set a deadline of June 30 for the city to produce an acceptable recovery plan. The plan will now be submitted to the Honolulu City Council, and Kahikina said she is hoping the council’s Transportation, Sustainability and Health Committee will take it up on May 24.

The new recovery plan made public by HART last week would shorten the rail line by 1.25 miles to pause construction at the corner of Halekauwila Street and South Street, which is about a block from Waterfront Plaza and the Honolulu Circuit Court building. A station known as the Civic Center Station is planned for that site.

HART rail guideway construction along Kamehameha Highway near the Oahu Community Correctional Center.
The new recovery plan would allow the city to complete the rail line to South Street, but the trade off would be less robust ridership. The city is determined to continue the line to Ala Moana when more money becomes available. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The recovery plan would also defer construction of a planned 1,600-stall Pearl Highlands parking garage, which was supposed to offer a convenient place for rail riders from Central Oahu to park their cars before boarding the rail line to head into town.

The parking garage would cost $330 million — which is far more than comparable structures — because the city plan was to build it in a floodplain that would require foundations that span aerially over a stream, according to the recovery plan.

The shortened line envisioned in the new recovery plan would reduce the number of people who will use rail each weekday by nearly 30% from the ridership projections that were developed more than a decade ago, before construction of the project began.

The original projected ridership for the full 20-mile line from East Kapolei to Ala Moana was 119,600 boardings per day, but HART now estimates that ridership would drop to about 84,000 per day if the line is shortened and construction on two rail  stations including Ala Moana is deferred.

The HART board was told Friday the city is planning two major bus lines to serve the proposed new end point at Civic Center Station so riders can quickly transfer from rail to buses to continue to the University of Hawaii Manoa, and into Waikiki.

That decline in ridership means rail will have less of an impact on urban traffic than had been originally planned, and longtime rail critic Cliff Slater told the HART board Friday the plan is “deeply flawed.”

Even the reduced ridership estimates still don’t take into account the recent changes in transit ridership, which was dropping even before the pandemic, he said. FTA data shows ridership in Honolulu was down 40% in March from March 2019, and “this shortfall needs to be addressed, not ignored,” Slater said.

There has been a permanent change in people’s work and commuting habits “since it was discovered in the pandemic that workers and businesses could profit from having people work from home,” he said. “These people will no longer be commuting by bus or rail.”

Other rail systems have had riderships that fell far below projections, and Slater suggested the Honolulu system may have a ridership that is just 20% of HART’s forecast. “If you think that (is) impossible, did you ever think back in 2008 that we would have such cost overruns as we have had?”

When the city signed a Full Funding Grant Agreement with the FTA in 2012, the rail project was budgeted at about $5.2 billion for 21 stations and the full 20-mile elevated line from Kapolei to Ala Moana. The latest cost projection in the recovery plan is $9.93 billion for the truncated rail line.

Roger Morton, director of the city’s Department of Transportation Services, said HART and DTS worked together to do the latest ridership estimates, and those estimates will be reviewed by the FTA. The impact of the pandemic was not taken into account, but bus ridership is recovering, he said.

No one has yet quantified the long-term impact of people who continue to work from home, Morton said, but he noted that traffic has been picking up on the freeway. He said ridership in Honolulu has been recovering “faster than many cities.”

Board members raised a variety of questions about the details of the latest financing and construction plan during the four-hour meeting.

Kahikina said that “we are committed to getting to Ala Moana Transit Center. We are just truncating building this portion of the project to help with the release of the remaining $744 million tranche” of federal funding.

The FTA has withheld nearly $744 million of the money it committed to the project since 2014 until it receives an acceptable recovery plan from the city. HART submitted versions of an earlier recovery plan in 2018 and 2019, but that effort proved to be unworkable after a solicitation for a public-private partnership to complete the rail line failed in 2020.

The HART board voted 7-1 in favor of the latest recovery plan, with only board member Mark Howland voting no. Howland said he believes the plan is incomplete, and had asked that the board delay the vote until the plan is revised to address technical issues that were raised during the discussion.

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