Honolulu’s rail agency is proceeding with what it calls the “mauka shift,” a key change to its utility-relocation plan along Dillingham Boulevard that could finally solve one of the biggest challenges affecting the project.

However, rail officials won’t say where things stand on the environmental approvals needed to make that change happen, even as they move swiftly toward awarding the contract for that utility work later this summer.

Specifically, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation hasn’t said whether it will need a supplemental environmental impact study, which could take several years to complete, or a smaller and less time-consuming step, called a “post record of decision,” to approve the mauka shift.

HART Rail guideway is slated to travel on the mauka side of Dillingham Boulevard near the UH Honolulu Community College campus. April 14, 2021
HART now plans to build the rail guideway on the mauka side of Dillingham Boulevard near Honolulu Community College. The contract procurement is moving ahead. The agency won’t say where the environmental approvals stand. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

HART’s top executive said last year that the agency was awaiting word from its legal counsel on which option would be required. Now, the agency won’t provide an update. All a spokesman would say recently is that HART “is in the process of conducting an environmental reevaluation.”

“The reevaluation will determine whether or not the current EIS (environmental impact study) remains valid,” HART spokesman Kevin Whitton added in that June email.

When pressed for details, Whitton replied by emailing the same statement. Neither he nor HART’s government affairs and public involvement director, Joey Manahan, responded to subsequent messages seeking clarification.

Meanwhile, HART is poised to award the construction contract to relocate utilities along the narrow and crowded Dillingham corridor on Aug. 23, according to its procurement documents. It anticipates that the winning contractor will be able to start the work in October, according to the agency’s May project report. That’s the most recent one available on its website.

It’s not clear why HART is moving ahead before confirming which environmental approvals are needed and how long they might take. The agency did not respond to multiple requests for comment on that last week.

In April 2021, HART Executive Director Lori Kahikina said that the rail agency was optimistic that the more time-consuming supplemental environmental impact studies would not be necessary. The rail agency was awaiting final confirmation from the city’s Corporation Counsel that the more expedient post-ROD would suffice, she said.

Kahikina’s predecessor at HART, Andrew Robbins, considered the mauka shift with his leadership team, but they scrapped it in 2019 fearing it might prompt lengthy environmental reviews.

Kahikina does not face the same schedule constraints that Robbins did before the HART board opted not to renew his contract. It’s unclear how the need for a supplemental environmental impact study might impact the project’s updated schedule, which has rail reaching Halekauwila Place in Kakaako by 2029.

A Costly Puzzle

Dillingham has presented crippling challenges to the rail project. There simply isn’t enough room to fit underground all the wet and dry utility lines that run along that narrow corridor leading into Honolulu’s urban core. Those utilities need to be moved to make way for the rail line’s elevated guideway.

City and rail leaders’ inability to solve that puzzle years earlier in the process has been pegged as one of the main reasons that the project has stumbled so badly, with its costs doubling and its completion slipping more than a decade behind schedule.

For example, the two private teams that competed to build rail’s remaining four miles and eight stations into town each added about half a billion dollars to their bids to cover the uncertainties with the utilities there.

The mauka shift aims to solve the bulk of those utility woes, however.

HART rail guideway construction along Kamehameha Highway near the Oahu Community Correctional Center.
Utility relocation along Dillingham has vexed city and rail officials for years and crippled progress in finishing the transit project. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Under the plan, crews would build the concrete and steel columns used to support the guideway from Waiakamilo Road to Kaaahi Street about 45 feet more inland than what’s been planned. “Mauka” is the Hawaiian word for inland or toward the mountains.

The guideway would still run along Dillingham. That busy street, in turn, would be widened by about 10 feet toward Oahu’s southern shore to accommodate the guideway shift, according to a HART document dubbed “Mauka Shift Reevaluation.” The agency provided that single-page overview via a public records request.

The purpose of the proposed shift is to place the guideway sufficiently inland so that HART can avoid relocating the major power lines that run along Dillingham’s coastal end. Keeping those lines above ground would free up space below ground.

However, the Mauka Shift Reevaluation lists the potential environmental impacts of that shift that might have to be addressed in the approvals process. They include the removal of an unspecified number of true kamani trees along Dillingham.

The shift would also put the guideway closer to three historic buildings on the Honolulu Community College campus, which lines that stretch of Dillingham, according to the Mauka Shift Reevaluation document.

Overall, the shift would put the rail line about 12 feet away from some of the Honolulu Community College buildings that line the street there, HART officials have said.

The overview document suggests there won’t be any additional noise impacts from the move. It does, however, state that HART needs to study potential impacts from vibration – both during construction and once the rail system starts running.

Read HART’s “Mauka Shift Reevaluation” overview here:

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