More than three months have passed since the city submitted its latest plan to rescue rail, and the Federal Transit Administration has yet to approve it.

That has Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board Chair Colleen Hanabusa concerned – and impatient for an affirmative response from the project’s federal partners.

Without that approval, Oahu’s struggling rail transit project will continue to lack access to its nearly $750 million in remaining federal funding.

“We were expecting to hear back on the recovery plan two months ago,” Hanabusa said Friday.

HART Rail guideway as it nears the OCCC Oahu Community Correctional Center and moves towards metro Honolulu. The bridge connects the bus transit center to the rail via the pedestrian bridge.
Construction of the rail line’s elevated guideway nears Oahu Community Correctional Center. HART board Chair Colleen Hanabusa is directly urging the FTA to approve the recovery plan so that nearly $750 million allocated for construction might be released. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Last week, she reached out directly to FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez with a lengthy letter urging that her agency approve Honolulu rail’s new recovery plan.

The plan’s financial assumptions are sound, and HART is using conservative estimates for its projected tax revenues to complete rail, she said.

“I do believe … that there are sufficient funds” to build the shorter, nearly 19-mile long line that HART has proposed in its plan, Hanabusa wrote. “The Board is far from a rubber stamp to the HART administration.”

“We understand the GET and TAT” – the project’s two state tax sources, the general excise tax and the transient accommodations tax – “and arrived at the projections which should be accepted by the FTA,” she added.

Hanabusa sent copies of her FTA letter to Hawaii’s congressional delegation, Gov. David Ige, the state’s legislative leaders, the mayor and the city council, among others.

No Shortage Of Recoveries

HART and the city have struggled over the years to gain FTA approval on their various recovery plan iterations, as the multibillion-dollar project has repeatedly encountered skyrocketing costs and budget shortfalls.

The local rail agency submitted at least five versions of a recovery plan between 2016 and 2019, and it didn’t secure an FTA approval until September 2019. Even then, the FTA did not agree to release rail’s remaining $744 million to Honolulu until HART made more progress to keep the project on budget.

HART’s latest leadership, under Executive Director Lori Kahikina, has publicly said that the relationship between the rail agency and the FTA has greatly improved compared to what Kahikina said was a “rocky” one prior to her arrival.

In early June, Kahikina and HART submitted rail’s latest recovery plan about a month ahead of the FTA’s deadline. It assumes the largest infrastructure project in Hawaii’s history will collect around $6.4 billion in GET funding, $1.1 billion in state TAT funding and $488 million in city TAT funding.

HART Board nominee Colleen Hanabusa answers media questions.
HART board Chair Colleen Hanabusa is urging the FTA to approve the agency’s latest recovery plan. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

However, the FTA and Hill International, the consultant that it’s hired to oversee rail on its behalf, disagree somewhat with HART over the cost – specifically how many millions of dollars in contingency reserves will be needed to finish the transit system, according to local project officials.

“What we’re arguing about is the base of estimate for risk,” HART board member Michele Chun Brunngraber said at the group’s August meeting, during a brief update on the recovery plan. “That’s what we’re stuck on now.”

During that same meeting, Kahikina said that Ray Tellis, the FTA’s Region 9 administrator, had just met with Fernandez earlier that month to discuss Honolulu’s recovery plan.

“My understanding is she (Fernandez) wants this done by the end of the month, the recovery plan,” Kahikina told the HART board. “They already told us, start amending your full funding grant agreement” because “they want this done.”

Kahikina wasn’t available for comment Friday.

Dissenting Views

Not all board participants share Hanabusa’s optimism that rail will generate the necessary revenues to reach Kakaako. In June, Natalie Iwasa, a legislative appointee to the board, joined with former HART board member Joe Uno to send a joint memo to the FTA outlining their concerns with the recovery plan.

Uno and Iwasa, who noted to the FTA that she was writing in her individual capacity and not as a board member, told the FTA that they were concerned HART’s latest tax revenue and ridership projections were too aggressive.

“Membership on the HART board … has provided us with insights we believe you ought to be aware of as you review the plan,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, Hanabusa in her Sept. 12 letter told Nuria that she was writing “directly in response” to Iwasa and Uno’s June memo, in order to clarify the HART board’s position.

“It is always disconcerting that they claim they obtained their knowledge in their Board-related capacity,” Hanabusa told Nuria.

On Friday, Iwasa took issue with Hanabusa’s characterization. “All that information is public. There’s nothing in our June 18 packet that was confidentially obtained,” she said.

Iwasa, who questioned HART’s financial assumptions for years prior to joining the board, said that she wished the group would allow for a dissenting opinion, similar to other agencies and courts. Instead, whenever she disagrees, she has to stress that she’s doing so as an individual.

Uno, meanwhile, had harsh words in response to Hanabusa’s FTA letter.

“Queen Hanabusa makes it sound like we stole some confidential information, which is her way of misdirection and discrediting,” he said in an email Friday. “The truth is that everything we wrote is in the public domain and mostly just plain common sense.”

In response to questions about the recovery plan approval and Hanabusa’s letter, FTA in a statement said that it’s still reviewing the proposal and noted that it had assisted HART with various changes associated with the proposed shorter line, including updated ridership estimates, environmental reviews and construction.

Hanabusa said that she’s heard “not a word” back from HART’s federal partners, not even to acknowledge receipt.

Still, she made an impassioned plea for the necessary approvals to keep the project, now estimated to cost some $10 billion, moving forward.

“If after all of the difficulties (the project) has faced, we have not learned to build rail, then we have no right to do so,” Hanabusa told Fernandez. “I believe HART has learned to build rail.”

Read Hanabusa’s letter to the FTA administrator here:

Read Iwasa and Uno’s earlier memo to the FTA here:

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