Meanwhile, the HART board is budgeting for a communications function that some members believe is needed to respond when HART or the rail board is ‘attacked.’

The Honolulu rail authority should reject a $2 million claim by Hawaiian Electric Co. for design and other work the utility did on an electrical substation that HECO later decided is unnecessary, according to the chairwoman of HART’s board of directors.

Colleen Hanabusa told her fellow board members Tuesday that HECO had demanded that the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation pay for a substation near Leeward Community College so HART should not have to eat the $2 million cost now that the substation has been canceled.

HECO has argued that HART is obligated to pay for design and other work the utility did on the proposed substation, and HECO and HART are in negotiations over that issue.

The rail line is powered by electricity, but Hanabusa said the substation was supposedly needed to serve both rail and HECO’s other customers in the Waipahu area.

Rail cars sit idle at the Waipahu rail depot last year. Hawaiian Electric says reduced power demand from the trains, the rail yard and other rail facilities have made the electrical substation unnecessary. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

Hanabusa has complained publicly in the past that HECO seemed to be taking advantage of HART by demanding that the rail authority pay for expensive improvements to the electrical grid that benefit the utility.

“What is the matter with this HECO organization? I mean, how can they continue to do this or think that they’re going to get away with this with us?” she asked HART Project Director Nate Meddings on Tuesday. “What are we going to do, are we going to just roll over for them again?”

HECO has said the substation is no longer needed because of changes in HART’s forecast of power use in the Waipahu area, in part because of HART’s decision to defer construction of the 1,600-stall park-and-ride facility at Pearl Highlands.

HECO says there were also reductions in the use of power by the train as well as HART’s maintenance and storage yard and its rail operations center.

Meddings said HECO is interpreting its agreement with HART to mean that the rail authority should pay for HECO’s costs, which include design work and efforts to procure materials for the project.

HART said in a written statement Tuesday that “HART is currently in discussions with HECO and we can’t further discuss at this time. HART has not agreed to any cost reimbursements.”

The rail board also considered a proposed new HART budget for fiscal year 2025 that included $110,000 for “Board Communication Services,” an item that raised concerns with board member Natalie Iwasa.

Iwasa questioned the need for the board to have its own communications arm, noting that HART already pays a contractor for the services of Pang Communications. “It seems to me to be inefficient and a waste of taxpayer money,” she said.

“I don’t understand why, if the board has an issue it feels it needs to communicate to the public or to whomever, why couldn’t the board say, ‘Pang Communications we need this press release to go out?’ Why do we need more money to go to communications?” Iwasa asked.

But Hanabusa countered that HART board should have its own communication “entity” because HART policy is set by the board, and HART’s rules say no one can speak for HART unless that person is authorized by the board.

And board member Edwin Young said he and member Anthony Aalto “have been talking about the HART board’s failure to respond to negative news articles carried by Civil Beat and the (Honolulu) Star-Advertiser.”

“Whenever the HART board is attacked, there’s no one to respond on behalf of the board or the HART organization,” Young said.

Hanabusa said that if people don’t like the idea of the board hiring a communications contractor, they can let the board know as it finalizes the HART budget for next year.

HART Executive Director Lori Kahikina said Pang Communications is a subcontractor to another HART consultant called HDR.

Jennifer Bowers, president of Pang Communications, said the company bills HDR for about $8,000 per month plus tax for its work on the rail project, and said Pang’s charges thus far this year represent a 30% discount from its regular billings.

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