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What’s the latest on Oahu’s troubled rail project?

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The future of Honolulu’s troubled rail project was the topic of a May 9, 2021, interview of Keli’i Akina by radio Johnny Miro of H. Hawaii Media.

The interview, heard on Oahu stations 101.1 FM, 101.5 FM, 107.5 FM, 97.1 FM, 96.7 FM and 103.9 FM, followed the release of a secret Honolulu Authority of Rapid Transportation document obtained by the institute that showed the agency has analyzed 27 possible alternatives to the city’s current rail plan.

Asked if the rail project is at a turning point, Institute President Akina responded:

Oh, definitely. … Currently there are no contracts to extend the rail past Middle Street and the rail is struggling with cost issues. The state is recovering from the pandemic and there’s little money to spare for a seemingly endless megaproject boondoggle. Not only is this a good time to stop and reassess the rail project, … but state and local leaders … need to demonstrate that whatever happens next with rail, it’s part of a plan that takes into account costs, finances, changing technology and everything else that has changed since the broad project began.”

Akina said his own preference would be “whatever will help finish the rail fastest and at a cost Honolulu taxpayers can afford. This document that we’ve released is a good place to start finding ways to cut costs and come up with a reasonable solution.”

Click below to hear the interview, which lasts about 18 minutes.

5-9-21 Keli‘i Akina interviewed by Johnny Miro on H. Hawaii Media radio network

Johnny Miro: It’s time for Sunday morning public access programming on this H Hawaii Media radio station. Good Sunday morning to y’all. I’m Johnny Miro. It’s time for Sunday morning public access programming here on the six H Hawaii Media family radio stations on the island of Oahu: Oldies  101.1 FM, K-Rock 101.5 FM, Retro 97.1 FM, Jazzy 107.5 FM, Shaka 96.7 FM and 103.9 FM. The X also streaming around the world at hawaiistream.fm. Joining me once again for an interview about a very hot topic is Keli’i Akina, the CEO and president of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, grassrootinstitute.org for more on that. Good morning to you Keli’i.

Keli’i Akina: Johnny, good morning. Always glad to be with you and your listeners, and you’re absolutely right. The rail is once again a hot topic.

Miro: The rail always seems to have issues with the cost overruns and delays. What’s the latest on the expected cost?

Akina: Well, we’ve got to go back to 2006. The draft plan then said that the rail would cost only $2.5 billion. In 2008, when the rail was narrowly approved by Oahu voters, the expected cost was $4 billion. You see where I’m going here. Now, the interim CEO of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit, who is Lori Kahikina, is saying it’s going to cost $12.4 billion.

I wouldn’t bet on it being limited to that, but more important, that estimate of $12.4 billion is $3 billion more than existing sources of revenue. We’re really way over budget, and that includes the revenue that goes to the rail from our GET surcharge, or our TAT revenue, or even borrowing from federal funds. Johnny, there’s a serious question as to how we’re going to pay for this.

Miro: The project is seriously behind schedule too, right?

Akina: Absolutely, that’s right. Originally, it was supposed to be partially usable by 2018 and completely done by 2020. It’s already 2021 and at the moment, it’s still not even partially usable, and now we’re looking at completion dates of 2031. That’s 10 more years, and again, I wouldn’t bet on that being the end of it.

Miro: Well, you don’t think the current costing competition estimates are the final word in the future of the rail?

Akina: Well, Johnny, [laughs] if the experience of the past 15 years is indeed any indicator at all, no, I don’t think this is the end of the story. Obviously, with a project of this magnitude, and it’s Hawaii’s largest public works project ever in history, we’ve really got to be cautious about such estimates. We’ve already seen the cost figures change many, many times. Also, we have to remember that this is not just a question of finishing the rail, but also of operating it. Current estimates of the operating costs, once the rail is up and running, is $110 million to $120 million a year.

Looking ahead, some rail advocates are talking about raising the GET surcharge and possibly making that permanent, raising property taxes also, and all sorts of other ideas to help pay for the cost and operation of the rail. It’s pretty desperate. The financial outlook is so bad right now that HART couldn’t even afford to get a private partner to join in. Obviously, there are really a lot of questions now about whether to finish it as planned and where the money will come from.

Miro: Keli’i Akina, the president and CEO of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii with us this morning. All right, what about waste, abuse and fraud. I recall the Institute was in the lead at one point in calling for a forensic audit of the system.

Akina: Yes, that’s right, Johnny. The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii was one of the leading voices calling for a forensic audit of the rail as its costs began to skyrocket, but that has never taken place. The state auditor was tasked by the Legislature to conduct a deep audit, but he didn’t receive full cooperation from HART, so ultimately very little came of that either. 

Now, go to the city. The City Council later authorized a forensic audit, but after the COVID-19 crisis hit, it withdrew the funding for that effort. So nothing came of that. And there’s still an ongoing FBI investigation. They’ve been investigating, but we don’t know what they’ve discovered. They haven’t released that. 

Are we in the dark as to what may be going on? Yes, absolutely. Should we have a forensic audit? Absolutely, but it’s not being done.

Miro: Would you say we’re at a turning point right now for the rail project?

Akina: Oh, definitely. That is also the case with the rest of our economy in the recovery from the COVID crisis. Currently, there are no contracts to extend the rail past Middle Street, and the rail is struggling with cost issues. The state is recovering from the pandemic, and there’s little money to spare for a seemingly endless mega project boondoggle. Now, not only is this a good time to stop and reassess the rail project — I didn’t say scrap it, but I’m saying maybe there’s a good reason to pause right now. But state and local leaders have a responsibility to the taxpayers.

They need to demonstrate that whatever happens next with rail, it’s part of a plan that takes into account costs, finances, changing technology and everything else that has changed since the broad project began. The world in terms of transportation is very different.

Miro: The original plan was to have the rail go from Kapolei all the way to Ala Moana Center. Right now, at the moment, it’s only reached as far as the Middle Street area. Some people would like for it to stop right there. Are we locked in the going all the way to Ala Moana, or is anyone looking into real alternatives right now for the rail?

Akina: Well, there have been alternatives offered since the beginning of rail. Critics and watchdogs have been making suggestions all along, but it turns out that HART itself has been looking into alternatives for the rail, and none of us really knew this. The reason I know this is because the Grassroot Institute just obtained a previously secret HART document that showed it has analyzed 27 alternatives to the original rail plan, both in terms of its roots and its technologies. We went and filed an open records request to obtain the document and were able to make it public this week. People are reading it for the first time.

We expect it’s going to help facilitate a broader and more informed discussion about the future of the rail project, especially as people take a look at the thinking that’s going into the options that HART realizes it has to consider, as the original plan doesn’t seem to be workable.

Miro: Keli’i, you saw what kind of alternatives had they been looking at?

Akina: Well, those alternatives include both possible route changes and some possible technology changes, and all of them were compared against what is called a baseline plan as agreed to in the full funding grant agreement that was signed with the Federal Transit Administration. That’s the one that’s following now from Kapolei to Ala Moana Center, going down Dillingham Boulevard and so on.

Miro: What does the HART documents say about finishing the project as originally planned?

Keli’i: Let me say this before I answer that question. I just want to point out that the HART analysis is an in-house document. It’s not a critical independent one, and that means there could be certain biases involved. The bias seems likely when you consider that it chose only two cons — you do a pro and a con analysis — and it really only shows two cons for the current plan.

Basically, the first one is that it requires many utility relocations, and secondly, that it’s likely to require utility clearance variances. Now those definitely are problems, but it’s hard to imagine that those are the only two possible cons with the present plan. 

Incredibly, it makes no mention of the cost overruns or the loss of public faith in the project, or operations costs, or possible changes in ridership since it was originally planned. These are clearly con factors, and they’re not being considered.

Now on the other side of the sheet, looking at the pros, what they say is mostly the convenience of following through on what they’ve been doing already in terms of plans, permits and lands that have already been set aside. Also, that that would fulfil the funding agreement they made with the federal government. And that’s about it for the pros.

Miro: We’re speaking with [the] president and CEO of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, Keli’i Akina, and it’s the hot topic, the rail project. It seems like the agreement with FTA is one of the major objections to considering a new plan. Now, is that reasonable?

Akina: Well, that’s what they say. There’s an assumption that changing the plan would forfeit the remaining $755 million from the FTA and that we might end up having to pay back the $800 million that they gave us and that can scare a lot of people, but we just don’t know yet if that’s true. We’ve not got a statement from the FTA that that’s true. It’s absolutely important that before we start scaring people with that, that we clear up that matter.

The Grassroot Institute actually did file a federal open records request, asking the FTA whether it had rejected a plan to stop at Middle Street or some of the alternatives to Ala Moana Center. You may have heard about that a while back. The FTA replied to us, and they said that while they had indicated a preferred option, they never made a determination on whether a Plan B would be acceptable. The revised recovery plan submitted to the FTA by HART in September 2017 didn’t include a Plan B for it to rule on. I think it’s important for us to really go to the FTA and ask them what they will or will not do.

Frankly, it seems unlikely that the FTA would require a return of its $800 million, and we have to do the math here. Spending more than $3 billion that we don’t have in order just to hold on to $800 million isn’t really good economics.

Miro: You mentioned possible route changes. Like what, for example?

Akina: Well, there are many, many of them. I can’t possibly include them all here in our short interview today, but here’s some that sound quite interesting. First, shifting the guideway alignment to Nimitz Highway to avoid going down Dillingham altogether, with all of the utility issues you get run into over there that’s interesting. Another possibility was digging a tunnel for the rail to go under Dillingham Boulevard, under Beretania Street and under Kapiolani Boulevard all the way to the Ala Moana Center.

I mean that’s a very big idea, I’ll say, at the least. Another possibility that was raised was tunnelling directly to UH Manoa under Dillingham Beretania and King Street. Another one was shifting the guideway alignment from Dillingham to Colburn Street. When you look at this report, it provides pros and cons for each of these options, such as how they might affect ridership and passenger commute times, ground-level traffic, the potential to attract private capital, the ability to acquire permits, the development of a multimodal transit system, and so on. But you can tell right away that there are many cons that will be involved in digging tunnels all the way through Honolulu, a lot of moving parts, to say the least, to consider.

Miro: What about some of the technological alternatives they’ve examined?

Akina: Well, that’s interesting. These are mostly pretty interesting and would involve branching into different transportation technologies once the original steel-on-steel rail system reaches Middle Street. One calls for an elevated automated people mover from Middle Street to Ala Moana. Another one would have all passengers switch to buses at a certain point. Another one would change the technology from traction power to maglev, which has been talked about a lot.

The pros for all of these options are generally about lower cost, more flexibility and desirable technological changes, such as quieter operation or better maintenance options. The cons all reference the possibility of losing FTA funding, but again, I remind you, nobody’s at the FTA. The FTA hasn’t told us. Other cons include questions about ridership, logistical questions and the expected hurdles to make major changes to the original plan. For example, having to buy new equipment, to obtain and obtaining new permits, and so forth.

Miro: Well, are they looking at trying anything different, say with the rail stations?

Akina: Well, yes it seems so. There was some consideration given to relocating some of the stations, with the cons in each case tending to be more logistical, such as the need for redesign, a waste of already acquired property, possible zoning issues or approvals, need to acquire new land and the effect on the schedules.

Miro: OK, Keli‘i, why was this list of alternatives so hard to get a copy of?

Akina: Well, you know that’s a really good question that we’ve been asking, and the document itself is stamped confidential. It was very difficult for us to get it, and they were late in terms of complying with the request, and we had to go through a follow-up process. HART and board member Natalie Iwasa even asked about this in a HART board meeting on March 18th.

She wanted to know when it would be released to the public, and HART Tobias Martin didn’t give any reasons for the confidentiality but said quote, “We as an organization need to have the confidence of our stakeholders that we are committed to completing the project. To your specific question, Natalie, we’re not ready to get into having that discussion yet.”

Now that’s the end of the quote, and it sounds to me that HART was worried that if people found out that they were considering all of these other options, that people would think that HART is not committed to the original plan, not committed to the project itself, and they were worried about the public support.

It’s emblematic of the long-standing transparency problems that are at HART. Why should it be a secret that you’re looking at alternatives to the original rail plan, especially since it’s been in the media all over the place that we’re having costs and scheduling problems? Why would that be a bad thing to look at alternatives if it’s only to save money on a project that’s grossly over budget?

You notice what was said is the quote “confidence in stakeholders.” Apparently, there are real concerns about credibility at this point. In answer to your question overall, I have to say we have to ask HART itself why they held on to this document and kept it from the public for so long.

Miro: I have a few more questions for Keli’i Akina with Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. The obvious one is what should HART do next?

Akina: Well, this is a good moment to press the pause button on the rail and have an open dialogue about what should happen next. Put everything on the table. We need to have full transparency from HART about the problems, the costs and the possible solutions. We also need to consider whether it’s time to update our plan to account for changes in technology, population and so on. Do we really have good data on what it would cost to operate or on ridership? This is already a boondoggle. What if operating costs are also a boondoggle? If we need new data, let’s go and get that.

Also, most importantly, I really want to stress this, so that we’re not creating a fear factor where there shouldn’t be one: We need to clarify with the Federal Transit Administration what will happen with the grant money if we move forward with another plan. We can’t let the FTA funding be the only consideration. 

We also need to know about plans to continue taxing the public to keep the rail going. The public deserves to know whether the surcharge on the GET is going to be permanent and why. We were told it wouldn’t be permanent in the beginning. Our economy will be in recovery from the pandemic for years, and we should be careful about burdening it with new taxes.

Finally, I’d say this: HART has a duty to consider ways to rein in costs and get the project back on track. If it makes sense to stop, consider the options and restore public faith in rail. We, the people, should be part of this decision since we will shoulder the burden of paying for it.

Miro: If you had one, what is your preferred alternative for the Honolulu rail?

Akina: Basically, at the Institute here, we would favor whatever will help finish the rail fastest and at a cost Honolulu taxpayers can afford. This document that we’ve released is a good place to start finding ways to cut costs and come up with a reasonable solution. A lot of time and energy was put into it by the producers at HART. It raises a lot of options. It’s likely that the best way forward will involve multiple options, not just one solution, including the exploration of alternatives that may not even be on the list.

HART really needs to consider what has changed since 2010 regarding operating costs and ridership and technology. That’s why we say it’s important that the rail be much more transparent. People really need to know what the options are, what the costs are, what the real future of rail looks like. To that extent, if it’s possible at all to conduct a forensic audit … 

You know, we say so, back in the early days of the rail construction, people were divided hotly between pro-rail and anti-rail. We basically said, “Pro-rail or anti-rail, it’s all the same. They’re taking our money. That’s the problem.”

What we really have to do is come together, whether we believe that rail is good for Hawaii or not, and say, “Let’s understand it. Let’s do an audit and see where the money has gone and what the problems have been. Let’s, together, find a solution as we move forward.”

Miro: We’ve been speaking with Keli’i Akina of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii on the options for the rail project and transparency. The documents, Keli’i, can be reached how?

Akina: Just go to our website grassrootinstitute.org. That’s grassrootinstitute.org. You’ll find a lot of material about the rail, including the release of our report on this document by HART, which outlines multiple possible future options for the rail.

Johnny: Very important topic. The most expensive project in the history of the state. Thank you once again for your time, Keli’i. Have yourself a fantastic Sunday.

Akina: Johnny, a real delight to be with you and the listeners. Much aloha.

 

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