March 17, 2018
THE SLOW MOTION TRAIN WRECK AT HONOLULU HALE
HONOLULU – Honolulu means “sheltered harbor” or “calm port” but these days, neither definition really applies at the Honolulu City Council. Much of the discord in recent years has been caused by Honolulu’s controversial Honolulu Transit Project which has been plagued from day one by massive cost overruns. Depending on who you ask, the cost estimates have grown from the original $4 billion in 2006 to nearly $10 billion by 2017. With the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) carefully watching, a “forensic audit” is being asked by a rising chorus of critics “to consider alternatives for completing the system.”
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The long debate has divided the electorate (53% of voters originally in favor) – not to mention the virtual revolving door of highly paid “experts” and a small army of public relations operatives routinely coming and going from the management entity created, ostensibly to take the politics out of it: the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART). Such are the “plans of mice and men.”
The project has been largely financed by a surcharge on local taxes and a $1.55 billion grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). After it became clear that the construction estimates for the 20 miles of elevated guideways and 21 stations were way off the charts, the surcharge was extended in 2016 by five years “to raise another $1.2 billion” which will only complete half the project. But the FTA insists that it be completed as planned – hinting that they might well ask for their money back should that not happen. After the funding hot potato landed in the state legislature, in 2017 $2.4 billion in additional state taxes were approved to hopefully see the system completed as promised to the feds. To make matters worse, much of the completed massive elevated concrete guideway is in relatively rural areas and the remaining 4.3 miles is through downtown Honolulu and presents some serious (some say “insurmountable”) construction challenges such as sewers and other utilities — as well as the many angry property owners and businesses whose lives are about to be seriously disrupted.
What to do? Last week, a rumored “power shift” at the City Council became a reality with a Council vote to replace the current Chair expected on Monday, March 19th. Yes, rail is suddenly back in the headlines as Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the City Council debate how to cover possibly another $215 million of rail construction costs during an election year. Honolulu taxpayers will not quietly watch if property taxes are again raised and fees and service charges are again increased to fund the seemingly endless sinkhole called the Honolulu Transit Project.