HONOLULU (KHON2) — The drastic slowdown in travel since last spring has given Hawaii’s airports time to improve. But there could be complications with future funding. As the state stares down a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, some are looking to tap cash in a slew of special funds. That includes transportation accounts, money the airports division says it needs to keep up with new projects and fixes.

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If like many people across Hawaii you’ve been avoiding travel during the pandemic, lots of new improvements await at the state’s airports once you get back to flying again.

“Two of the marquee projects with the state Department of Transportation airports division are the car rental facility and the mauka concourse (at HNL),” explains DOT spokesperson Tim Sakahara. “Both are worth hundreds of millions of dollars and they’re going really well. They’re actually nearing the finish line.”

With passenger counts dropping last year to more than 90 percent below normal, everyone from construction to maintenance crews turned that down time into their go time.

“Even though the passenger volumes are much lower, the amount of work that is being done has increased,” Sakahara said. “Not only the construction, but the janitors have been doing a phenomenal job, continually sanitizing and cleaning the airport facilities, all those common touch points, like doorknobs and elevators and handrails, elevator buttons and things like that.”

It’s still a bit of a ghost-town retail-wise. Some food vendors have reopened. A handful of stores turn on the lights when enough landings are expected. That’s also caused a dip in percent rents.

“It is not like the state can force an airport concession to open,” Sakahara said. “The retail is going to come back last.”

Daniel K. Inouye International Airport restrooms, Honolulu, Hawaii, Jan. 29, 2021

Restrooms are a common complaint. KHON2 even heard from viewers who found no soap while traveling during COVID. We did see soap on spot-checks recently, but still lots of the usual broken stalls. The state says bathrooms are getting a do-over.

“The restrooms were an area that certainly needed to be spruced up, and that is something that is happening statewide,” Sakahara said. “Every restroom here at HNL is getting worked on as we speak. Actually, that’s another project that just started within the last year. It’s about halfway done.”

It’s not just at HNL. Kahului has a new terminal project, and a federal inspection station is underway at Kona.

So how are they paying for all of this with passenger counts, concessions and landing fees down?

“One of the things DOT did was they refinanced some of the bonds that they have had in the past at a lower interest rate. That alone has saved $100 million over the next two years,” Sakahara said. “Of course, you have the federal stimulus money that has been absolutely critical in helping maintain all the projects and the work and employment.”

Money also comes from various special funds, but the legislature is eyeing those as spare cash to help fill a huge general fund hole. Statewide, all agencies have nearly $800 million that lawmakers think could be redirected

“I just introduced two bills. One of them is to repeal all special funds,” Rep. Sylvia Luke told Always Investigating, “And the second bill is to scoop all the unencumbered amounts from special funds.” (HB1298 and HB1299)

“We are also looking at Department of Transportation funds as well, not only airports, but also harbors and highway,” Luke said. “The airport special fund does not just include the airline landing fees. It also includes tons of other fees including concessionaires amounts that concessionaires pay, lease rent and other things that go into the operation of the airport.”

KHON2 asked Luke: What would you say to those who have pitched into those funds in one way or another that say, ‘Hey, wait, it’s a bait and switch. I thought I was paying for this. Now it’s being taken for that?’”

“So I’m saying similar to general excise tax and income tax, you and I both pay into the general excise tax and the income tax,,” Luke said. “Regardless of whether it’s for a specific purpose, or for a general purpose, every taxpayer is paying for all kinds of services. This is not the time to say, ‘Hey, you know what we paid into this fund, so they should be protected.’ Well then that goes for all the regular taxpayers to because they pay billions and billions of dollars into income tax.”

Luke says an alternative with the bigger funds is swap out some cash with construction bonds that keep the work going.

“Last year, we swapped out about $250 million to $300 million that went into Rental Housing Trust Fund,” Luke explained. “We swapped out cash with construction funds. Swapping out doesn’t slow down any work or any type of contract. They were very willing to swap it out because it didn’t interfere with some of the projects. They didn’t skip a beat. They continue to award commitments and contracts for a new project.”

DOT hopes the dollars can stay with the department spending them.

“Those funds are critical to stay with the Department of Transportation,” Sakahara said, “to continue to work on those projects and construction to keep stimulating the economy and to keep the people at work.”

We’ll keep tracking the bills and see what happens to the special funds and the airport improvement projects.