FTA on rail route: downtown minimum, Ala Moana ideal

Local News

Rail must make it to at least Aloha Tower, or the city risks forfeiting the federal government’s entire share of the project.

That’s among the key messages city leadership got after two days of meetings in San Francisco with the Federal Transit Administration.

The FTA said no to giving any more money beyond its $1.55 billion committed, and told the city that if it can’t get the general excise tax extended or raise more revenue elsewhere, they have to stretch an existing $6.8 billion to make it beyond Middle Street.

“They would not be satisfied with anything less than going to at least at the minimum downtown Honolulu, and in their minds downtown Honolulu meant the Aloha Tower station,” Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin told KHON2 from San Francisco. “The focus was recognizing the GET surcharge was the most viable source of revenue to meet the shortfall.”

“Where you did not see such a unified front going into the legislature the last time (the GET extension was passed), the council chair as well as the transportation chair that were there, the mayor, they’re all saying we’re in this together and we’re going to move this forward together,” Colleen Hanabusa, chairwoman of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s board of directors, told KHON2 from San Francisco.

FTA’s preference is still that the system go all the way to Ala Moana, which will require more than another $1 billion to get there based on last estimates of at least an $8 billion total project cost. The $6.8 billion figure is the total of federal and local sources without any additional GET extension.

“Our meetings with the FTA were productive in that we sent a clear message to them that the City and HART leadership are united and committed to build rail all the way to Ala Moana,” Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said in a statement.

Martin said sources for the additional revenue discussed included a GET extension beyond its current 2027 sunset date, state highway funds, private partnerships and other city revenue to patch the difference.

“We need the legislature’s support to invest in a better future with us and to recognize the role rail will play in improving the quality of life for the people of Hawaii,” Honolulu City Council transportation chair Joey Manahan, who attended the meetings, said in a statement.

Most acknowledge it will be an uphill battle at the Capitol. The House and Senate money chairs both have expressed in the past they are not open to a tax extension since the cost of rail skyrocketed after the last extension was voted on.

“Even within the council’s own perspective when the GET surcharge was extended by the Legislature, we had our reservations as well with respect to the representations from the administration and HART,” Martin told KHON2. “But the circumstances have changed dramatically I think with respect to leadership at the very top at HART both from the administration and the policy-making board. I think we have a greater level of confidence in the numbers. The difference this time around is we need to make a concerted effort collectively with the legislature, as the City and County of Honolulu, not the mayor, not HART on its own, by the City Council as well.”

At the San Francisco meeting, the city also agreed to cost containment, and to let transit experts conduct a project review by the end of the year.

The FTA is considering an extension to the Dec. 31 deadline for a recovery plan.

The FTA has told the city in the past that it will not release the remaining $750 million of its unspent grant money until a recovery plan is reviewed and accepted by the FTA.

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