Honolulu mayor requests rail deadline extension to June 2017

Always Investigating

Less than two weeks after Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell backed a focus on getting rail to Middle Street, he’s telling the feds he still wants to get it all the way to Ala Moana and asking for more time to find the funds to get there.

The Federal Transit Administration wanted a financial recovery plan by August 7 detailing how the city will build rail with the money it can depend on.

But that’s at least a billion dollars short of what’s needed to get to Ala Moana.

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s board chairwoman told Always Investigating last Thursday that the deadline was too tight for a recovery plan.

The mayor is now asking the feds to give him until next June, citing uncertainty with elections on the federal, state, and county level.

It’s a delay that some say is too long.

“Since Middle Street was discussed as a pause, we’ve heard from so many people in so many communities that that is unacceptable,” said HART boardmember Mike Formby. “You cannot stop at Middle Street, so we’re trying to say rather than come up with a plan, let’s just come up with a solution.”

They want the time to flesh out the recovery plan all the way to Ala Moana and not just to the Middle Street pause the mayor advocated to the HART board a couple weeks ago.

“I want the whole system, but we need to time to find the money and you’re not going to find it. It’s $1.5 billion. You’re not going to find it in a month and a half, and that’s why I wrote the letter to the FTA saying give us the time and it will not be resolved until after the election,” said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. “I picked the end of May because we’ll have an answer from the Legislature at the end of May, how we build all the way to Ala Moana, the full 20 miles, and if we’re lucky, we’ll have an answer on how to go even further.”

That will take extra money above that $6.8 billion whether from another GE tax extension, private partnerships, or new sources of money like the state’s 10-percent skim of the excise tax hike.

Federal cost models peg the full project anywhere between $8 billion and $11 billion.

The Honolulu City Council ultimately decides what will pass muster. Chairman Ernie Martin wants the recovery plan done sooner, based on money the project has now and not what it hopes to get.

“My contention is although some degree of extension is necessary, I think kicking the can down the road is something we shouldn’t be taking a look at. I prefer something that is more sensible and immediate,” said Martin. “With the resources we have available Middle Street is where we can go at this point and we should be focused on that option.”

The feds have not yet said what, if any, time extension they’ll grant. They have said repeatedly that no more federal money will be released until a firm revised cost estimate, updated schedule, and financial plan with all local funds needed is turned in, reviewed and approved at the federal level.

So what happens next?

“My own thoughts is that we need to be meeting with the FTA yesterday. We should be past the letter-writing stage. We should be sitting at the table and doing the hard negotiation in terms of what is viable and what are their expectation,” Martin said. “I never defer to the mayor, so I’ll pick up the phone and make that call, hopefully by the end of the week. I want to give them a few days to digest what the mayor has sent them and then have an opportunity to discuss with them.”

Meanwhile, HART staff has been assigned to meet an internal fall 2016 deadline just in case.

“We’re going to respond to what the FTA tells us. If they tell us that mid-2017 just doesn’t work for them, that’s fine. And if council chair tells us November 2016 doesn’t work for him, that’s fine as well,” Formby said. “I’m happy to meet with the council chair, hear him out and I respect that. At the end of the day, the council makes a decision what the plan will be.”

We’ll follow up as soon as we hear whether the feds extend the August 7th deadline, and what steps the administration and city council take on next steps with the known funding.

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