PUC review could delay key rail power source

Always Investigating

The first segment of Honolulu’s rail system is supposed to start running in three years, but the latest timeline for powering the train may bring that start date into question.

Always Investigating has been following this topic for years, and now we’ve learned powering part of rail’s track and core facility could be up in the air with regulators for a year or more.

It’s been long unresolved where rail’s power was coming from and how, and who was going to pay for it.

Now HECO confirms it will need to put a big substation near the rail operation center, and it will take a while to get it there. HECO has told HART it first needs Public Utilities Commission approval, and estimates 12 to 18 months for that before even designing it.

“You’re talking 18 months, then you’re talking another six months to a year maybe to build, but it depends on who is handling the contract and the timeframe they’re in can dictate the true deadline they need to meet,” said Damien Kim, business manager of the Hawaii Electricians IBEW Local Union 1186 and also vice chair of the HART board of directors. “That’s not fully addressed in all these letters. I’m sure that has to be worked out and eventually come out hopefully sooner than later.”

That’s because the substation is key to an interim opening of the first 10 miles targeted for 2019, and it will be located near the heart of the project, close to the maintenance and storage facility.

“Some of the stations will have power for that facility, but basically this is to run the track system itself,” Kim said. “You can’t just turn it on partially. The substation has to be completed to run a portion of that track.”

In a recent letter to rail authority staff, HECO says the substation will be “generally” the utility’s cost. While a price tag isn’t cited, in the past it has been estimated in the multimillions.

Oahu taxpayers who are funding most of rail are also HECO ratepayers.

“Whether it be the taxpayer from the G.E. tax standpoint or whether it’ll be Hawaiian Electric with maybe a rate increase or maybe just coming out of some funds that could have went to something else, I’m not too sure,” Kim said.

It’s all far from free to the city though. HECO says HART has to get about 8,000 square feet of land for the substation at the city’s cost. HART has to pay for the distribution system’s installation, operation and maintenance, and HART will have to foot the bill for anything beyond “standard” with HECO recommending a fully redundant backup service at HART’s cost.

HART wrote back to HECO, saying it would like more details on going beyond standard, and wants to know what upgrades HECO is doing about all its track power sites for the length of the project.

“There are still a lot of questions in there. It doesn’t lock down cost. It gives a rough timeframe, but again everything’s up in the air,” Kim said. “What is the cost to it? Because we need to figure this in our recovery plan as well.”

HART and the city need to give the Federal Transit Administration a financial recovery plan by no later than year’s end – a final deadline the feds have already extended before.

HART has been carrying a $10 million placeholder in the budget in case HART that to pay for the substation project. HART’s spokesperson told Always Investigating today they now think their share will be much less even with all those HECO conditions.

The substation topic is on this week’s HART board agenda. We’ll follow up on anything new that comes from their review of these latest letters between HECO and HART staff.

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