Honolulu’s rail authority calls the quality of the project “good,” but is it good enough for the billions taxpayers have spent?
Always Investigating is digging into recurring problems with rail construction, and whether enough is being done to stop them from happening again.
We went on-site and behind-the-scenes with experts, and dug into the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s own data that tracks problems, to see what we have gotten for the money spent so far.
We’ve heard questions for months from our viewers about rail pillars and spans that look off-kilter, even cracked. HART said not to worry, it would all be lined up later and broken pieces replaced.
So we took a field trip with engineer, and prominent rail critic, Panos Prevedouros.
“One of the cracks in this area was pretty alarming and it was along the line of the segment,” he pointed out.
A few months later, some shims atop the pillars and swapped-out segments have smoothed things out somewhat.
“They appear to be okay. The components appear to be structurally sound,” he said. “There are various open pieces at various corners. It doesn’t look like a nicely finished piece. Given the money we pay, it needs to be finished properly.”
Nearly $7 billion so far and, according to HART’s own data, it’s logged 1,191 of what’s called non-conformance reports (NCRs) so far.
HART says as of today, there are about 130 open NCRs that have yet to be resolved.
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The project’s first chief architect, who worked for rail’s consultant InfraConsult, says that’s a red flag.
“It’s a lot. It’s a tremendous number, and it tells you that something is very, very wrong,” said Douglas Tilden, who has worked on large rail and transit projects around the world besides Honolulu, “As to what could be a fatal flaw, Lord only knows, but when you get into a position where you’ve got that many NCRs, you’ve got a problem.”
HART counters in a statement: “NCRs run the gamut from material issues (rebar, concrete, etc.) to placement of cones on a street or late pickup. So the high number doesn’t mean it’s a quality issue… The overall quality of the project is good.”
HART has revealed the biggest problems have had to do with concrete, the stuff all 20 miles of the rail system will be made of. It says nearly 30 percent of the West Oahu NCRs have been related to casting problems, concrete voids, even spalling.
“That is not common. That is way too many,” Prevedouros said of the concrete problems. “I think in some areas, they are rushing so much, they don’t give enough time for quality control.”
“Is it a material flaw or a process flaw?” KHON2 asked.
“It could be a combination,” Prevedouros said, adding any problems need to be caught early at the pre-cast yard before getting to the construction site.
“It’s very, very difficult when you get into a position like you’re in with significant technical problems. It’s a mess,” Tilden said.
Always Investigating spoke with Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and asked: “There are an awful lot of construction related glitches, some major, some minor, but it’s about 1,000 non-conformance reports and we’re only out to the west and Pearl City area. Are you concerned about what we’re getting for the billions so far?”
“This is where I’ve tasked the board earlier, when I talked to them about really looking at the numbers, crunching the numbers and getting the information out,” Caldwell said. “We all know in the largest construction project in the history of this place and through the dense urban core, there are a lot of unknowns.”
Other concerns have to do with the amount of rust, starting with tracks that the city bought early to hedge on steel price.
“Basic rust is not a problem. It’s actually a protective coating that, when the rail starts running, it will clear a lot of it,” Prevedouros explained.
But when it gets installed, more problems can arise. “One of the issues is that it creates problems with the labor that tries to install them. They may need extra protection because when you’re bolting them, there may be excessive dust of rust,” Prevedouros warns, which can be dangerous when inhaled.
Other rust hot-spots lie in the rebar forms that start each pillar.
“Here we see the rebar for the support columns,” Prevedouros pointed out, “and I am a little worried that it’s quite rusty, because when you pour the rebar around it, it creates problems with adhesion of the concrete to the rebar itself. In the long term, it may cause spalling problems, delamination problems.”
That’s not the only worry about the pillars, especially in certain parts of the route.
“The problem in general with Waipahu is it was famous for springs and underneath water caves,” Prevedouros said, “and this is a very heavy, very long bridge. Some of these pylons may have settlement issues. There have been reports that at least a couple of them have issues of settling. They’re going into the ground. Beyond a few inches, it becomes tremendously stressful for the structure and we probably need to add more to support the bridge.
“It could be sudden, but it could take several years,” Prevedouros added. “First, we’ll hopefully see cracks, but then we’ll have to react to it before we have a collapse.”
Quick reactions have to be at the ready on other key jobs along the building process, like when crews go to snug the segments together with cables in something called “post-tensioning” — something that brought a near disaster near the Banana Patch — which was memorialized in HART’s report as Span 258, NCR 509.
“They had a failure with a segment they were trying to post-tension it, which is the process this thing is getting built,” Prevedouros said, “but the tendons failed. There was essentially a minor collapse. Now they’re shoring it up to try to connect it with the two pieces to the left and the right. The whole segment seems to be supported from the bottom and they’re trying to fix the situation.”
“Does it run a future safety risk?” Always Investigating asked.
“The problem is now, by having this failure, it is costing a lot of time and resources to fix it,” Prevedouros said. “But they will fix it in a way that will probably be quite durable.”
Durability is a question being asked about shims, not just between and spans and the pillars, but all along the rail. Kiewit elected to use shims along the rail line instead of the usual “plinth” to house the rails. But HART says “geometry control” and alignment problems “exceed tolerances.”
Many worry the shim substitutions could be a maintenance and safety concern going forward.
“HART tried to visit other cities with transit systems and get their input as to what is acceptable or not, so it’s got a little complicated,” Prevedouros said, “but work is proceeding. Rails have been installed. The shim solution is much skinnier. It might create maintenance problems and replacement requests somewhere in the future.”
Bringing the rail to street level
As the rail project’s price tag keeps getting higher, with so many documented problems building a long bridge system for 20 miles, there’s a lot of talk about making major changes to the project to keep it on track and on budget.
But there’s been concern that we would lose millions in federal funds.
A HART board member recently brought up stopping it at Middle Street, something that’s been suggested by opponents as well.
Tilden, the former chief architect for rail’s consultant, told KHON2 they could even change the design and bring the rest of it down to street level.
So how did Honolulu get what’s essentially a giant bridge system for rapid transit?
Tilden recalls: “Very little attention was paid to the alternatives analysis. There was a preconceived notion from the client that they were going to build heavy rail. It was elevated, and they gave short shrift to any alternative. As soon as we started seeing they were going to put it all up on the guideway structure, the alarm bells went off. We said it’s going to cost a heck of a lot of money.
“If the project were to do the right thing, it would be to go to the federal government and say look, this thing is costing so much more money, we can’t afford it. Of course the feds will let you modify it,” Tilden said. “Even when you’re trying to put the darn thing up, you’re screwing up with settlements and plinths (which Kiewit is substituting with shims), and cracks. The answer is as clear as can be: bring it into the city, put it at grade and run it at grade, period.”
The Federal Transit Administration confirmed to Always Investigating that projects are allowed to make changes. But at what expense to the federal share of funds?
“If any modifications are proposed, it will need to evaluate them before determining the impact on the federal funding,” the FTA said in a statement. “FTA will continue to work with HART and the City and County of Honolulu to ensure the successful completion of the project.”
“Twenty-some cities and none of them, none of them chose an all-elevated system,” Tilden said of other recent U.S. rail projects. “All of them only had at most had very short segments of the alignment elevated to get over highways, rivers, what have you.”
Whatever form the project takes after such changes, the city still is obligated to finish the job and would have to pay back the feds if the project were to be abandoned undone.
“FTA’s FFGA (Full Funding Grant Agreement) requires completion of the project or repayment of federal funds if the project is terminated,” FTA told Always Investigating.
“What about coming down to at grade, whether at Dillingham (Boulevard) or town and beyond, and continuing the full segment?” Always Investigating asked Mayor Caldwell.
“That question is asked all the time and I think it’s a really good question to ask and here is the issue,” Caldwell said. “This system is going to go an average of 30 miles an hour, no matter what traffic problems are at grade. So if it comes to town, and you’ve got trains coming into a station every five minutes, three trains with potentially 800 people, probably more like 500-600, you have to stop at intersections. It has to go slower, and everything piles into each other. It gets backed up and you’re not going fast. People want to know, ‘I can get from Kroc Center to Ala Moana Center in 42 minutes, no matter what’s happening at grade.’
“It would probably be cheaper, (but) it wouldn’t be faster,” Caldwell added. “People wouldn’t ride it.”
State of FTA funding
The federal share of the rail project is supposed to be $1.5 billion, but issuance of the installment payments to Honolulu has gotten a bit backed up. Honolulu has yet to receive payments for fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2016.
FTA told Always Investigating: “Until FTA receives and approves a revised project cost estimate, schedule, and financial plan which includes a commitment of all of the local funds needed to cover that cost estimate, FTA cannot award the FY2015 or FY2016 increments of New Starts (Section 5309) funds under the terms of the Full Funding Grant Agreement.
“In the fall of 2015, FTA communicated to HART and Mayor Caldwell that additional information is needed before we can fully validate HART’s revised cost and schedule,” FTA added. “While FTA has received some updated information since then, HART has undertaken additional efforts to further refine its cost and schedule information. FTA anticipates receipt of HART’s updated financial plan soon. The plan is required to demonstrate that the sources of funds committed to the project are sufficient to cover the cost of the project.”