HART board could consider ending rail at Middle St. in light of bloated budget

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It’s no secret Oahu’s rail transit project struggles with money problem.

Now, for the first time, the board overseeing the project could consider shortening the route.

Instead of going the full 20 miles to Ala Moana Center, at least one board member says officials should consider ending the route at Middle Street.

Much of Thursday’s board meeting focused on the possibility that the cost of the project can still go way up as it’s built closer to town. That prompted board member Terrence Lee to ask: “Don’t we owe it to the public to start looking at alternatives? There’s talk about stopping the rail at Middle Street and pursuing other options.”

Some Honolulu City Councilmembers have pitched the idea in order to save money, but HART has always said it wasn’t an option because Honolulu could lose $1.55 billion in federal funding for the project.

Some councilmembers, such as chair Ernie Martin, pointed out that if rail’s costs continue to rise, the city won’t be able to afford it. He believes the Federal Transit Administration will allow for some concession if HART, the mayor, and the city council plead their case.

“The FTA is not an adversary. They’re a partner in this effort, and I think it’s a matter of coming to some level of understanding that the city does not have the financial wherewithal to complete the project as contemplated given the current economic circumstances,” Martin said.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell disagrees, arguing that shortening the project would lead to fewer riders, which could ultimately cost taxpayers more in the long-run.

“We need the build the full 20 miles,” he said. “Yes, it’s easy to say we’ll save some money, but we’re going to have a system that’s operating at the level we should and we’re going to have something that probably we’re going to have to subsidize and ridership is a big part of that. We need to build the full 20 miles.”

Councilmember Kymberly Pine, who represents residents in Leeward Oahu, says shortening the route would be unfair to her district.

“When H-3 was 10 times over-budget, no one said, ‘Let’s only build half a tunnel,'” she said. “Why is there no political will to help the people of Central Oahu and the North Shore and Leeward Oahu?”

Mufi Hannemann, who was a strong supporter of rail when he was mayor of Honolulu, says it’s still too early to make such a drastic decision, and it has to be discussed thoroughly if the route is shortened.

“I’m really anxious to see that a thorough public discussion be held on a decision of this nature that would involve not just government officials, not just HART, but that the public be able to weigh in,” Hannemann said.

Martin says he would like someone from HART to at least crunch the numbers to see exactly how much money will be saved.

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