Rail property buy up faces time, cost challenges


The rail project is getting into more congested residential and business areas, but to get the train going, some property owners will have to sell.

That’s getting more and more expensive and complicated.

A federal watchdog is expressing concern about the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) being behind schedule on land buys. Well over 100 deals with private and government entities still have to be made. Always Investigating dug into where and why it’s getting bogged down, and what it could cost taxpayers.

Bulldozers tore down property this week a stone’s throw from Ala Moana Center, the end of the line for Honolulu rail. It won’t reach here for years but the tear-down of HART-bought buildings is a reminder it’s coming.

Urban Honolulu hasn’t had to make way for a transportation project in decades and never to this scale.

“Not since when the freeway went through Makiki and Moilili,” said Mark Murakami, a land-use attorney with the law firm Damon Key Leong Kupchak Hastert. “The most recent government project was H-3, and that was all on state land.”

The way-out-west part of the rail right-of-way seems easy now, where rail’s path went through fields, compared to the maze of public, private and business interests on the rest of the route.

“This project is definitely going into a very congested area with definite impacts,” Murakami said, “and I’m not sure all the property owners along the way have truly recognized what those impacts are going to be.”

At least 38 once privately-owned homes and businesses have felt the impact (36 identified by HART at a May 2015 board presentation, plus another two more parcels disclosed to KHON2 as of the broadcast of this story). Buying those places set taxpayers back more than $71 million for the properties and another $7.5 million in relocation costs.

Closed Private Property Acquisitions

Always Investigating scoured the list of more than 230 properties originally identified as being in rail’s path, and so far HART only controls 83 of them. Another are going through condemnation, a forced taking in court.

“(It’s an) inevitability. Sure, the city and HART have the power to take your land away from you,” Murakami said. “The law, however, requires you be compensated for that, and the devil is in the details — what your land is worth, what the impact to the remainder is worth.”

Those details are throwing both sides for a loop. A consultant charged with being the federal government’s eyes and ears on the project keeps warning that HART is behind schedule on buying up the right of way.

“The number of outstanding parcels remains significant,” Jacobs Engineering Group wrote in its latest monthly project management oversight contractor (PMOC) report to the Federal Transit Administration. “Acquisitions are improving, but are still behind schedule.”

Even where the city doesn’t need to buy land, Jacobs Engineering warns that “easement locations for relocated utilities are becoming critical and could impact construction work.”

“It does seem like the right-of-way acquisitions are slowing down,” Murakami said. “There are timelines, there are appraisals, there are reviews. It’s an orderly process, but I think the schedule is largely driven by the construction timeline.”

Looking at Kakaako alone, HART still needs to buy a couple whole lots, but needs dozens of slivers or more, and dozens of temporary or permanent easements. That’s not getting any easier or any cheaper in the hot real estate market there.

HART said in a presentation to its board of directors that the area’s market conditions, and the likelihood of having to probably buy up a lot more full instead of partial lots, could send the price tag for right of way soaring. The budget right now is $222 million for the whole line.

Bumping up against land-buy delays, the federal government allowed HART to invoke what’s called an “irrevocable right of entry” on land it’s eyeing but doesn’t have yet, so it can get onsite before purchase or condemnation and get going with construction.

“Completed acquisitions are not required for construction to move forward as scheduled,” HART said in a statement to KHON2. “An important factor for us is that we have access to properties that we need to keep the project on schedule. Currently, we have access to more than 90 percent of the properties that we need through various agreements and we are on track with our construction schedule.”

But some surprises could be in store closer to town.

“It’s a dynamic process,” Murakami said. “There are very unique physical aspects of land in the town area with underground streams and utility tunnels we don’t know about. Even if the landowners aren’t currently slated for acquisition, it could definitely change as construction proceeds through this area.”

Click through our interactive map below to explore HART’s closed and pending/uncontrolled properties. (Note: Map does not include properties that have no street address.)

View HART Property Acquisition Status (07-09-15) in a full screen map

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