Should rail be city-run or independent? Voters may decide this fall

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As Honolulu’s rail project deals with a cost crunch that may mean shortening the line, fingers are being pointed in different directions about who should end up running the train.

That control could be decided by voters this fall.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration has proposed a city charter change that would dismantle the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation structure. Instead of it being a semi-autonomous commission, rail operations and all its assets and properties would come under the mayor’s Transportation Services department.

Supporters say it gives elected officials more direct control, while opponents say it would create yet another problem.

Back in February, the mayor said in his State of the City he wanted to take rail back from HART when it comes time to operate the train.

“We can’t keep doing business in the same way and expect a different result, so I want more aggressive oversight and greater transparency from HART,” he said on Feb. 29.

How transparent HART was about some big billions worst-case numbers is now at the forefront of the debate about whether to take over rail or leave it independent under HART.

The feds do what’s called a risk refresh every couple years for Honolulu’s rail, and each time a top-end figure pops up — in the latest case $11 billion — a couple years ago, nearly $8 billion, no longer a way-outside figure — instead it’s the current consensus of the cost to Ala Moana.

The fact no one made hay of the $8 billion number two years ago is among the reasons some are saying rail needs to be run differently.

“I don’t believe the mayor, the City Council, the Legislature were even aware of the figure,” said HART board chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa. “I’m not sure they were aware of the document. Someone in HART was aware of it.”

Always Investigating tracked back on HART’s public Docushare site and found the full reports on the HART website. We also found that they’d been handed out at a September 2014 board meeting, attended by then-board chair Don Horner along with administration appointees.

The risk refresh was cited in documentation given last March to the Legislature’s two money chairs — Rep. Sylvia Luke and Sen. Jill Tokuda — and CC-ed to the council chair and mayor’s managing director before lawmakers voted on a general excise tax extension now known to be too short.

“In this case, at this point, it does look like HART does a better job with transparency than the governmental unit at the city and the state level,” said Hawaii Pacific University professor and political analyst John Hart.

“If it means because we posted it on a website, we’re now transparent and you’ve got to go find this stuff, that’s not realistic,” said HART board member and city Transportation Services director Mike Formby. “There’s a lot of documents. There’s 20,000, 30,000 pages of documents. It’s their obligation as the staff that manages the program to point out to the mayor, the council, the Legislature and the board, those things that are important and significant.”

While Mayor Caldwell says a change in structure through a charter amendment would be the fix, his opponents in the mayor’s race have other perspectives.

“There can always be a complaint about transparency under any circumstances,” said Honolulu mayoral candidate Peter Carlisle. “Keep HART. They’re the ones who are going to keep it as apolitical as possible… Stick it somewhere else so he and the council can control it? That is something in my mind that would be completely unacceptable.”

“In a lot of ways, this is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Honolulu mayoral candidate Charles Djou. “That’s not the problem. That’s not what’s going to get us out of this mess. The structure isn’t what got us into this mess… I think they could have highlighted things a little bit better to the public, but you know what? That’s not HART’s responsibility. Again, it’s the city-elected officials ultimately who are responsible for taking these numbers, translating it and explaining it to the people and that clearly has not been done.”

The Honolulu Charter Commission is still hashing out language and what will make it to any ballot, but so far the charter change would let HART finish out construction but meanwhile move operations under the city Department of Transportation Services.

“It’s intended to be a seamless operation — one fare card, one schedule of operations, so that everything syncs,” Formby said. “So the choice was do bus and Handi-Van go to HART, or does rail come to the city?”

In coming to the city, it would implement a rate commission which shall “not interfere in any way with the administrative affairs of the Department of Transportation or the authority” and would do away with the little known Transportation Commission, which currently does review department operations and performance.

DTS has not posted the commission’s reports, reviews or minutes publicly in quite some time. We’ve asked for copies, but we did find a Federal Transit Administration triennial review of DTS posted on the HART website since some of the line items overlapped with rail.

In that review last year, the feds found the DTS had problems in categories like financial management, technical, ADA, planning, equal employment opportunity and procurement, and, this year, affirmed corrective actions have been achieved.

So who is best prepared — or least flawed — to run transit operations, HART or a mayor’s transportation department? It could come down to voters to decide.

“If we are going to take rail and take it back off the commission and back into the political system, look at the three tests — patronage, politics and performance,” Hart said. “Patronage: Are we sure city officials are not going to appoint their friends to this? Performance: Are we sure city officials have the expertise to deal with this directly? And finally politics: Is this issue to the point where our elective representatives have to deal with it directly?”

On this and other possible charter amendments, it’s important to make your voice known with a vote.

On state constitutional amendments, a blank is counted as no, creating a higher threshold for passage. But on city charter changes, blank votes are just ignored. Only a clear yes or no gets counted.

Coming up next week, a series of public meetings will be held across Oahu by the Charter Commission.

View meeting details below and the full agenda here (see pages 15-22).

Monday, June 27 at 6 p.m.

Downtown/Honolulu

Honolulu Hale

530 South King Street

Honolulu City Council

Committee Meeting Room 205

Wednesday, June 29 at 6 p.m.

Central Oahu/North Oahu

Mililani High School

95-1200 Meheula Parkway

Friday, July 1 at 6 p.m.

Windward/East Oahu

Windward Community College

Hale Kuhina Room 115

45-720 Keaahala Road

Wednesday, July 6 at 6 p.m.

Leeward/West Oahu

University of Hawaii-West Oahu

Campus Center Multipurpose Room C208

91-1001 Farrington Highway

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