Tension escalates over rail’s power supply and who will pay for it

It’s been a year since Always Investigating revealed that power sources and infrastructure for rail still haven’t been resolved.

The feds flagged it as a critical problem and since then, tensions have escalated and the costly fix still isn’t in place.

It’s gotten to the point that the top brass of both the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation and Hawaiian Electric are meeting weekly trying to hash out who should pay for what. Many say it’s a tab easily in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the train’s very operation depends on it.

Honolulu’s electric rail is short of cash and answers on about power: Who will pay for a new substation? How will line relocations be handled and paid for? Who’s undergrounding the wires and paying for that? Not to mention, what will the train’s power bill be for decades to come?

“When we hear all these challenges, it means one thing. Cha-ching,” said Panos Prevedouros, an engineering professor at the University of Hawaii.

In the year since Always Investigating first revealed these problems had become critical in the eyes of the feds, we asked HART, HECO, the mayor and the city council chair to weigh in on the status and how it can be fixed.

None of them would talk, but the newest member of the HART board, Colleen Hanabusa, did.

“The unfortunate part of that question is that it comes down to one group of people who are going to pay and that’s you and me. It’s the consumers who are going to pay,” she said.

But will they pay as taxpayers to the city and HART, or as ratepayers to HECO?

The fact that it’s gotten up to the HART CEO and a HECO president meeting, “that says they both know this is a major issue and the problem is because of the time,” Hanabusa said.

HART says some of it is budgeted for but all general consensus is it’s way too low an estimate.

Take just the cost to put wire underground in all the tight corridors where you can’t have a high-voltage live wire running alongside a speeding train.

“It was under $100 million, as I recall, and that’s not enough,” Hanabusa said.

Add to that the cost of a substation needed to power the rail operation center that HART didn’t budget for.

“I suspect it’s something in the $150 million or more so for them, since it was not planned part of the design,” Prevedouros said.

Then there’s the tab for, and who is going to do, the relocation of power lines that is specifically left out of the relocation contract for all other utilities in the airport area.

Hanabusa confirms that could be a couple hundred million dollars more.

“Shouldn’t we know that before the city council votes on whether and how much to extend?” Always Investigating asked.

“I think that would make a difference as to whether the city council feels that they can cap,” Hanabusa said.

Rail needs so much power that there’s even a concern of how HECO can supply all that. The train needs 30-50 megawatts, about what 15,000 homes would use at peak energy times.

HECO has said in the past that it expects “to have enough resources to continue meeting the energy needs of all our customers.”

But is it really capable of meeting that much demand?

The cost of delaying all these answers is not yet known.

“The reality of it is you can’t move on the construction phase if you’re talking about have to underground lines, because it doesn’t make sense,” Hanabusa said. “You know what you’re going to do to the traffic? You know what you’re going to do to the people?You’re going to make them suffer through this twice. That makes no sense at all.”

HART has talked about the option of going independent, creating its own utility.

“I don’t think it’s ever too late,” Hanabusa said. “If I were to tell someone hey, stop, because I’m the new kid on the block, and just like okay, stop guys. Why don’t we rethink this? What about this? What about H-Power? What about H-Power and rail? … For the amount that we need for rail, to me, H-Power is the best source.”

“This would have been a very smart idea to do from the get-go. Go independent, and then connect to the H-Power plant, which is not too far from where the line terminates,” Prevedouros said.

The city has a contract to sell that H-Power energy to HECO through 2033. It’s not clear what would happen if the NextEra merger goes through.

“The city, the council, the mayor, hopefully they will all sit back and say how do we get this thing that the people are thinking we just lost control of and pull it back in?” Hanabusa said.

HART’s federal oversight contractor this summer called HECO-related costs “HART’s most significant risk to the project.”

The contractor also revealed that a HECO quote had come in so high, it wanted HART to get a better price and get the power issue resolved no later than fall 2015.

HART and HECO won’t disclose what that high number was. HART only said it hopes for new “cost estimates in a couple of months.”

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