Make-goods on the way for those short-changed in rail relocation

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The federal government has given Honolulu’s rail authority the green light to start reaching out to people who were unpaid or underpaid for moving out of rail’s way. Always Investigating looked into what comes next.

It’s a problem we’ve been tracking ever since HART itself caught red flags in a former contractor’s handling of relocations. It snowballed into a full-fledged federal audit and mandatory do-over that HART says will take a year.

A federal law called the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act is supposed to be applied whenever a big federally funded project needs to bump people and businesses out of its way. The Federal Transit Administration sent in an auditing team in the spring, and this fall handed down a stinging report that HART didn’t follow the act — overpaying some, underpaying or not paying others. HART says a deficient contractor was to blame in part.

“The report included a requirement that we come up with a relocation action plan, a corrective action plan,” explained Dylan Jones, who heads HART’s right-of-way division.

The feds approved the corrective action plan yesterday.

Always Investigating asked Jones: At this point are you free to get going and reaching out to these people?

“Yes, we’re going to be contracting a team that is very experienced in the Uniform Relocation Act,” Jones said, “so that we can complete whatever remediation is required, including the team we’ll have to go out and interview all of the dislocated parties.”

Jones says HART will now have a team reaching out to 108 re-locations that have to be re-visited.

“It’s going to be huge undertaking,” Jones said, “but I think we want to make sure that everybody receives the benefits that they’re due.”

The FTA audit found many instances of overpayment or inappropriate help, but the feds zeroed in on how to patch things up with former landowners and tenants who didn’t get their fair due in relocation assistance. HART has been mum on who exactly they are, masking names and tax-map key numbers with internal parcel codes instead.

Always Investigating traced ownership of several of those by digging through court cases for condemnation or minutes of HART meetings going back years.

We found some HART says ” were harmed” are corporately owned — such as a HECO parcel on Dillingham Boulevard. But others are local families and small businesses, like 91-year-old Richard Lee, whose company was booted out of Pearl City’s “banana patch.”

The Lees say they’ve been told for years that not much could be done for them, and they were surprised to hear from KHON2 about the federally mandated help — and the HART mea culpa — that may come.

“We feel very happy to hear that the federal government is looking into reviewing the outcome of this investigation,” Lee told KHON2.

Always Investigating asked Lee: You and many others might stand to get something more, some kind of assistance; how does that make you feel?

“I feel, after the investigation and everything, we feel if it wasn’t treated (right) we should be treated right,” Lee said.

Always Investigating asked HART: What kinds of benefits and payments might some of them come upon once this is all resolved?

“It’s possible that they were due monies for moving expenses, or they might be due lease-rent or other things like that,” Jones said.

For those who had gotten used to hearing “we can’t do that, we can’t help you,” Always Investigating asked HART: What is going to be different this time around?

“We’re going to make sure that they have the complete information,” Jones explained. “We’re getting a survey or an interview form that the FTA will be providing us with so that we make sure that all their possible benefits are covered. Hopefully we’ll be very friendly in these interviews and make sure that everybody is covered as they should be under the act.”

There are 25 more relocations ongoing right now, and more likely ahead as HART continues to buy or condemn land and clear the way to Ala Moana Center.

“Those are currently being handled by a consultant who is very experienced in the URA,” Jones explained of the more recent relocations that are ongoing since 2018, “so we are very confident, and they’re working closely with the FTA and the FTA is confident of their work.”

Jones says HART has to have all the do-overs completed by September 2020, to meet the federal deadline for compliance with the relocation fixes.

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