POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 2, 2010
Lending and construction costs are low, which means the price is right for building up Hawaii's university system during this moribund economy.
A new survey from industry consultants at Rider Levett Bucknall shows that construction costs for Oahu had hardly budged between the second and third quarters this year. Officials at the University of Hawaii, which has been carrying an enormous backlog of building and maintenance projects for decades, are watching such trends with a sense of urgency, as they should. Pushing forward construction projects now means a better chance of getting work done at lower bid prices, with so many builders and their crews hungry for work.
That's why the UH administration is right to ask lawmakers for the authority to finance another $100 million in campus upgrades by floating revenue bonds -- loans that would be repaid using the university's own resources. This should not be a scary prospect, given that the UH Board of Regents has oversight and discretion over plans, there are varied revenue sources to be tapped that reduce the pressure to raise tuition and fees -- and the governor makes the final call on releasing the money.
For most of its long life the university has had to seek approval for individual construction or renovation projects during the legislative budgeting process, which means it had very little opportunity between sessions to capitalize on opportunities. But in more recent years legislators gave the UH more autonomy over its financial planning, which has proven to be a welcome development.
Howard Todo, UH chief financial officer, pointed to examples in which the university successfully used its revenue bond authority: a $100 million investment that produced improvements to student housing at Manoa and Hilo campuses, as well as the beginnings of development at the West Oahu campus site.
In 2009 Act 94 was passed to authorize an additional $200 million; the Legislature next session will consider a proposed amendment to add the additional $100 million.
Besides the attractive construction costs, UH also has financing terms running in its favor. The last bond offering made in October, as part of this overall capital improvement initiative, had a 3.7 percent interest rate attached. So the timing couldn't be more fortuitous for continuing to work through the university's long construction and maintenance backlog. There is no project in particular in mind for the proposed $100 million the UH hopes to finance, but Todo said that, given the decades of deferred maintenance and development, there is no shortage of contenders for the list.
Among the additions already in line for bond funds is the Cancer Research Center, a $140 million investment to be repaid through a special fund that's replenished by the cigarette tax. Housing renovation loans are paid back with housing fees. Other projects, such as upgrades to Sinclair Library, will be reimbursed through research and training revolving funds: Grants that UH researchers secure come with an allotment for facilities construction that goes into this fund.
These alternatives comprise the financial sources for needed construction that can be tapped in lieu of tuition. In the coming months UH officials will begin to map out tuition plans extending beyond the 2011-12 academic year. Care must be taken to keep the compounding expense of tuition and fees within reach of the college-bound students and families, many of whom can't afford college study on the mainland.
But that concern shouldn't deter state leaders from giving UH more financial authority to build at this opportune time. The university remains a major economic driver for the state, bringing in revenue through grants and other sources, but its aging physical plant has been a drag on its marketability as an academic and research center. Investing in UH construction will bring a needed boost to the local industry immediately and help the system remain a vibrant part of the state's economy into the future.