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State skips hearing on rail finance studies

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What began as a City Council hearing on the rail transit project’s two financial analyses ended up yesterday as something of a panel discussion on the larger merits of the $5.5 billion project.

The state, under Republican former Gov. Linda Lingle, commissioned a financial review last year that came to a less-than-optimistic conclusion, saying the city faces a $1.7 billion shortfall. Though invited yesterday, no state officials or report authors were present. The city has also done a financial analysis.

Councilman Breene Harimoto, chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Transit Planning, said he had hoped to hold a second hearing next week with state officials and the report’s authors, Infrastructure Management Group Inc.

But Harimoto said he decided not to after the state did not respond to his invitation by the end of Tuesday. He said IMG officials wanted to attend, but said they needed permission from the state first.

"I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions on what’s going on," Harimoto said. "To say the least, I am frustrated. It is expected that the commissioning agency would present that report to the subject agency. I believe it’s not only common courtesy, but professionalism."

Instead, city officials present were given another opportunity to argue against IMG’s conclusions, repeating criticism that the report relied on "erroneous analysis" and "questionable assumptions."

When council members opened the hearing up to the public, the discussion went off track, running the gamut of topics that often characterize panel discussions on rail transit.

Peter Vincent of the American Institute of Architects Honolulu made the case that placing the rail line partly at ground level would be more cost-effective and flexible.

Frank Genadio, a Makakilo resident, argued for a magnetic-levitation system.

"I really regret that we didn’t look at alternatives," Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi said. "Why can’t we use the modern buses and start at Ewa Beach? … We could save so much money. We’re just an island. We’re talking from Kapolei to Ala Moana."

Toru Hamayasu, who heads the city’s Rapid Transit Division, said bus stations would have a larger footprint than rail stations, and would not encourage as much transit-oriented development.

Councilman Ikaika Anderson, who was present although not a member of the transportation committee, again raised the issue of whether general city revenues would be used to replace funds diverted to the rail project from TheBus and Handi-Van. Hamayasu said it still remains a possibility, but "that’s why we’re trying our hardest to delete that possibility."

The rail project is mandated by law to use only money from the general excise tax, federal funding and private sources. Anderson had raised the issue in July. (Former Mayor Mufi Hannemann has said diverting federal money intended for bus operations to rail is a "worst-case scenario.")

Former council member Todd Apo attended the hearing, saying that the current council members should rely on the Federal Transit Administration’s guidance.

"They have a standard process as to how they examine transit projects," Apo said. "If they saw something that didn’t work, and they saw an assumption that they thought didn’t make sense, they would let us know."

Hamayasu said the city will begin preparing an updated financial plan, which he expects should be ready this spring.

On Tuesday, the Council’s transportation committee will hold a hearing on the city’s application for a Special Management Area permit. The Department of Planning and Permitting has recommended to the Council that it approve the permit, which is required by law to ensure projects adhere to coastal zone management policies.

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