Is the third time the charm for Toru Hamayasu? Hamayasu, general manager of the city rapid transit division, watched the failure of the previous two attempts at developing a Honolulu rail system, first in 1981 and then 11 years later.
"We blew it back then," he said in a written response to a Star-Advertiser question (excerpts from the interview, largely conducted in person, supplemented by e-mail, follow). "You can see the traffic congestion we’re facing today. We’re seeing the downfall of that failed decision in 1992. I’m thankful that this time things are on track."
Hamayasu’s job is to keep it that way. He’s confident, but there are still hurdles in the near future, principally the court challenges based on the issuing of the first project contracts and one alleging that the environmental impact statement didn’t fully address the impact on Hawaiian burials.
Even before his appointment — which puts him at the helm, at least until the city forms its transit authority — Hamayasu walked in the front ranks amid all the controversy. It meant many hours of lost time with his wife and their daughters, now grown.
Supporters and opponents comprise the gamut of Hawaii’s communities: commuters weary of Leeward rush-hour jams, contractors hungry for work, environmentalists and architects worried about the viewplane, and Hawaiians advocating the protection of ancient remains. In the end, he said, most will be convinced that the project will bring more benefits than risks.
The Feb. 22 groundbreaking reunited Hamayasu with his old boss, former Honolulu Public Transit Authority Chairman Amar Sappal. Now 62, Hamayasu acknowledges that rail is the project of his life.
"Mine and his and many people in the past, too," he said.
QUESTION: Does your new position move you away from your previous focus on engineering? Will you be having oversight of finance, all of that?
ANSWER: All of that! It’s not just a focus on the engineering from now on. We’re going to be like a construction corporation. So definitely engineering, the scheduling, project control, project management, financing, all that. Plus, I gotta be kissing up to the board. (Laughs)
Q: That’s what I was going to ask you: What would your relationship be with the transit authority board, once that’s formed?
A: If I were to be the director, then there would be 10 bosses, the board. So they’ll set the policy and we do the execution.
Q: So yours is like a precursor position to being named the director?
A: Well, the board’s going to name the director, right?
Q: And the assumption is it’s going to be you?
A: I don’t know. You’ve got to ask the board members. So I’m going to be one of the 200 applicants. (Laughs)
Q: About the project itself: Writer Tom Coffman and other critics have expressed doubts about the finance plan. Do you still feel confident that with all the turmoil in the economy, that the financing plan’s not going to have to change a lot?
A: You know, the moment we see ourselves that there’s a financial problem, we’re going to be telling the policymakers, "OK, this is not going to work." Obviously, we have a level of confidence now … Two areas, the reason why we’re confident: One is the cost estimates, and balancing that with the revenue side. So we know that at the moment there’s sufficient funding to pay for all this. The other part is we’re setting up this organization in such a way that we have a sufficient organization to manage and control something like this. We’ve got a lot of good people; we’re setting up this rather new office, the authority. Right now it’s our division, and the (city) Charter says the division becomes the authority for the execution part of it. We’re having enough force, enough resources to manage that.
Q: What do you say to people worried that the rail’s elevated design will blight the landscape? In your mind, are you more concerned about functionality, ridership and all of that, and the services it will perform?
A: You mean just because we’re engineers, we don’t care about how it looks? (Laughs) That’s not really true, that we don’t care. Obviously, one is a formality of it, because we have to be sure that we can present this in part of the EIS, that this is not going to be such an obstruction to it. And the other part is, hey, we all live here — engineers and all, planners, everybody. So we don’t want any kind of a really badly designed thing sprung into the middle of the city. We were very mindful about trying to narrow down as much as possible. So if you were to look at some of the design criteria we did with the RFP (request for proposals), yes, there’s a lot of sensitivity to how this should look … and there are a lot of design elements. Even the places you don’t see from afar or whatever, we’re trying to make sure that a column itself is going to look nice for the guy who drives in the street next to the column.
Q: With vegetation, or something?
A: Vegetation is one. Another thing is we’re going to have an artistic treatment to it, so that when you get close to the station, the column’s going to have a texture and a sculptured look to it, so it’s not a blank concrete column.
Q: Mainly focusing around the stations?
A: When you weigh the cost and everything else, yes, around the stations makes sense.
Q: Rail is still a controversial project, partly because of fears about the costs, but what do you think made the difference during the Hannemann administration in getting enough support to proceed? A different approach this time?
A: It’s interesting that you use the fear of the costs as the reason for the project being controversial. … The real issue is to look at what is the most cost-effective way to deal with future mobility needs. It was clear that the rail is the best alternative. … The biggest difference in what Mayor Hannemann did, compared with 1992, was that he focused on getting the local funding source in place first. So the final step that killed the project in 1992 was addressed first this time.
Q: People still complain about the process, that they didn’t get enough of a chance to have their input. How do you answer them? And would you change anything about the process so far if you had it to do over again?
A: We conducted more than 900 public meetings since the beginning of the project in 2005 and participated in more than 500 neighborhood board meetings and briefings. That’s a lot of meetings. I am sorry if some people missed all of those meetings, but I think we did what we could. Where we could enhance our future efforts is to learn more about groups who may not be getting the specific information they need, and develop methods to reach those groups.
Q: The argument for steel-on-steel has been that it’s the best established, most competitive and thus can be more economical. Over the years do you think this system can be updated, to avoid becoming obsolete?
A: Steel-on-steel is proven technology and it has been updated and improved constantly, so today’s system is very different from the older systems you see in Chicago and New York. And it’s far from obsolete. Today’s systems are sleek and quiet, and quite impressive. I believe new technologies and innovation to improve steel-on-steel will keep the rail running for a long time.
Q: What will help make the contracting process as above-board and smooth as possible? Is this a function of the new transit authority?
A: Certainly our current procurement process is above-board and complies with all procurement laws and regulations. … We passed all of the city and federal procurement audits. I have never been approached by anyone trying to influence our procurement or contracting process. And I am committed to making sure there are no procurement or contracting infractions so that we don’t jeopardize this project. Yes, once the public transit authority is created, procurement is part of the authority’s functions.
Q: At what point do you think the system will begin getting ridership? When it reaches Pearlridge? The stadium?
A: The "system" refers to the full 20-mile line. We plan to complete that by 2019 and I think people will find it attractive and our ridership will reflect that. Shorter sections of the alignment will be operating as they are completed so that we can provide people with the opportunity to get familiar with rail, but ridership will not be in full swing until the entire system opens in 2019. When we open from East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium in 2015 I think people who live and commute in the area will already find it very useful.
Q: Some have said they’re worried that few have shown interest yet in transit-oriented development. Is this a concern?
A: I think what’s missing in planning for TOD right now is transit. People — investors — need to feel and touch transit before they start committing investments. I think we will see what other cities across the country have seen, and that is strong interest and investment around the rail line and people wanting to move near the stations to make the most of the mobility and convenience rail transit has to offer.
Q: Did you ever believe the project would get to this point?
A: Each time, I believed it. (Laughs) Engineers don’t think, "OK, this is just an exercise." Last time around, we put all the passion in it; we were in our office till 3 in the morning. You can ask my wife; she hardly saw me. I hardly saw the kids, 20 years ago! So, same intensity, each time we do it. We were like that in the early ’70s, when we worked on it the first time, too … So, is this some kind of build-up? No, each time we put all our effort into it.
Q: But now you believe it’s going to go?
A: OK, this is like a baseball analogy. Each project is like each inning. You gotta put all your effort into it. Are we getting close to the end of the ball game? Maybe.