Years before utility line clearances posed the “most significant risk” to Honolulu rail, key project consultants downplayed Hawaiian Electric Co.’s warnings of a potential problem and stated that the plans they were developing should be OK, a Honolulu Star-Advertiser review of rail records shows.
“Please do not share this email with HECO,” Hank Wei, a Parsons Brinckerhoff consultant working on the rail project, wrote to a team of rail engineers in 2009 after HECO informed them its workers would need clearances of 50 feet to safely access high-voltage power lines.
Wei said he believed shorter clearances of 20 feet between the rail guideway’s edge and the nearest power lines would work instead, according to documents provided by the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation. “We are currently working with HECO to clarify HECO’s maintenance clearance requirement,” he wrote.
“I think we’re okay and will proceed,” Barry Muranaka, another rail consultant with the firm AECOM, emailed to Wei. The exchange with HECO over the clearances was “eye-opening,” Muranaka added.
Seven years later, as scrutiny builds over how the utility clearances became such a costly problem for rail, project leaders say the 2009 exchange is the first instance they can find where the issue arose. They say they have no record of a follow-up to that exchange from the rail consultants or HECO. They add that they have no record of the issue reaching their predecessors at the city, which oversaw rail before HART formed.
The next correspondence from HECO that they were able to find on the clearances went to HART’s utilities manager four years later, in 2013, after construction had already started, they said.
However, HECO says it always kept HART and its consultants informed of its requirements, including through “dozens” of written messages between 2009 and 2012 when HART says the city was in the dark. The company says it always made clear it would require additional clearance space for its workers to maintain the transmission lines — not just the minimum national standards that rail officials were using.
“Our clearance requirements provide our employees with safe work conditions and are comparable to those used by other utilities across the country,” HECO spokesman Darren Pai said in an email Friday. (Pai did not include examples of the messages written by HECO.)
That disconnect, along with other correspondence, show that HART and HECO officials were never on the same page as the power lines problem gradually snowballed into a crisis. It now threatens to drive the largest public works project in state history over budget once more and delay rail’s completion another year.
“This may have a tremendous impact on both schedule and cost,” Jacobs Engineering, the independent firm hired by rail’s federal partners to oversee the project, wrote in its May 2015 report. “It affects both existing and future construction contracts for all segments.” A month later, the firm would declare the utility problem rail’s biggest risk.
Rail officials have estimated it will cost an additional $120 million to address HECO’s clearance concerns, but that estimate dates back to October. HART’s board chairwoman, Colleen Hanabusa, says the costs are sure to rise.
The island’s electric company says it will need 50-foot clearances for workers to safely access its 138-kilovolt transmission lines that run along the guideway. It has flagged at least 74 poles along the rail route with clearances that don’t meet that standard, ranging from 8 to 46 feet, records show.
HECO further needs clearances of 40 feet for its 46 kV lines and 30 feet for its 12 kV lines, it says.
HART has already resolved that it must put underground some 1.8 miles of power lines along Dillingham Boulevard plus nine poles near the airport, but whether it can avoid burying more lines along the 20-mile route remains unclear. Workers continue to test trucks with special lifts, cranes and other maintenance equipment further west on the route to see if they’ll meet HECO’s needs, officials say.
HART Deputy Executive Director Brennon Morioka maintains it’s “unrealistic” the rail agency would have to bury lines along the entire route. The stretches along Farrington and Kamehameha highways further west offer more physical space in which special equipment might solve the problem more cost-effectively, he said. Still, they haven’t solved the clearance issue to HECO’s satisfaction.
Meanwhile, the latest disconnect between rail and the utility company could severely delay rail’s schedule, which is already about two years behind.
About a year and a half ago, senior officials from the two entities formed a task force to meet regularly on utility issues during construction, Morioka said. Nonetheless, rail officials say they first learned from HECO in March that the company intends to require HART to put the Dillingham and airport-area lines underground before it can build the guideway there. By sequencing the work, HECO would ensure it has its required clearances during construction.
However, HART had planned to do the guideway and utilities work simultaneously to help keep the project from falling further behind schedule. In his email, Pai did not directly respond to the questions of whether HECO had made clear before March its requirement to sequence the work.
“This is a pretty draconian requirement,” HART Executive Director Dan Grabauskas said in a recent interview. “We’re hopeful we can convince them that there’s a compromise here.”
The clearance issue remained below the public’s radar for years. Records show HART started testing a maintenance truck with a special lift to address the potentially costly problem in fall 2014, around the time it started to cope with a $910 million budget shortfall. The clearances and their potential costs weren’t highlighted until after the Legislature’s 2015 session, in which lawmakers authorized a five-year tax extension.
“Discussions with HECO about resolutions to clearance issues were ongoing during the 2015 legislative session and the full financial impacts were not known,” HART spokesman Bill Brennan said in an email Friday.
City leaders and even some HART board members, including Hanabusa, have criticized the agency over how it handled the situation.
In response, Grabauskas pointed to HART’s monthly progress reports, which started listing the clearances as a possible risk starting in November 2013. But Michael Burns, a veteran rail expert who serves as Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s consultant on the project, has questioned how useful those reports are.
“It is difficult to identify key significant issues to the overall progress as well as material changes from the previous report,” Burns wrote in his first report to Caldwell, issued in August 2015. “It is somewhat overwhelming to the point of overload.”
HART officials, meanwhile, are still trying to reach a compromise with HECO on the construction sequence to avoid further delays.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Documents show that it took rail and HECO officials years to address the magnitude of rail’s utility clearance crisis, even as construction proceeded east toward town and the project faced a growing budget shortfall. It’s still not clear how they’ll resolve the issue.
August: HECO provides preliminary comments on the rail project. They don’t mention a 50-foot utility line clearance.
Sept. 24: In emails, HECO tells rail consultants that as a “rule of thumb” it will require 50-foot clearances from its nearest conductors to the edge of the track. An hour later, rail consultant Hank Wei tells other consultants he believes they’ll need 20 feet from the conductor to the guideway edge. Wei asks them not to share his email with HECO. Rail consultant Barry Muranaka calls HECO’s message “eye-opening” but adds, “I think we’re okay and will proceed.”
November: Rail’s first construction contract is awarded.
April: Construction on rail’s first columns begins in West Oahu. A state court ruling suspends that work several months later.
March 8: In a letter to HART, HECO reaffirms its 50-foot clearance requirement, plus 40-foot and 30-foot clearances for lower-voltage lines along the route.
September: Rail construction resumes.
November: HART first notes the utility clearance issue is a potential problem in its monthly progress report.
March-May: HECO sends HART three more letters asking the agency to address the problem. HECO identifies at least 74 major transmission lines that don’t meet its clearance standards.
October:Officials start testing a truck with a lifting mechanism they hope will allow HECO to maintain its lines without having to move them underground.
December: HART announces the rail project faces a $910 million shortfall. It’s later revealed that includes $50 million in added utility costs.
May: State legislators pass a bill authorizing a five-year rail tax extension.
June: The federally hired firm overseeing rail labels the utility clearances HART’s “most significant risk to the project” after HECO concludes the truck with the special lift won’t solve all the issues.
July: Gov. David Ige authorizes a five-year rail tax extension.
October: HART announces more cost increases, including an additional $70 million in utility costs. A city audit later questions the “credibility” of HART’s utility estimates.
January: The Honolulu City Council approves the five-year rail tax extension.
March: HECO tells rail officials they’ll need to put underground the lines around the airport and Kalihi before the guideway is built. HART says this could delay the project another year.
20160501_HART by Honolulu Star-Advertiser