While some Honolulu rail leaders are encouraged by President-elect Donald Trump’s pro-infrastructure rhetoric, others are wary of how the new administration might react to a transit project that’s over budget, behind schedule and technically in breach of its federal funding deal.
Trump touted infrastructure upgrades on the campaign trail, although he hasn’t weighed in on the island’s elevated rail transit project. It’s now expected to cost $8.6 billion, based on the latest estimates.
Meanwhile, city leaders have been working for months with the Federal Transit Administration under President Barack Obama to ensure that Honolulu doesn’t lose its $1.55 billion in federal rail funds. Project officials say they’re now almost $2 billion short of what’s needed to build the full 20-mile line to Ala Moana Center — the minimum length they agreed to deliver under their federal funding deal.
They hope the FTA will give them until this summer to find a solution, likely involving a rail-tax extension. By then, a Trump presidency will be in full swing.
“I’m concerned,” said U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, (D-Hawaii) who recently reclaimed her former congressional seat after serving as the rail project’s board chairwoman. “If the decision comes out that you’re not living up to your end of the bargain, under the Trump administration they may just decide to cut it because we are technically in breach of the (funding deal) anyway.”
However, rail Project Director Sam Carnaggio said that Trump’s win should be OK for the state’s largest-ever public works project, an effort to reshape future development and travel across Oahu, even as the election results have fueled uncertainty on other big Hawaii issues such as health care, immigration and climate change.
He pointed to the president-elect’s statements supporting transportation projects to argue that Honolulu’s rail project would stay on track and retain its federal funding.
“I have no worries whatsoever. We have a full-funding grant agreement. We have had some challenges recently, but we are preparing our recovery plan,” said Carnaggio, a former FTA engineering director who served during the agency’s transition from Democratic President Bill Clinton to Republican President George W. Bush. “I don’t see where we’re going to be impacted at all. … we expect things are going to continue along the path that’s been laid out.”
Most of the FTA’s civil-service, nonpolitical staff with whom Carnaggio and other Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation officials regularly communicate are expected to stay at the agency, giving rail the continuity it needs, he said.
The FTA did not respond to a request for comment.
“I hope he’s right. I would love for him to be right,” Hanabusa said of Carnaggio, one of rail’s key managers, whom she often asked for updates during rail meetings. But Hanabusa said national politics could still potentially affect rail — “a situation where you are not going to be dealing with people in the equivalent of civil-service positions,” as she described it.
“Part of it is because we are such a blue state,” Hanabusa continued, referring to Hawaii’s being a Democratic stronghold. “But when we are not in compliance with the FFGA (the federal funding agreement), it just seems we are an easier target.”
HART has spent nearly $600 million of its $1.55 billion in federal funding that’s committed to the project, the local semiautonomous agency reports. The FTA continues to withhold another $500 million until HART updates its financial plan and submits an acceptable recovery plan that addresses rail’s latest budget woes.
An additional $243.7 million for fiscal year 2017 hasn’t been appropriated yet, according to HART. That means rail does not yet have access to $743.7 million of its federal funds.
Some of Hanabusa’s former colleagues on the HART board of directors have expressed concerns similar to hers in recent days.
“With the election of Trump in there, who knows who’s going to be the leaders at the FTA? I think right now we’re not necessarily safe” in securing all of rail’s federal funds, Damien Kim said on Nov. 10, hours after his board colleagues elected him the new chairman.
“I think we have to be prepared for the worst,” HART board Vice Chairman Terrence Lee added Friday. “They’re going to be a little more strict. So far, the FTA has been very accommodating in terms of trying to work with us, giving us the extensions we need to figure this stuff out.”
Then again, if Trump is “true to his word, then supporting this project is consistent with what his campaign rhetoric is,” Lee said. “Who knows? The jury’s out.”
Trump’s plan for his first 100 days in office includes pushing Congress to pass an “American Energy and Infrastructure Act” that would rely heavily on private financing and tax breaks to spur what the plan states would be $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over 10 years.
Hanabusa said she doesn’t believe a plan that relies so heavily on private investment instead of public dollars could tackle the nation’s infrastructure-repair needs. “It’s really not going to assist us in any way” beyond revenue-generating projects such as toll roads, she said. “What may sound good initially, a trillion dollars’ worth … is not what it seems.”
Still, Carnaggio said he’s encouraged that Trump appears to see value in transit projects even as Trump’s Republican colleagues, who control both chambers of Congress, proposed in the party’s 2016 platform to phase out federal spending on new mass-transit projects.
HART, he said, isn’t changing its FTA strategy with Trump as president-elect.
“I think he’s going to be a big public-transit supporter,” Carnaggio said. “I’m very apolitical, but I read what these guys do so I can anticipate what’s coming along.”
HART must submit its rail recovery plan to the FTA by Dec. 31. although it’s still waiting to hear from its federal partners whether it can push that deadline to the summer. The extra time would give the city a chance to secure another rail-tax extension from state lawmakers first.