City leaders say they’re determined to find a way to build their “Plan A” — a nearly $10 billion elevated transit line that runs all the way to Ala Moana Center — despite the giant budget obstacles that still block that goal.
But the new recovery-plan deadline delivered this month by rail’s federal partners has created more uncertainty over just how far the line will go.
April 30 is several months earlier than the July 30 date the city had hoped to get, and its top two elected leaders now disagree over whether the Federal Transit Administration is forcing them to reluctantly pursue a shorter “Plan B.”
That route, an attempt to build to the current $6.8 billion budget, would likely have fewer stations, less ridership and end near Aloha Tower.
Meanwhile, the FTA, which has a $1.55 billion funding deal for rail and has now extended its recovery-plan deadline twice, isn’t shedding much light on what the new date means.
In a statement last week, the agency said it picked April 30 so the city could pursue the funds to fill rail’s latest, multibillion-dollar budget hole “while ensuring that significant progress will continue on the project.”
In all likelihood the April deadline won’t give Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the City Council enough time to secure another rail-tax extension at the state Capitol to fill that hole. The city will probably know where lawmakers stand by the end of April but not have anything signed into law yet.
Typically, the governor waits until the summer to sign bills, let them pass into law or veto them.
Caldwell, state Rep. Sylvia Luke and other local leaders all agreed last week that while it’s technically possible to expedite a rail-funding measure next year, it’s not likely to happen because the project remains so controversial. Caldwell, a former House member, said that he’s asked House Speaker Joe Souki (D, Waihee-Waiehu-Wailuku) to expedite the rail bill but considers it a long shot.
That means the city will probably have to file its recovery plan, detailing how it will address rail’s shortfall and hang on to its $1.55 billion in federal funding, before it can secure the money it hopes will solve the crisis.
Even if state legislators do decide to help rail again (they passed a five-year rail-tax extension in 2015), it’s not clear whether the FTA would accept a recovery plan that depends on revenues before they’re signed into law. The agency did not directly respond to that question in its emailed statement.
Recently, City Council Chairman Ernie Martin said in his own statement that the FTA has made it “very clear” with its deadline that the agency wants Honolulu to build rail with the $6.8 billion available “regardless of whether or not it fulfills the vision approved by the voters.” He called this “unacceptable.”
“They’d rather focus on a worst-case scenario,” Martin added in an interview last week. On Dec. 1, Martin and his Council colleagues unanimously approved a resolution supporting a rail-tax extension to get the line to Ala Moana Center.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a vote in the history of rail … that has passed out 9-0” going back four decades, Martin said.
Since October the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation has been studying a “Plan B” that ends at the downtown station and defers stations such as Kalihi, Kapalama, Iwilei and Chinatown, according to HART’s Sept. 30 “interim” plan.
HART should have its “Plan B” study wrapped by April, the interim plan stated. HART and FTA officials met this week, but the local agency wasn’t available to say whether it’ll complete the work sooner to meet the April 30 deadline.
In HART’s newly released 2017 report to Gov. David Ige and the Legislature, the agency said it was confident it could deliver by June 30 “a financial Recovery Plan (Plan A) or build to budget Recovery Plan (Plan B), or a combination thereof.”
Caldwell, in contrast to Martin, has described the new April 30 deadline as “good news.” At a HART board meeting Thursday, Caldwell said he met with FTA officials earlier that week in San Francisco and thanked them for the extra time. It buys the city four more months than it had under the previous deadline.
“They were a little surprised that some people in the city were disappointed and felt that the FTA was not supportive of our project,” Caldwell told the HART board. “They reiterated they are 100 percent supportive.”
Still, in an interview Friday, the mayor said he didn’t know why the FTA picked April 30 instead of the summer.
If the Legislature looks poised in late April to approve another tax extension, the city could submit a plan “with the assumption” that it will get those dollars, Caldwell said Friday. The recovery plan could mention “legislation in the final stages of passage,” he said.
Caldwell acknowledged that a lot of things have to go right during next year’s legislative session for that scenario to work.
Luke, who leads the House Finance Committee, called it “wishful thinking” if the city thinks that “the state is just willing to give them $4 billion more.” Another rail-tax extension would force the state to forgo sending more tax dollars toward other Hawaii concerns such as education, Medicaid and homelessness, she said.
“Do I think it’s a slam dunk or we have it in the bag? Absolutely not,” Caldwell said Friday. “There is a lot of hard work. We are climbing a very steep mountain.”
Honolulu Rail Recovery Plan Submission Extension 12.06.2016 by Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Scribd