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Luke tells HART board to move rail project mauka


    These workers are working on one of the two rail vehicles that are in the Operations and Servicing Building at the Rail Operations Center.

Citing a recent report on rising sea levels, state House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke pressed city transit officials Thursday to consider shifting the route of its planned rail line from Middle Street to King Street and the University of Hawaii instead of through Kakaako to Ala Moana Center.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said Luke was “throwing out a red herring” in order to kill the $8.2 billion-plus project.

A HART spokesman said contracts for construction of the town sections of the rail have not yet been awarded, but are sure to address sea level rise.

Meanwhile on Thursday the HART board quietly gave its staff the go-ahead to procure a public-private partnership for the remaining segments of the 20-mile line as well as to operate the system through 2050.

Luke, a the major critic of the city’s handling of the project, told HART board members that the city’s own Climate Change Commission this week issued a report projecting that the sea level around Oahu could rise 3.2 feet by 2050 and by 6 feet by the end of the century. “At 6 feet, seven out of eight stations in the current rail route to Ala Moana will be in the flood zone,” Luke said.

House leadership will hold an informational meeting in mid-August to discuss the issue, she said, adding if city officials aren’t cooperative with providing information on sea level rise, the House could use its subpoena powers.

A 2015 environmental study by HART estimated that a path through downtown to UH, including a 1-mile tunnel below Beretania Street, would add $1 billion and two years to the project.

Luke said insisted the Climate Change Commission’s findings make a reconsideration urgent.

When asked where the money would come from if the change in plans resulted in higher costs, Luke said the financing package that the Legislature approved in 2017 is now projected to bring in about $5 billion in revenues instead of the $2.5 billion originally anticipated.

Rail officials acknowledged HART has a cushion of about $2 billion above projected costs, she said. That should provide enough money to help with a shift in the project route to go underground below King Street and directly to UH. She said her initial information shows it would cost between $500 million and $1 billion more to do that, she said.

Taking the route to Ala Moana and then expanding to UH “would cost substantially more than that,” Luke said.

Asked whether the Legislature would be open to extending Oahu’s 0.5 percent general excise tax surcharge beyond the 2030 sunset date, Luke said the city would need to conduct a thorough cost analysis.

If the city were to stick to its current route to Ala Moana first, “chances are the future Legislature will not provide funds to extend from Ala Moana to UH knowing that they knowingly built this system underwater,” she said.

Robert Yu, HART’s chief financial officer, said he confirmed to Luke that revenues ran 7 to 8 percent, about 4 percent higher than original projections in the recently completed 2018 fiscal year, but that he could not say for certain how much would come annually in the remaining 12 years of the surcharge.

Caldwell told reporters that Luke and other rail opponents have cited the sea level rise issue before, “and I do think it’s a red herring to kill the project altogether.”

The project moves through Kakaako because that’s where population is expected to grow, not through King Street, he said.

It’s disingenuous for Luke to talk about the need to move infrastructure mauka when the state has been proceeding with millions of dollars in airport and harbor projects in areas projected to be within the flooded areas, Caldwell said.

City transit officials have been looking at “raising the podium (floor) of the stations so that they’ll be above the flood area,” Caldwell said. “Of course, streets will rise. This doesn’t just happen one time … and of course part of the elevated guideway may have to go up too because roads could rise. To move (the route) is going to be more expensive than just going up.”

He added that the commission report led him to issue a citywide directive for all city agencies to prepare for the effects of sea level rise.

Caldwell also took exception to Luke’s revenue projections.

HART staff “has been proactively been considering the impacts of climate change and sea level rise on the rail project,” and will continue to do so, HART spokesman Bill Brennan said in a statement. The agency issued a report on the impacts of sea level rise in August 2015, long before the state or city climate change reports came out in December 2017 and July, he said.

“HART is planning to incorporate some project specific requirements (PSRs) into the City Center guideway/stations contract that will enable bidders to propose (and price) some options to meet the change in sea level,” he said.

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