Three topics sure to grab headlines in 2019 are the city’s rail project as construction moves through the congested downtown corridor; the housing crisis as policy makers wrestle with vacation rental laws and monster home rules; and the federal investigations involving Honolulu’s former police chief, his ex-prosecutor wife and the city prosecutor.
Here’s a preview of what to expect on these key issues:
1. Rail project faces crucial tests
This will probably be the year motorists and businesses in Honolulu’s urban core finally feel major on-the-ground rail construction impacts as crews tear up pavement to widen roads, bury power lines and relocate sewer and water lines to prepare the way for the overhead rail guideway from Middle Street to Ala Moana.
This will also be another year of intense scrutiny for the $9.2 billion project as the Hawaii State Auditor releases a series of reports on cost overruns and other aspects of rail, and the Federal Transit Administration mulls whether to accept the latest “recovery plan” for rail submitted by the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.
HART staff this year must also navigate the complexities of a new development strategy called a public-private partnership. That new approach will be used to build the last 4.16 miles of the rail line along with eight rail stations along a path through the urban core.
The cost of construction alone under that so-called “P3” agreement is expected to be about $1.4 billion, and billions of dollars more will be paid out under the contract in the decades ahead for maintenance and operations of the entire 20-mile rail line. It will likely be the largest contract in city history, and is supposed to be awarded late this year.
For the general public, the greatest impact from rail this year will likely stem from a $400 million contract awarded to Nan Inc. last year to relocate utilities along the last segment of the rail line from Middle Street to Ala Moana.
Preliminary work under that contract has already begun, and HART spokesman Bill Brennan has described the utility relocation effort as “some of the most disruptive work that’s going to happen on the project.”
The infrastructure that needs to be moved out of the way of the rail line includes about 4,000 linear feet of drainage, 6,000 feet of sewer line, 9,000 feet of water pipes and 67,000 feet of electrical lines, according to HART.
That work will follow the rail path along the Dillingham Boulevard corridor past the Kalihi, Kapalama and Iwilei stations, and then along Nimitz Highway to the Chinatown and Downtown stations. From there it will veer onto Halekauwila Street through the Civic Center and Ward Center stations, and then follow Kona Street to the final station at Ala Moana.
The utility work in the Kakaako area is supposed to be finished by October 2020, and work in the Dillingham area is scheduled to be complete by August 2021, according to HART.
2. Kealoha saga entangles another
The broad-ranging federal investigation into public corruption that led to the indictments of former Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, former Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, has now reached the doorstep of Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro and the intrigue and drama involving both the Kealohas and Kaneshiro are expected to continue through 2019.
Kaneshiro is believed to have received a “target” letter from the U.S. Department of Justice informing him that he may be under investigation. Kaneshiro has been noticeably silent on the issue and declined to say even if he received a target letter.
Businessman Tracy Yoshimura is leading an impeachment effort against Kaneshiro in light of the allegations charging that the situation has cast a legal cloud over the prosecutor’s office as well as recent court decisions involving the agency.
The petition also said Kaneshiro should be ousted for failing to take action against former deputy Katherine Kealoha after it became known that the FBI was investigating her for potential criminal wrongdoing. Katherine Kealoha had been on unpaid voluntary leave until October 2017 when she was formally placed on unpaid leave. She resigned from her position this past September.
More than 900 people signed the online petition.
The Kealohas were indicted on charges they conspired to frame Katherine Kealoha’s uncle for stealing the Kealohas’ mailbox as part of a family dispute over money. They are also charged with bank fraud for allegedly lying on loan applications to secure mortgages on their home.
The trial against the Kealohas and four former members of the Honolulu Police Department’s elite Criminal Investigations Unit is scheduled for March 19.
The Kealohas’ bank fraud trial was scheduled to begin in December but U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard L. Puglisi pushed back that date in October after determining that Katherine Kealoha will not be able to stand trial in December or assist in her defense because of a medical issue. That trial is now slated to begin June 18.
3. Vacation rentals and monster houses
The twin issues of vacation rentals and monster houses and the city’s attempts to place regulations on both to improve Oahu’s housing crunch will generate news in 2019.
A dizzying seven bills related to bed and breakfast establishments and transient vacation units were given the first of three required approvals from the City Council on Dec. 5 and are headed back to the Zoning and Housing Committee.
The city stopped issuing certificates for vacation rentals in 1989. DPP estimates there are only 816 legal units outside of resort zones but between 6,000 and 8,000 illegal units on Oahu.
Bill 89 is Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s omnibus proposal that would allow permits to be issued for possibly up to 4,000 B&Bs and TVUs, islandwide by capping the number at no more than 1 percent of all dwelling units in each of the island’s eight development plan districts. But it would also impose higher taxes and stiffer fines for violations.
Generally, supporters of vacation rentals oppose capping the number of permitted units and increasing the tax. Opponents of vacation rentals don’t want any new laws but want the city to ramp up enforcement of existing laws.
A comprehensive bill aimed at halting the growth of monster houses is moving about one step ahead of vacation rental legislation.
The DPP and Council members have struggled to deal with the proliferation of “monster houses” mostly in older residential Oahu neighborhoods in recent years. Neighbors say they are out of scale and character with their communities and are used as illegal rentals, boarding houses, vacation units or other businesses typically not allowed in residential zones. Critics also argue that they overburden sewer lines, street parking and other infrastructure and could result in higher property assessments.
But the strong reaction to large-scale houses has, in turn, caused a backlash from builders and others who think going too far in regulations would make it more difficult to obtain already often-stalled building permits and, in the long term, limit the island’s housing stock during a housing shortage.
At the end of November, the Zoning and Housing Committee gave preliminary approval to Councilman Trevor Ozawa’s latest draft of Bill 79, which bars a builder or homeowner from putting up a house with a floor area greater than 60 percent of a lot’s size.
Current law does not use floor area to determine how big a house can be in a residential zone, but instead requires that the footprint of a home cover no more than 50 percent of the lot.
The latest draft also calls for limits on wet bars, laundry rooms and bathrooms, capping how much concrete or other impervious surface can be installed on a lot, as well as on-site parking requirements.