Column: Robbins should pause rail transit at Middle Street, then take stock
If words were measured in ounces, there’s been more written about the Honolulu rail project than the combined weight of all of the concrete and steel used to bring it close to the Middle Street bus terminal.
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If words were measured in ounces, there’s been more written about the Honolulu rail project than the combined weight of all of the concrete and steel used to bring it close to the Middle Street bus terminal. Through the years, those paying attention have observed a litany of questionable maneuverings by politicians, contractors and PR people.
To us, how we got to where we are today is perfectly understandable and the three recent critical audits have actually exceeded our original worst-case predictions. The Honolulu city audit put it in the most simple terms: “The rush to approve the project was for political reasons.”
When Andrew Robbins was hired as the executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) in 2017, I researched his background and was somewhat relieved to see he’s an engineer with many years experience in building rail transit projects. Robbins had held various high positions with Bombardier, a large international company with much experience in large-scale rail projects.
An executive with such strong credentials and experience is a first at HART. Unfortunately, Robbins was not here in the beginning, and he should not be held accountable for the many past mistakes.
My organization, Hawaii Advocates For Consumer Rights (AFCR), has been against this rail project from day one, believing that the all-elevated-steel-on-steel-third-rail system we wound up with would indeed produce the massive construction costs and contract overruns we’ve been witnessing. Agreeing with the late Honolulu Councilman Duke Bainum, many of us believed that a rubber on concrete system that was elevated where necessary and “at grade” (on the ground) where possible was best, far less expensive and would also be much quieter than the “steel-on-steel” system that the voters approved after an unrelenting public disinformation campaign funded by the very companies, unions, individuals and consultants that would ultimately benefit the most financially via contracts and jobs.
In any event, Robbins may be the only person on Earth who can get the project built and operating. As AFCR recently testified at the City Council, we believe the best thing Robbins might do is to pause the project at Middle Street and get it operative — before a contract is signed on what has been acknowledged to be the most disruptive and expensive segment: Dillingham-downtown-Ala Moana.
If paused at Middle Street, HART could at least explore the feasibility of rerouting the project to the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Given what we now know about climate change and the rising sea level, hopefully the Federal Transit Administration would understand these dire climate change projections and not demand its money back.
The very idea of the system terminating at Ala Moana Center was an ill-conceived plan from the beginning — given the additional amount of vehicular traffic (bus and car) that would be generated in and around the already near-gridlock Ala Moana area.
If, as a growing number of local and international economists are predicting, the world is heading into another major recession, what happens then? Anyone living in Hawaii during the 1995 “Japanese investment bust” could tell you. Pausing rail at Middle Street and revisiting the original UH-Manoa route could save the entire project.
Whatever happens, I sincerely wish Mr. Robbins the best of luck. Like rail or not, at this point we all need to see him somehow successful.
Scott Foster is communications director for Hawaii Advocates For Consumer Rights.