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Mayor Kirk Caldwell skeptical of HART’s promise to open Honolulu rail in October

  • BRUCE ASATO / Jan. 15
                                Mayor Kirk Caldwell was in Washington, D.C., last week on a trip that included a sit-down meeting with top officials in the Federal Transit Administration, and he returned to Honolulu to draft a letter urging the rail authority board to “better understand and monitor” some critical issues.

    BRUCE ASATO / Jan. 15

    Mayor Kirk Caldwell was in Washington, D.C., last week on a trip that included a sit-down meeting with top officials in the Federal Transit Administration, and he returned to Honolulu to draft a letter urging the rail authority board to “better understand and monitor” some critical issues.

  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Executive Director Andrew Robbins speaks at today’s HART board meeting in Honolulu.

    DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Executive Director Andrew Robbins speaks at today’s HART board meeting in Honolulu.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell says the city is “not yet confident” the first 11-mile segment of the Honolulu rail line will open on time at the end of this year, and is warning the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation that it should stop promising the public that rail will open even earlier.

HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins pledged at a news conference early this month that the rail line would open by October, but both Caldwell and the state Department of Transportation are warning they are not prepared to meet that deadline, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser has learned.

Caldwell was in Washington, D.C., last week on a trip that included a sit-down meeting with top officials in the Federal Transit Administration, and he returned to Honolulu to draft a letter urging the rail authority board to “better understand and monitor” some critical issues.

“The board should require HART to cease making promises to the public of an artificial starting date of rail service,” Caldwell said in the letter dated Wednesday, referring to Robbins’ promise to launch rail in October.

“Internally, the city’s target date is December 2020, but the city is not yet confident in the ability to open by that date,” Caldwell wrote.

He noted that while HART is responsible for building the 20-mile rail line from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center, it is the city Department of Transportation Services that must operate the system, and “the city has not committed to a date for the opening of service.”

While addressing the board today, Caldwell also reminded listeners that while the city intends to open the entire 20-mile rail line in December 2025, the FTA has said it calculates there is only a 65 percent probability that the rail line will open by September 2026. Additional delays in the project will increase the cost of rail, Caldwell said

“That additional time is partly why they believe the City and County of Honolulu will have to come up with additional money on top of what’s already been provided through these different funding mechanisms, which I hope doesn’t happen,” Caldwell told the board. “I will not be mayor, but I do not want to see the taxpayers be burdened with that.”

Caldwell clarified in an interview after he left the meeting that the FTA is not predicting the cost of rail will increase beyond the current $9.2 billion budget for the project, but is warning that the cost of rail could increase again if there are further delays. The rail project is already billions of dollars over its original budget approved by the FTA in 2012, and is running six years behind schedule.

Caldwell said recent “slippage” in the rail schedule has reduced the “schedule contingency” — that is, the cushion in the schedule — from almost a year to only “a little over 100 days” for what the FTA believes will be six years of construction.

“Now, is that a realistic cushion, or not? The FTA talked about that. It should be a major concern for all of us, watching that cushion,” Caldwell said. “It could slip more, so it’s extremely important to make sure that there’s no more delay, because that cushion could slip away.”

Caldwell described the meeting with FTA last week as “sobering,” and urged the rail board to focus less attention on the interim opening, and pay closer attention to keeping to the deadline of December 2025 for opening the entire 20-mile rail line.

Announcing the October opening generated a great deal of positive news coverage for the rail project, Caldwell said, “but if we don’t deliver on the promises made, what remaining trust we have is going to evaporate.”

“At this point, I wouldn’t promise anything,” he said. “I would just make sure I tried to deliver everything as quickly as possible.”

In a related development, state Department of Transportation Director Jade Butay last week wrote to Robbins and city Department of Transportation Services Director Wes Frysztacki warning there does not appear to be any extra time or “float” in the rail schedule between now and the planned December opening.

The Butay letter strongly suggests the city will not be ready for an October opening, and Butay sent copies to more than a dozen city, state and federal officials. State DOT has responsibility for the safety of rail as the official State Safety Oversight Agency for the system.

Butay asked in the letter for clarification on exactly when rail will open to the public, and noted that his rail safety office “has documented concerns with DTS’ readiness in every Site Visit Report issued from 2018 to present.”

“If HART and DTS aim to carry any members of the public on the rail system prior to December 20, 2020, then project documents must clearly reflect an achievable plan and schedule to reach that goal,” Butay wrote.

After Caldwell left the board meeting this morning, Robbins acknowledged that the actual interim opening date is up to the city, which is tasked with operating the new system.

The official date for the interim opening is Dec. 20, and “if we actually do complete our activities a little bit sooner — I’m talking 40 or 50 days ahead — maybe the city would see fit to have some kind of demonstration service a little bit earlier” between East Kapolei and Aloha Stadium.

For his part, Caldwell is warning of ominous signs such as delays in construction, permitting and the procurement of a huge new contract that could signal even more problems for the city’s $9.2 billion rail project.

Caldwell noted that the date to award a huge contract for a public-private partnership to complete the rail system has been delayed four times, and that the city has not yet gained access to some properties where construction work is supposed to begin in the near future.

He also noted that HART must submit a critically important traffic management plan to the city before the city can issue construction permits for utility relocation work in the urban center and along the Dillingham corridor.

The city expected HART to submit that traffic plan was in November, and then in December, but “to our knowledge has not yet been submitted,” Caldwell wrote.

That point by Caldwell appears to contradict a statement by HART spokesman Bill Brennan, who told the Star-Advertiser in a text on Jan. 6 that the traffic management plan for Dillingham was submitted to the city in December.

Brennan said this morning that what was submitted to the city last month was a draft traffic management plan, and the city responded with comments about the draft. It is now up to HART to respond to the city’s observations about the draft, Brennan said.

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