The city is facing a huge “make it work” moment with its rail project, if only someone would recognize that fact — and pick up the pace toward making it work.
Instead, the taxpaying public has been witness to Mayor Kirk Caldwell scolding the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation for overpromising what can be delivered: a soft launch of rail’s first 11 miles on its 2020 target date.
Addressing the HART board on Thursday after returning from a visit with federal overseers of the project, the mayor asserted that the city is “not yet confident” the segment will open at the end of this year.
“If we don’t deliver on the promises made, what remaining trust we have is going to evaporate,” Caldwell said to the board. In a later interview, he said the Federal Transit Administration is concerned that HART needs to focus on getting the public-private contract going on its final 10-mile, City Center segment.
Of course, public trust has eroded in the nine-plus years since ground was broken: It’s worn down to the nub. And yes, another delay past the promised December launch — though construction of the Ewa-to-Aloha Stadium portion is now pegged to finish even earlier — will sap patience even further.
But Caldwell’s got it exactly wrong why the public will be even more frustrated. It’s not because the projected October construction completion was announced by HART, dangling the hope that the West Side could get its first taste of the rail en route to stadium football games.
That, in fact, was the rare bit of optimism that has peeked out through the project’s dense storm clouds. What drags down public enthusiasm is hearing no real justification as to why some kind of launch is not possible.
Patrick Preusser, the city’s director of rapid transit services, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that once the segment is built there must be a 90-day “pre-revenue” test period. But couldn’t the city project something positive here, aiming to begin those dry runs when the structure is ready?
HART spokesman Bill Brennan said the construction agency remains committed to having the Ewa-to-stadium segment “ready to ride,” as announced, in October. “Ready to ride means construction is complete and all safety certifications have been completed,” he affirmed Friday.
At the very least, the Honolulu City Council should summon Caldwell and city transportation officials to address the public on all of this, and as soon as possible.
Further, both HART and the city Department of Transportation Services (tasked with operating rail) must overcome a clear disconnect between them. Faulty coordination seems also to be a problem with the critical City Center segment that will snake through traffic-
jammed Dillingham Boulevard.
The contractor there, Nan Inc., is behind on the utilities relocation work in the corridor, which has led HART to propose hiring a second contractor to quicken progress and to add day hours to the now-night work.
One obstacle cited was the delayed traffic-management plan, which is needed for routing around all the construction disruption. It’s unclear exactly why that bogged down, but a more finely tuned, collaborative process between the builders and the city is plainly needed.
The public frequently has been left in the dark about the project’s stumbles. These start with rail costs doubling to the current
$9 billion-plus — all of which has prompted an ongoing federal inquiry into the project.
Then there are its myriad delays. In an ironic end to the week, former Councilman Charles Djou posted on his Facebook page that Friday had been the original opening date for a finished rail system.
Now there are more issues. State Transportation Director Jade Butay wrote in January to city DTS Director Wes Frysztacki and to HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins, that Butay’s rail safety office “has documented concerns with DTS’ readiness in every Site Visit Report issued from 2018 to present.” So clearly, the city was long ago put on notice about its lagging time frame for preparations.
In response to an email query, Frysztacki said his agency would be working with the systems contractor, Hitachi Rail Honolulu Joint Venture, on reliability for ridership, conducting core testing and securing DOT safety certification.
“DTS must be assured each train set, screen gate, ticket vending machine, fare gate, light fixture, escalator and elevator are safe, clean and ready for service,” he added. “DTS wants to make certain that all staff are hired, properly trained and ready to respond to any situation that may arise.”
These are demanding tasks, to be sure. And yes, Mr. Mayor, there are problems looming ahead with preparations and contracting for the final City Center segment.
But really, the city administration does not get a pass on meeting its own targets to start the system rolling. It’s not a binary choice between urban construction and Ewa-stadium operations. The city and HART have to do both at the same time.
The taxpayers are demanding that builders and operators alike pull out all the stops — get rail running, and finish this job.