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Coronavirus pandemic threatens to delay opening date for Honolulu rail line

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The opening date for Honolulu’s rail line from Kapolei to Ala Moana that is planned for December 2025 might now be delayed in a new bit of fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

The city and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation are delaying award of a multibillion-dollar rail contract after the bidders seeking the public-private partnership contract said they need more time to prepare their proposals, said Andrew Robbins, executive director of HART.

That contract is critical to the completion of rail, and the Federal Transit Administration has been withholding about $744 million in federal funding for the Honolulu project until the public-private partnership or P3 contract is awarded.

“There is a threat to that date,” Robbins said of the city’s scheduled December 2025 opening of the full 20-mile rail line. “That is true, there is a threat to that date.”

The $9.2 billion rail system is already six years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

The proposed P3 contract would be the largest in city history, involving an estimated $1.4 billion in construction work. That piece of the contract would include 4.1 miles of elevated rail line, eight train stations in the urban core, and the Pearl Highlands transit center, along with a 1,600-stall parking garage.

The winning P3 bidder would also maintain and operate the entire 20-mile rail line for 30 years.

The P3 bidders had been scheduled to submit their technical proposals for developing the final portion of the rail line Wednesday but told the rail authority they were unable to meet that deadline, Robbins told reporters Thursday in a conference call. HART and the city had been scheduled to award the P3 contract May 15.

“All the bidders notified us that due to the coronavirus, they could not meet the date, so they’ve asked for an extension,” Robbins said. “That’s due to their inability to collaborate, (and) get all their final costing from all their suppliers and subcontractors. It just became an impossible situation for them.”

A new schedule for awarding the P3 contract is “pending,” and Robbins said he plans to brief the HART board of directors on the matter Thursday.

He declined to estimate how much the award will be delayed but said the delay in the P3 award won’t necessarily translate into a delay in the opening date for the entire rail line.

“The final opening, I’m not sure we’ve made any determination yet,” Robbins said. That will depend in part on how the pandemic plays out, and “we will have to get into a collaboration and a dialogue with our bidders, and understand how that affects their ability to meet the schedules, because they’re responsible for putting together the execution schedule.”

The city has also been planning an interim opening of the rail line from East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium for the end of this year. Robbins has said he wants that portion the rail line to be “ready to ride” by October, but said the pandemic has delayed that plan by about four weeks.

Rail construction has continued during the emergency, but Robbins said it is up to the city to decide whether that western portion of the rail line will actually open in December. “Right now we’re looking at an end of November (for) operational readiness. I’m not going to speculate on anything beyond that.”

“Our ability to hold that four-week delay or improve it or see it get worse is really a function of what’s going to go on with this virus situation,” he said.

Robbins said there have been some delays because of the coronavirus emergency. A crew from Australia that came to Hawaii to install the fabric on the west side station canopies had to return home during the emergency, and the mainland crew that arrived to replace them ended up sitting in quarantine for two weeks, he said.

Hitachi Honolulu JV also brought in test engineers who also had to wait out quarantine but are now at work, Robbins said.

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