Nobody could be that surprised to learn the Honolulu rail project has run into another delay. This $9.2 billion fixed-rail guideway, already six years late, has been rife with schedule and cost overruns.
And in this tumultuous time, virtually all aspects of life and work in Hawaii have been upheaved. So it is understandable that, with most businesses ordered to shut down during coronavirus mitigation and struggling to survive, the pending public-private partnership (P3) contract for completing the 20-mile alignment into town has been sideswiped by a pandemic.
It’s understandable, but concerning. Assembling the most sustainable construction and operations team — the winning partners also will operate the system for 30 years — is key to the enterprise. Allowing the timeline to drift very far (the revised award date is pending) could imperil its future.
Finally, the state could use the jobs rail will create now more than ever, jobs that will have to be seen as part of the state’s economic stimulus for recovery.
Approval of this contract is the linchpin for successfully completing the system, with its 21 rail stations and driverless cars; it represents the final 4.1 miles of track, between Middle Street and Ala Moana Center.
There is $744 million in federal funding remaining in the Federal Transit Administration’s full funding grant agreement, and the FTA is holding that back until the P3 contract is awarded.
Andrew Robbins, executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, said the bidders had been due to submit technical proposals for the project by Wednesday, with the award slated for May 15.
However, the principals asked for more time. The reason cited: Social distancing has complicated their ability to collaborate and pull together costs from suppliers and contractors.
He added that this delay won’t necessarily mean the opening date of the entire system, December 2025, will be pushed off, but that forecast is foggy at best.
Robbins also said the completed half of the line, from Kapolei to Aloha Stadium, still could be ready for operation at the hoped-for late November date, barring any unforeseen complications from the coronavirus pandemic.
Such complications may not be foreseeable, but it’s a safe bet there will be some.
Nevertheless, the city must press ahead to fulfill its side of the operational bargain. For its part, the Honolulu Rate Commission must deliver its recommendation on transit fares, a decision delayed due to a meeting cancellation. This panel already has held meetings remotely, though, so there should be no impediment to a decision.
Ultimately, it’s the Honolulu City Council that must come to a consensus on the fare plan, so this must be given a high priority on the agenda in the coming months.
The city will need to find ways to draw in more public comment on its plan, and if the last few weeks have shown anything, it’s that there are many virtual platforms that will enable interactions on such a consequential issue.
Most importantly, the city Department of Transportation Services still must come up with operational plans for the first half of the system, including coordination with bus routes, aiming at that year-end deadline.
Everyone hopes that by then, some measure of normalcy will return and people will be able to take advantage of the multimodal rail-bus network.
So much has changed in Hawaii in the past weeks, and it will be some time before there’s a significant turnaround. What hasn’t changed is that the rail will be important to Oahu’s sustainable growth and transportation, now and in the future.