Honolulu’s $9.2 billion rail transit project, long beset by delays and money problems, now must contend with the coronavirus pandemic. No surprise: The pandemic has caused delays and money problems.
Completion of the first 10-mile segment of the line from East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium, originally scheduled for October, will be delayed by about eight weeks, according to Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation executive director Andrew Robbins. The delay is “largely due to the COVID-19 but also just normal operational issues related to making all the technology functional,” Robbins said.
And the city, which had forecast opening the line to riders by December, has pushed that date back to next March. (On the getting-it-done side, the Honolulu Rate Commission finally signed off on new rates for bus and rail riders, sending them to the City Council for approval. They would go up a bit, but not exorbitantly).
More troubling is the financial picture. Ruth Lohr, HART’s chief financial officer, told the City Council Budget Committee on Tuesday that HART expects a loss of close to $100 million in state hotel room and general excise tax dollars. And HART is still trying to pry loose $744 million promised from the Federal Transportation Administration, which has cast a wary eye on HART’s plans to engage a private vendor to complete the final leg of the line. And even those plans have been delayed for three months.
Given the vast impact of the pandemic on the state’s budget — a $1.5 billion deficit has been projected — HART’s money woes won’t go away any time soon. The agency will have to be aggressive in tapping available funds, particularly from the federal government.
Hawaii received $107 million in CARES Act money earlier this month to support the state’s transit agencies; Honolulu got $90.8 million for its bus system. But Hawaii’s congressional delegation will need to push for more.
A new $3 trillion COVID-19 relief measure proposed by the U.S. House of Representatives includes about $15 billion for state departments of transportation and an additional $15 billion for transit agencies, according to an analysis by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
The money is badly needed by Hawaii and other states, which have delayed transportation projects large and small because of the pandemic. The cost of building the rail project is massive; but with Honolulu’s transportation future on the line, endless delays in its construction — or not finishing it at all — would cost far more.