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Editorial: Getting Oahu’s rail back on track to town

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The story of the Honolulu rail project, already one filled with frustration and financial troubles, continues on its perilous track, compounding its problems with new missteps and ill-considered decisions.

The next several months present a critical challenge, the outcome of which is anything but guaranteed.

The pricetag has now ballooned to $12.4 billion, and the shortfall in funding for the 20-mile system has reached an estimated $3 billion. This is a deficit due in part to lagging tax revenues due to the pandemic-fueled economic downturn, but it’s an excruciating development all the same.

Layered on top of that: a new revelation about a flaw in which the tracks and wheels are marginally mismatched; lingering technical obstacles to the crucial Dillingham Boulevard section; and, most recently, a contro- versial award of a lucrative consultant contract to Colleen Hanabusa, the former Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board chair, congresswoman and state lawmaker.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this has been a horrific mess. There are glimmers of hope that the new city and HART administrations are recalibrating, informed by a new reality check, and the prospect of course corrections bring some relief to the taxpayer looking on in dismay for years.

The bottom line is that simply moving the deck chairs around the Titanic can be tolerated no longer.

It’s crucial that real problem- solving finally moves this rail system toward its practical use — by year’s end, in fact. The city should take the reins of the Kapolei-to-Aloha Stadium built portion by then, and start making it useful.

Officials for HART, accompanied by Mayor Rick Blangiardi, are preparing a plan to present to the Federal Transit Administration, revising the financial blueprint in hopes of claiming the remainder of the federal subsidy of $1.5 billion.

Part of the rethinking of the project may involve “phasing,” said Lori Kahikina, the interim executive director for HART. By that she means that ending short of the final stop at Ala Moana Center would be presented to the FTA as only the completion of a phase.

That could work, if HART could find a way to finish a functional system that links East Kapolei to a point at least close to downtown Honolulu. And officials undoubtedly will need to convince the FTA of the ongoing commitment to continue a later phase to Ala Moana, as federally approved, and ultimately to the originally proposed terminus, the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

One point on which all the principal players agree is that stopping rail at Middle Street is untenable.

Both Kahikina and Hanabusa, speaking separately on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight Hawaii” webcast last week, have said this will not work. Blangiardi also has stated that he does not see Middle Street as a viable end point.

It’s not a surprise but still a relief to see that door closed. Kahikina pointed to the physical constraints of the area as making that terminus impractical. On Friday, Hanabusa made the additional, cogent point that ridership would fall off the cliff were that to be the end of the line.

As for the former congresswoman herself: It was necessary that the mayor, Hanabusa and HART have straightened out what had been a bad move — her consulting contract — for a project already in hot water with the public. Blangiardi appointed her to a seat on the HART board, opening when member Glenn Nohara’s term ends June 30.

Kahikina said HART will not seek a new contractor-consultant, which could’ve paid out $924,000 over six years.

Now, Hanabusa can offer the asset of her considerable experience as an unpaid board member. And, the team will need all the help it can get. Hanabusa ticked off all the various problems that dogged the rail when she headed the board, adding that they still exist, amid a gloomier fiscal reality.

There are myriad problems to resolve in the coming months, not the least of which is the likelihood that the rail system’s wheels will need replacing to better fit the track system.

Kahikina acknowledged that HART believes it to be the responsibility of the contractor, Hitachi Rail Honolulu JV, but said they are working to arrive at a cooperative solution.

Fine. But HART must insist on accountability in this case, and institute controls to catch such egregious errors.

All this bungling would be Keystone-Cops hilarious, except that it’s hideously real, and the taxpayers are sick of it. What they expect is that the rail be finished. Will they get it? The next few months will be telling.

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