Jul. 21—The full Honolulu City Council will have the chance to weigh in on the nomination of Anthony Aalto, a documentary filmmaker and environmentalist, to fill a spot on the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board after he received initial committee approval Tuesday.
Councilman Radiant Cordero, who chairs the Committee on Transportation, Sustainability and Health, nominated Aalto for the position.
During Tuesday's committee hearing, Aalto expressed the need for Oahu to build affordable housing and revitalize communities on the Leeward side of the island.
"I spent hundreds of hours researching the rail project and interviewed all the key figures in the debate, including national planning experts, and seven years ago I released the documentary 'Railroading Paradise, '" he said. "I came to the conclusion then that to supply more affordable homes for residents, to lower the cost of living around transportation and to protect and preserve our environment, our focus should be on transit-oriented development, and rail made the best sense for our community."
Aalto said that as chairman of the Sierra Club's Oahu Group from 2012 to 2018 and as a private citizen, he has met with all three former HART executive directors to discuss alternative ways to finish the project.
"I've been horrified by the mismanagement and the cost overruns ; I want to get to the bottom of them, " said Aalto, who remains on the Sierra Club's executive committee. "Under the charter, the board should be doing more via its committees to pursue funding sources and other duties."
Aalto's nomination comes at yet another critical time for HART, which faces a budget shortfall of $3 billion and no easy fix to plug it in order to the build the 20-mile-long rail system all the way to Ala Moana Center. The massive project is estimated to cost $12.45 billion and is not expected to be completed until March 2031.
HART Board Chairman Tobias Martyn abruptly resigned this month after state Sen. Kurt Fevella accused him of "possible criminal acts " relating to the issuance of rail general obligation bonds. Former Congresswoman and HART Chairwoman Colleen Hanabusa is scheduled to rejoin the board at its July 30 meeting after turning down a controversial HART consulting contract worth nearly $1 million.
If the Council approves Aalto's nomination, he would replace one of the HART board's most outspoken critics, Joe Uno, who owns a construction cost consulting firm.
Different entities get to pick members of the HART board, such as Mayor Rick Blangiardi's selection of Hanabusa. Martyn's seat is selected by the HART board itself. It takes only two "no " votes to veto any HART board proposal, and Uno had hoped to replace Martyn with someone with construction experience and expertise.
"(Aalto's ) also a supporter of rail going to Ala Moana no matter what the cost, " Uno said. "I was hoping to use my veto to get in a technically qualified person, someone with construction experience and who is not just a shill for 'Go rail at all costs.'
"I just wish there was someone more qualified."
Councilman Augie Tulba similarly questioned Aalto's experience on overseeing major construction projects.
Aalto acknowledged he does not have the same background as others on the HART board, but said that could be an asset.
"I would just turn the question around and ask, What has that experience bought us ?" he said. "They weren't asking the right questions. They didn't supervise the project correctly."
Council Chairman Tommy Waters supported Aalto's nomination, similarly criticizing past decisions by the HART board.
"In the past we've appointed cost estimators, engineers and whatnot, and somehow we still have an estimated $1-to-$3 billion shortfall, " he said.
"Why I asked you to do this and why I think you're the best qualified to do it is because you ask questions. You're inquisitive, and if you don't get the answer, you're going to keep asking."
The Council had already decided not to reappoint Uno to the board. When his term ended in June, Aalto was tapped for the post.
Aalto said he hopes that if the HART board can demonstrate it can push the project to completion, more federal funds can be obtained to help plug the $3.2 billion shortfall, especially as President Joe Biden plans to invest trillions of dollars into infrastructure nationwide.
His nomination was passed out of committee and will be heard by the full Council.