Mayor, City Council members undecided on Honolulu's rail line continuing to Ala Moana Center

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Ashley Mizuo, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
·6 min read
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May 1—The city's long-troubled rail project's final destination at Ala Moana Center is being reconsidered as officials struggle to plug the $3.5 billion budget hole required to complete the transit system.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi plans to meet with the Federal Transit Authority in July or August to show updated plans for the project to recognize the funding gap that could include not continuing to Ala Moana Center.

"Ala Moana was a predetermined destination some 15 years ago ... and that was all well and good at the time. ... What's happened in the meantime is we have a project that's not only billions of dollars over budget, years delayed, but it's proven to be a real challenge to even construct, " he said Friday on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser's Spotlight Hawaii.

"When I go to the FTA, it's going to be with them on where we think we can get, how far we can build it. Whether or not Ala Moana is in their offering ? I don't know."

The cost for the 20-mile rail project that aims to connect Kapolei to Ala Moana has ballooned to $12.499 billion and will not be completed until March 2031. While 16 miles already have been completed, the last four have proved to be the most difficult.

The administration is looking at funding measures, but having less revenue from the general excise tax and transient accommodations tax due to the COVID-­

19 pandemic has not helped the situation.

"We owe it to the public, given the incredible investment has been made to build the best rail possible, " Blangiardi said.

"But these are very real economic factors, so this notion of how far can we take the rail ? You know, building to Ala Moana is almost out of context with the reality that we're in."

Blangiardi's Friday response was not the first time that stopping the rail short of Ala Moana has been brought up.

At the last Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board of directors meeting, board member Joe Uno suggested that the Honolulu City Council should at least discuss whether to stop the rail at Middle Street.

Of the nine Honolulu City Council members that the Star-Advertiser asked about their position on whether the rail should continue past Middle Street, six responded.

Councilman Brandon Elefante, who represents the Pearl City area, said the rail should continue to Ala Moana Center.

"This project will be transformative and is part of improving transportation options, reducing fossil fuel use, generating contributions to affordable housing, and it will support transportation needs for residents and visitors alike, " Elefante said.

"We have to consider all options on the table from : extending the General Excise Tax surcharge (as major transportation infrastructure in the state ), public-­private partnerships along Transit-Oriented Development areas, and also consider looking at more federal funding if available, such as the pending federal support for infrastructure projects."

Councilwoman Radiant Cordero, who represents the Kalihi area, echoed Elefante's sentiments.

"Stopping rail at Middle Street will not save the project money, " she said.

"Say we do end at Middle Street. At what cost ? ... We will have to self-fund the rest of that project, pay the Federal government back under the FFGA (Full Funding Grant Agreement ), and self-fund operations and maintenance. HART board members advocating for rail to stop at Middle Street do not represent the point of view of the City Council. ... Our communities (are ) relying on support of the growth of our city with affordable housing and access to jobs in our Transit-Oriented Development. They are leaving whole communities, especially the residents in my district, especially Kalihi, who deserve this. They deserve better."

The FFGA requires the rail to go the full 20 miles to receive the full $1.55 billion in federal funds. To date, HART has received about $806 million.

However, Waikele Councilman Augie Tulba had a different opinion.

"$3.5 billion is a big deal. The City has limited resources and each year the Administration and the Council have to work together to make tough decisions on what to fund, " he said.

"I don't see how we can close the rail's $3.5 billion gap at this time so I support taking a pause at Middle Street. We need to develop a fiscally sound plan that won't handcuff future generations and find creative solutions that take into account emerging transportation technologies."

Kaimuki Councilman Calvin Say did not take a strong position either way, but did not think it would be wise to award contracts to complete the final segment of the rail without a solid funding plan.

"It now appears that we cannot bank on additional federal funding, so the Council must work with HART, our City Administration, and our colleagues at the State to determine a financial path forward, " he said.

"To stop rail short of the urban core would shortchange residents and businesses in these districts that, along with those throughout the island, have contributed to the funding of rail. Many large housing development projects are being constructed in my district based on the promise that rail will be built. As governmental officials, it is important that we find a way to fulfill our promises to our residents."

Council Chairman Tommy Waters said that he is still considering options to plug the rail's budget shortfall, but did not say whether he supported to project continuing to Ala Moana Center.

"I look forward to further discussion with my colleagues at the Council as HART continues to evaluate what cost-saving measures could be pursued to ensure a successful project, " he said.

Councilwoman Andria Tupola, who represents Kapolei, where the rail begins, referred the question to Blangiardi.

Although Blangiardi is considering not continuing the rail to Ala Moana Center, he was adamant that it would not stop at Middle Street.

"I have no interest in stopping at Middle Street, " he said.

Blangiardi was also optimistic about the more collaborative nature between his office, the City Council and HART interim CEO Lori Kahikina.

"The open rift the office had with HART was so dysfunctional, and we've worked really hard not to create that, " he said.

"I feel very comfortable in our daily conversations in all of our combined efforts to problem-solve."

That collaboration was apparent in Kahikina's response to Blangiardi's statements about potentially reconsidering continuing the rail to Ala Moana Center.

"HART's position will be to support the Administration, " she said.

"We will support the Mayor however he needs."