Mayor says Honolulu rail needs quick start
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By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Sean Hao
Changes in priorities and political will killed Honolulu's last two efforts to build major new mass-transit systems in 1982 and 1992.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann is determined to prevent history from repeating itself, even if it means beginning construction on a commuter rail system before the federal government commits to funding part of the project.
That move, which leaves a $700 million gap in the project's budget, could allow service to begin from East Kapolei to Leeward Community College as soon as 2012 — barring legal challenges, archaeological finds, construction problems and other potential delays. Full service to Ala Moana Center is expected to begin in 2017.
The longer the city waits, the more transit will cost, Hannemann said. For example, Honolulu could have built a light rail system in the 1990s for $1.8 billion, or half the current proposed price, he said.
"To wait for your (federal) full funding grant approval to be finalized, it will take a lot longer for construction to begin," Hannemann said. "The best thing that we can do is build it as quick as we can."
However, rushing the project without federal funding approval is a gamble. If Hannemann is right, Hono-lulu's new transit system could be running years earlier and for millions of dollars less. If he's wrong, Hono-lulu taxpayers could end up paying millions of dollars more than planned for the 20-mile, elevated commuter rail.
Critics contend Hannemann's timetable is not realistic and could lead to irresponsible spending.
"I think that to some degree ... planning a gigantic project has to, I guess, (be done) on a wing and a prayer sometimes, but when you're dealing with taxpayer money that's huge," said Council Chair Barbara Marshall, an opponent of the transit project. "Can we break ground next year? Of course we can because all you need are a few politicians and a shovel.
"Can we start construction by next year? How do we possibly start construction of a project of that magnitude in such a short space of time?"
Other potential hurdles to launching rail service in 2012 include:
Project proponents recognize that Hannemann's timetable is ambitious.
"It's possible. It's aggressive," said council member Todd Apo. "I'm not going to guarantee anyone it's going to happen on that path."
However, "The indication I'm getting from the (Federal Transit Authority), which controls all of this, is that it's possible."
The crux of Hannemann's plan is to start construction in the fall of 2009, which likely will be before the federal government commits funds to the project.
Honolulu taxpayers already are expected to bear about $3 billion of the project's costs via a half-percentage point excise tax surcharge that expires in 2022. That means the city needs $700 million more to cover the project's price tag, assuming the project stays on budget.
However, Honolulu isn't expected to find out how much federal funding it will get until 2011.
The actual amount of federal funds needed could vary from as little as $662 million to as much as $948 million, depending on how much excise tax revenue is raised between now and 2022, according to city estimates. That federal money is expected to come from the Federal Transit Authority's New Starts program, which provides funding for "guideway" transit projects.
Predicting the amount and availability of New Starts funding is complicated because the program expires next year. That means the agency can't award any additional New Starts funding beyond the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009, until it receives additional spending authorization from Congress.
NO SET FUNDING
It's too soon to comment on possible funding amounts or timetables for Honolulu's commuter rail project, said Federal Transit Authority spokesman Paul Griffo.
"At this stage it's really too early to begin talk about any kind of an anticipated timeline because the project is not even rated by the FTA yet," he said.
Typically it takes several years for a project to proceed from preliminary engineering to a full grant from the FTA, Griffo said. Honolulu plans to start preliminary engineering on the commuter rail project this spring.
Even without a federal appropriation Honolulu may raise as much as $500 million via its transit-tax surcharge by the end of next year. That could be used to begin construction.
However, Honolulu could jeopardize the availability of federal funds by starting construction before receiving a federal grant, said Panos Prevedouros, a University of Hawai'i transportation engineering professor.
That's what happened in 2004 when the FTA pulled $20 million pledged to Honolulu's BRT, or Bus Rapid Transit system, after city officials broke rules by starting construction without FTA approval.
Honolulu could end up in the same situation, if it starts building the commuter rail project before receiving FTA approval.
"My understanding is you cannot trump the FTA by starting to build," said Prevedouros, a rail opponent. "Then the FTA simply says, 'Well, obviously by starting to build you have the ability to finish. So good luck to you.' That's what they did with the BRT."
Hannemann said he's confident Honolulu will not jeopardize the availability of federal funds by breaking ground next year. The current plan is to build the rail's first segment exclusively with city funds, then use federal funds to pay for later segments.
"We'll look to get as much guarantees as possible that the full funding grant agreement will be as much as we're expecting" before breaking ground, Hannemann said. So far, "All the messages are very positive. No one is giving me any indication that what we're asking for is out of the question."
If the federal funds fall short, more money would need to come from alternate sources, or the system could be shortened from its proposed 20-mile length.
However, Hannemann said there's no need to plan for such contingencies right now.
"I don't see any reason now for planning for plan B," he said.
Reach Sean Hao at email@example.com.
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