Council members heading to DC as rail costs escalate — Replacement for $210 million in bus funds at top of agenda

(Via KITV)

City Council Chairman Ernie Martin says the ballooning cost of the $5.3 billion rail project is cause for concern and he wants to meet with federal transit officials face to face.

On Wednesday, Martin drafted a resolution that will allow him and three other council members to travel to Washington, D.C., on a fact-finding mission. Once Resolution 15-19 is approved by the full council, Martin expects to be in our nation’s capital from Feb. 21 through the 25.

“I think we need to meet with the FTA (Federal Transit Administration) to get some definitive idea as to what can be considered if in fact the city is not able to identify additional revenues,” Martin told KITV4.

Council members expected to travel with Martin to D.C. include Brandon Elefante, Joey Manahan and Trevor Ozawa. Manahan is chairman of the City Council’s transportation committee, while Elefante and Ozawa head committees that deal with economic development and legal affairs.

With the rail project facing a projected cost overrun of more than $900 million, of particular concern is how to replace $210 million in federal bus funds that both the council and Mayor Kirk Caldwell have said cannot be used for rail construction.    

In a meeting with federal transit officials earlier this month, Caldwell explored the idea of using as much as $100 million in federal highway funds to help offset the rail project’s anticipated deficit. Council members headed to the beltway hope to explore that idea even further. 

“I think we’re all worried about the costs of the project at this point, and so for many of us, it’s doing due diligence and looking at all our options,” said Manahan.

Ozawa said his focus is on finishing the rail project as quickly as possible while containing costs. He said the city has to develop a transportation alternative for residents on Oahu’s west side.

“I want to make sure that it comes in as fast as we can and with the least amount of costs,” he said. “We’re going to make sure the taxpayers aren’t overburdened by this.”

The rail project is being paid for through a $1.55 billion full funding grant agreement with the FTA and a half-percent surcharge to the state’s general excise tax that has been in place since 2007. On Monday, the mayor lobbied state lawmakers to drop the rail tax sunset date at the end of 2022, but the reception he received was lukewarm at best.  

If federal highway funds cannot be used toward rail construction and state lawmakers don’t extend the rail tax, pressure to keep funding the system falls squarely on the City Council.

“We don’t want to impact actually any spectrum of our population unnecessarily with further taxes,” said Martin. “I know it’s a tough road for the city, and I wouldn’t say getting this (rail tax) extension from the Legislature is a done deal. From what I’ve seen thus far it’s going to be a very steep hill for the city to climb.”

As council members try to grapple with the rising costs of the project, they’re also having to explain to their constituents what appear to be extravagant expenditures by the transit authority.

In May of 2013 the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation announced a $5 million Art-in-Transit program that would help beautify rail stations along the elevated route. Ozawa said he spoke to officials at HART about the possibility of cutting the art program altogether.

“They said that it’s something they can cut out, but it’s not going to make a big difference in the overall cost of the project,” he said.

In a statement to KITV4, HART said support for the art program has been strong.

“We are looking at everything (to cut costs), but the fact that the community has voiced its support for the Art-in-Transit program will certainly be taken into consideration,” read the statement.

Meanwhile, KITV4 confirmed Friday that the city cannot change the rail project’s technology without jeopardizing the $1.55 billion federal grant. Under the transit authority’s financial plansubmitted to the FTA, the project must consist of a train with a 20-mile long track, 21 stations and 80 rail cars.   

“The funds were committed specifically to build a rail line,” an FTA spokesperson said in an email to KITV4. “They cannot be transferred to a BRT (bus rapid transit).

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