FTA says major changes to rail project would come at great price

(Via KITV)

Some longtime critics of the city’s rail project have stated repeatedly that Honolulu can make major changes to how the elevated line is built without facing penalties from the federal government.

But after a Tuesday meeting in Washington, D.C., with top officials from the Federal Transit Administration, City Council members Joey Manahan and Ernie Martin came away with a much different understanding of what can actually be done under a full funding grant agreement signed in December 2012. Both men met with FTA Acting Administrator Therese McMillan as well as support staff.

“The FFGA is a binding contract between us and the federal government,” Manahan told KITV4 via satellite. “So, if they have to basically meet the requirements on their end, we also have to meet the requirements on ours. And that’s based on the current financial plan that we have adopted and that HART has put out.”

If the city attempted to change the 20-mile route, use a different technology other than steel wheels on steel rail, or perhaps build fewer than the 21 transit stations currently required, Martin said construction would likely be halted.

“To change the technology or to reduce the number of stations would require the city to undertake another environmental review of the project itself,” Martin said. “That would cause significant delays in the project, and at the end of the day, we might end up with a project that’s far more expensive than what is currently being contemplated.”

To date, Congress has allocated more than $806 million of the FFGA, which will eventually total $1.55 billion once the 2017 federal budget is approved by Congress. An FTA spokesperson issued a statement to KITV4 Tuesday confirming what was told to Manahan, Martin and fellow council members Brandon Elefante and Trevor Ozawa, who also traveled to Washington.

“Noncompliance with the terms of a Full Funding Grant Agreement would result in FTA requiring repayment of federal funds already provided to the project sponsor,” the agency’s spokesperson wrote in an email.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who visited with FTA officials last month, said it’s the same message he heard while in the nation’s Beltway.

“They made it clear that we signed what is called a full funding grant agreement,” said Caldwell. “It’s a legal document and we cannot change that document.”

Meanwhile, the FTA told visiting council members that $210 million in so-called 5307 federal bus funds must be replaced. Last week, the City Council passed Resolution 15-18, which calls on the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation to delete the bus funds from the rail project’s financial plan.  

“It was very definitive that they said it was a local decision to be made,” said Martin. “At the end of the day, yes, the county must identify an alternative source of funding to replace the 5307 funds.”

However, Manahan and Martin said the FTA was receptive to the possibility of using federal highway funds to make-up some of the rail project’s existing shortfall, which is currently pegged at $910 million.

“It was something that they themselves put on the table,” said Martin.  

After his meeting with FTA officials last month, Caldwell said he was pursuing as much as $100 million in highway funds that are normally set aside for the state. The mayor said negotiations with the Hawaii Department of Transportation were ongoing.

Caldwell, HART Executive Director and CEO Dan Grabauskas as well as members of the HART board are currently lobbying state lawmakers for an extension of the half-percent rail tax on Oahu to gather more funds for the cash-strapped rail project. The surcharge to the state’s general excise tax is supposed to sunset at the end of 2022.

Earlier this month the state Senate’s Transportation Committee approved SB 19 that would extend the rail tax until 2047. The measure has been forwarded to the Ways and Means Committee for further debate.

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