The mayoral candidates on rail: 4 top contenders say pausing project is an option

The Job Interview: Mayoral Candidates Talk Rail

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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - One of the biggest issues facing the next Honolulu mayor ― in addition to coronavirus and its ongoing financial fallout ― will be the city’s beleaguered rail project.

The $9 billion rail line is by far the most contested issue in the community.

And during interviews for HNN’s “The Job Interview” special, the five top contenders for mayor offered differing views on how the project should proceed.

Mufi Hannemann, who started the project as mayor in 2010, said it’s important to understand that rail won voter and council approval when it was supposed to be a $5 billion project.

“Rail has exploded in costs over the past 10 years that I’ve been out of office,” said Hannemann. “I’m not into pointing fingers. All I’m gonna say is this: As the guy who started it, Iwanna go back and fix it.”

Unfortunately for Hannemann, many fingers are being pointed at him.

Auditors have said contracts were issued prematurely, which led to lawsuits that delayed construction and change orders due to surprise problems along the route.

Hannemann says he was not responsible for that.

“You can look it up, that release was done in Agust of 2010, so we did proceed legally, the cost did get out of control because of the numerous delays,” he said.

“So once again, I state: When I was there, we were on time, on budget, on schedule with all federal and state requirements to proceed.”

Councilwoman Kym Pine, meanwhile, alleges the project was victimized by corruption, greed and outright theft. Although there is a federal investigation, no one has been charged with a crime.

“Oh I’m just saying with the federal government ... they believe that crimes have taken place and that’s why they’re investigating around,” she said.

“I’ve talked to many former staffers who have been fired because they raised concerns that cost overruns were taking place that did not need to happen, that people are getting contracts that should not have gotten contracts, that there’s change orders that could have been prevented.

Pine says she has heard some allegations directly from anonymous whistleblowers working the project and goes so far as to say it needs direct law enforcement oversight.

“I believe the system is too big for a small town like us to do,” she said. “The temptation to make money on the side. The temptation just to look the other way for a change or a change order is too great, that we should have the federal government in partnership with us and the FBI, having people on the ground until we finish the project.”

Former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa spent about 15 months as chair of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which she said was frustrating because HART leaders kept her and the rest of the board in the dark.

“I think this is the thing that people did not understand, that when i got on the HART board, first of all, there was a whole issue of how budgets were presented, and it really is transparency,” she said.

“I think the people who watched us would agree to one thing, transparency and understanding how and what hart had not done and what heart needs to do was a major accomplishment during the time that i was there.”

Like everything else, the COVID-19 crisis has altered the outlook for rail in several ways. The most immediate: The collapse of the project’s two main sources of money ― excise tax and hotel room taxes.

That’s left revenue shortfall so severe that four of the five candidates, including rail supporter Rick Blangiardi, say they would be willing to halt construction temporarily until the money comes back.

Only Keith Amemiya opposed the idea.

Blangiardi said the reality is “this is a 100-year project.”

“Do remember how how it got sold? This was gonna be the link between Honolulu and the building of a second city,” he said.

“Alright, so if you’ve got to take a time out because of a global pandemic, that is unprecedented in our history, that’s gonna cause pain and suffering for the common person working where it’s already under hardship, OK, what, what is wrong with that?”

Hannemann and Pine also say a pause may be needed.

“So what do we do? Do we just take a pause?” Pine said. “‘Cause how do you get more money out of people that have no money? You’re gonna have to pause things at some point or roll out the bond for 30 years.”

The key to the future of rail is a bid that won’t be opened until August.

Rail officials are hoping a group of companies is willing to build the last segment of guideway and operate the system for 30 years at an affordable price. If the bid doesn’t work out, that could force the pause four of the top five mayoral candidates are talking about.

Amemiya, though, wants to stay on track.

“We’re gonna have to look at making changes, whether it’s alterations to the rail station or the like. We need to sharpen our pencil, we need to look at maybe elongating the financing of the rail project,” he said. “But we need to finish the rail project, like it or not. It’s almost finished.

“We’ve gone too far. Yes, i’m frustrated like everyone else at the rail progress thus far, it’s been disastrous from before construction, it was rushed, it was ill-planned, and it’s been a source of frustration for everyone. But we’re almost done, as I said, it’s an important viable alternative means of transportation for us on this island.”

The problems of rail weigh most heavily on Hannemann, who offered a rare apology to voters for departing Honolulu Hale to run for governor when the project was in its infancy

“Maybe I should have stayed and finish the job as mayor. I get it. I get it from those who say, “If you hadn’t gone, I’d be riding the rail right now. If you hadn’t gone, the road would be in better shape. If you hadn’t gone and we’d be able to make progress on homelessness and so forth because you know how to read the private sector.

“I get it, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa.”

That says a lot about the power of rail as a political issue. But the consensus among the top candidates is that the project is worth saving, though on a timeline no one is now willing to predict.

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