EXCLUSIVE: Feds critical of Hawaii's $820 million highway project backlog

EXCLUSIVE: Feds critical of Hawaii's $820 million highway project backlog

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A Hawaii News Now investigation revealed hundreds of millions of dollars in federally funded highways projects have been stuck in the state bureaucracy for years, delaying badly needed improvements and the creation of construction jobs.

A federal review found it takes three to four times as long for the average federal highway project to get started in Hawaii, compared to other states.

A contract administration review by the Federal Highway Administration completed in January reported Hawaii had $820 million worth of unused federal highway aid sitting on the books waiting to be spent in 2013, about five times the roughly $160 million in highway funds the state gets from the federal government each year. That's an improvement from 2011, when the federal highways project backlog totaled $940 million.

The money is "waiting to be spent on vital transportation projects that could stoke the state's economy and bring transportation benefits to the public," the FHA report said.

Those findings upset commuters such as Robert Caton, who routinely travels on state freeways and highways home to Waialua.

"I'd like to see an investigation take place as to why it's taking so long, why the delays are occurring. But of course that's going to take a long time too, so it's just a perpetual cycle of nothing happening," Caton said.

The federal review found the average time a federally funded state highways project takes to get started in Hawaii is nearly one year -- 350 days. That's three to four times as long as nine other states, where it took an average of 80 to 100 days to go from federal project approval to giving the contractor a "notice to proceed."

The time it takes the state to start construction, while lengthy, has shortened a bit in recent years, the report found.  In 2010, the average time a highway project waited for a notice to a contractor to proceed was 528 days, a figure that fell to 367 days in 2012.

Hillery Parker, who commutes home to Kailua from downtown Honolulu on the state's Pali Highway, said, "There's no sense of urgency with regard to that because there's no accountability. I think that's what it comes down to. There's no accountability. This is how we do things."

Joseph Rosenbaum, who drives to and from work on the H1 Freeway from his home near Diamond Head, said, "There's so much work that needs to be done and there's so many jobs that could be had for the road work that it's really a shame that the bureaucracy is holding this up and it's beyond my comprehension why when other states don't have this problem."

Gov. David Ige told Hawaii News Now he's concerned about the federal highway project backlog.

"The reality is that as the backlog grew higher and higher, the feds were reducing funds available to us," Ige said.

Ige said state highway officials have been meeting weekly with Federal Highways Administration representatives to tackle the state's backlog.

"We've identified the bottlenecks and the areas that we are not performing well. We have a better understanding of why the state has done so poorly," Ige said.

In the five months since Ige has been in office, he said the state Transportation Department has reduced the highway project backlog by $100 million, bringing it to $698 million at the end of March.

"We do have a game plan moving forward about how we intend to revamp and redo the entire process," Ige added.

The Federal Highway Administration review found that the Hawaii DOT "...does not track and manage projects in real time."

It also found the DOT's "... culture avoids the push for improvement and 'calling people out.'"

The report said the state DOT's "... leadership acceptance of the status quo hinders ..." the department from making needed changes.

State Senate President Donna Kim agreed with those findings.

"Civil servants in the system have been there year after year after year. And so we're really going to have to change the culture of the Department of Transportation," Kim said.

"When you look at how bad our traffic is, how bad our roads and the maintenance of our roads are, and you look at this time frame compared to the rest of the mainland, I'm really not sure why that is," Kim said after reviewing the federal report Hawaii News Now provided to her.

One effort to install a new computer program to track federal highways projects with a global IT company called Ciber was an expensive failure. The state spent nearly $14 million on the system that never worked for seven years, during the tenure of two previous governors, before Ige's administration canceled the project in March.

Tim Sakahara, a spokesman for the state DOT, said, "There have been efforts made to try to streamline the process, some that have been successful and some that have not been. And so we're working with that process, first and foremost, to make sure there's better communication with the Federal Highways Administration."

Sakahara said Hawaii's island geography limits detour possibilities because in an island state surrounded by ocean. That means the state can't shut down multiple stretches of highway for construction work just to speed things up as mainland states can or traffic would be even worse here than it is now.

"We don't have the luxuries like some other mainland states, to just have detours around the area. We're surrounded by water and we have a limited amount of roadways. I mean there's 2,500 lane miles in Hawaii and only so much we can do and not that many detours as well," Sakahara said.

"The state Department of Transportation realizes that there are challenges and we want to be good stewards of the federal money," Sakahara added.

The federal report said if the state can swiftly implement its recommendations for improvement, the review team is "confident" the DOT can reduce the average time a highways project takes to begin to 180 days from the 350-day average and reduce the backlog to $450 million from the 2013 high of $820 million.

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