Top lawmaker says rail should avoid Kakaako. The reason? Climate change

Top lawmaker says rail should avoid Kakaako. The reason? Climate change

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Concerns over rising sea levels are prompting a leading state lawmaker to push the Honolulu rail project to reconsider its current route through Kakaako.

State Rep. Sylvia Luke, chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, told the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board on Thursday that it should bring the rail line along King Street to the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

That's instead of bringing it on Ala Moana Boulevard to Ala Moana Center.

"The rail project is the largest public works project in the state," Luke said. "It's prudent for us to, as a community, be looking at questioning the whole sea level rise issue."

Luke said Thursday that her committee will hold hearings this fall on rail and climate change. She said she believes rail experts have studied the King Street route in the past and she wants that analysis brought to her committee.

If the studies aren't brought voluntarily, she said she will use her legislative subpoena power to force their production.

"The reason why we may have to take a subpoena approach is because the mayor, the city, and HART have not been forthright with a lot of information to the state before," Luke said.

And she pointed to the latest predictions, which estimate that Honolulu could experience sea level rise of 3.2 feet within two decades.

She said taking sea level rise into consideration when it comes to rail just makes sense, noting that significant portions of Kakaako could be in the flood zone under current sea level rise predictions.

She also said HART should consider taking the rail line underground along King Street, and noted that the benefits of rail development will be more broadly felt on King Street than in Kakaako, which is already the site of a host of housing and commercial projects.

But Mayor Kirk Caldwell said the HART can respond to sea level rise along with rest of city without changing route, which he says serves the densest part of Honolulu. He added that businesses and residents aren't likely to "retreat" from Kakaako and the rail line shouldn't, either.

"What you will see in the coming 40 to 100 years ... (is) we will raise the height of the land to address sea level rise," he said.

The mayor wasn't at HART to respond to Luke. (The two have had a contentious relationship from when Caldwell was a leader in the state House and Luke was among the leaders of the dissident Democrats.)

Instead, Caldwell came to HART to warn them about rushing into what's called "public-private partnerships" for upcoming rail construction and operations contracts.

Also called "P3," public-private partnerships are becoming increasingly popular with large government projects, like rail systems, airports and even waste management systems.

Unlike traditional government bids for contractors, the P3 companies not only build the project but also maintain and operate them for decades, often making most of the money after construction is finished. They agree to do the work without asking for more money, absorbing the risk if something does not go as planned.

One model HART has discussed would have the contractor build a massive parking garage at the Pearl Highlands station and the "city center" segment of the rail guideway from Middle street to Ala Moana and then operate and maintain the system for two or three decades after it begins operating.

Companies that seek those kinds of contracts are often willing to accept a fixed price for the entire period, which would include the money the city expects to spend to subsidize the operations, over $100 million per year.

The HART board had an item on the agenda Thursday morning to approve spending several million dollars to hire consultant experts on P3 contracting, but Mayor Caldwell warned the board that the vote might be premature. In a letter to the board the Mayor said the HART staff had not provided the city with information city officials requested that would have fleshed out how P3 would work for the project.

He warned the board that investing $8 million dollars in P3 consultants now was essentially committing the project to a public private partnership without knowing enough to be confident it would work. In particular he mentioned that the city already has a contract with Ansaldo STS to operate the system, and it wasn't clear how that might affect the viability of a P3 bid.

The Mayor said he feared HART might invest too much time and energy into P3 only to have it not pencil our or attract bidders, and then by the time a more traditional bid was issued, as much as two more years might pass.

"And delay is the enemy of rail, the enemy of rail," Caldwell said. "Its what adds the additional cost. "It's going to be so much more expensive that the public will react in a very negative way and the council will react in a very negative way."

Caldwell also said a new financing scheme could bring new scrutiny from the federal government, which has yet to approve the current financial plan or release $750 million for the project.

Because HART's mission is to build the project, and the city is expected to operate the rail system, any P3 project that included operations and maintenance would require city approval.

But HART CEO Anthony Robbins defended the process his team is using to evaluate P3 verses traditional contracting.

He said preliminary work toward offering contracts was the same for either type of contract and if P3 didn't look promising, switching to "design-build," the more traditional system, would not be difficult.

He also pointed out that with either system, HART intends to set a cap on how much it will spend for the work, which will force contractors to be innovative to stay under budget.

"This is how we are trying to manage the project now as opposed to incurring these cost overruns," Robbins said. "We are trying to manage the project within a budget."

Although board members expressed support for Robbins work toward P3 contracting, they did not approve his proposal to hire the additional consultants. Instead staff was instructed to keep working to generate more of the information the city wants to be comfortable with the process.

Luke also pointed out in her testimony that rerouting to King Street and possibly including going underground, would open up more alternatives that might pencil out in a P3 contract and save considerable money and time.

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