Daniel Grabauskas
Daniel Grabauskas, CEO of HART

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Calling it “a great milestone,” Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation CEO Dan Grabauskas told reporters yesterday he officially submitted a Full Funding Grant Agreement to the Federal Transit Administration requesting $1.55 billion for the city’s 20-mile elevated steel on steel rail project.

This is the first step toward getting funding for the $5 billion project that U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye pledged to help secure as Senate Appropriations Chair.

Grabauskas maintained he is confident the city will get White House approval and Congress will authorize the full amount of the request.

“The US Congress has never reneged, never ever not delivered on a Full Funding Grant Agreement ever. Period. I’ll even go a step further and say I don’t know of any project that has gotten this far to actually have the FTA say submit these documents that didn’t get the award either,” Grabauskas said.

Grabauskas dismissed a recent dispute in Congress in which House Republicans in a subcommittee of Appropriations cut one of Hawaii’s first allocations for its rail project from $250 million to $100 million. The House is still in negotiations with the Senate on the final allocation amount, which comes from New Starts funding.

After considerable criticism from city council members about the rail financing plan’s viability, Grabauskas said the city’s financial plan is now “very strong.”

City Council Budget Chair Ann Kobayashi and City Council Member Tom Berg did not approve of HART’s plan to borrow up to $1.9 billion in city CIP funds, use as much as $450 million in commercial papers, and add another $244 million from the bus and Handivan maintenance and repair fund to finance the 20-mile system.

Grabauskas said the total cost of the project has dropped by $10 million and up to $214 million from The Bus and Handivan fund could be used instead of the original plan for $244 million.

The FTA’s analysts claim the city will have $193 million left over at the end of construction of the rail project because the federal agency is projecting an increase of $144 million in GE tax revenues on Oahu, a half percent of which goes to rail.

But Grabauskas could not guarantee that if the rail ever gets built, it will be without cost overruns. He did pledge the city would be debt free from the rail project three years after its completion.

The FTA, which helped the city write the financial plan for the rail, did increase the cost of what the city will likely need to spend on maintenance and operations. Grabauskas said he believes the costs are too high, but will address that with the FTA at a later date.

There are still federal and state legal challenges in the works that could derail the rail project.

In addition, if former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano wins the mayor’s election this August or November, he has promised to kill the project.

And what if Republicans take control of the U.S. Senate this November and Inouye is replaced as Appropriations Chair? Will that impact funding and if so, what will HART do then?

Grabauskas would not discuss whether he has a back up plan if any of these threats to the project come to fruition.

Honolulu Transportation Expert Cliff Slater, who founded HonoluluTraffic.com, questions whether House Republicans will allocate $1.55 billion for a project that has lost public support and could be killed in a matter of weeks through court action or the election.

Slater was also critical of HART’s financial plan, saying that even if the city reduces the amount of the raid on The Bus and Handivan fund from $244 million to $214 million, that is an amount that will still come out of the City’s General Fund.

He also took notice that instead of increasing the cost of the project, which was an option, HART instead chose to reduce the contingency amount.

Slater also added that the operating subsidy for transit has been increased by $600 million over the next 18 years to a total of $6 billion.

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Malia Zimmerman is the editor and co-founder of Hawaii Reporter. She has worked as a consultant and contributor to several dozen media outlets including ABC 20/20, FOX News, MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal, UPI and the Washington Times. Malia has been listed as one of the nation’s top "Web Proficients, Virtuosi, and Masters" and "Hawaii's new media thought leader" by http://www.thewebstersdictionary.com Reach her at Malia@hawaiireporter.com