“City Put Itself in a Pickle”: Another Internal FTA Email Surfaces; Outlines Dispute Between FTA, City Over Honolulu Rail

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BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – “They have put themselves in a ‘pickle'” and “we have warned them:” but “they haven’t listened.”

These were just some of the comments made in an October 2010 email from Timothy Mantych, who provides project management services for the Federal Transit Administration, and FTA officials, about City & County of Honolulu officials attempts to prematurely gain federal approval for the construction of the city’s $5.3 billion elevated steel on steel rail system.


Mantych writes: “They (city officials) have put themselves in a ‘pickle’ with the West Oahu /Farrington Highway Contract by identifying unrealistic dates for the Notice to Proceed 3 for Final Design and Notice to Proceed 4 for the Construction Start.”

Mantych said if the city doesn’t listen, it could cost the taxpayers more for the rail project:

“Currently they have told Kiewitt (Construction) to expect these Notices to Proceed in March 2011.

“We have warned them several times in the last couple of months that these dates are improbable, but they have not listened.

“We strongly feel that giving the contractor dates that are known to be impossible may magnify their delay claim.

“Maybe it is too early, but the issue of the Letter of No Prejudice will need to be discussed at some point if they want to consider providing more realistic dates.”

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This is just one of several emails found during discovery in a federal lawsuit filed by Retired businessman Cliff Slater, University of Hawaii Law Professor Randall Roth, former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano, retired Judge Walter Heen, Sen. Sam Slom’s Small Business Hawaii Education Foundation, Dr. Michael Uechi and Hawaii’s Thousand Friends.

Filed last Spring, the lawsuit challenges the claim in the city’s Environmental Impact Statement that elevated steel on steel rail is the most environmentally friendly and culturally sensitive choice to meet Honolulu’s transportation needs. The city and FTA have turned over 155,000 pages of administrative record, which is where the emails were discovered.

On Tuesday, Cayetano released a number of other FTA internal emails from 2006 and 2009, which claimed the city has “lousy practices of public manipulation” and has “produced 3 failed projects and are well on their way to a fourth.”

He is running for mayor in 2012, and is critical of how his opponents, Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle, and former city Managing Director Kirk Caldwell, have overseen the project.

“These FTA emails echo the charges we have made publicly against the City and in our pending lawsuit against the City and FTA,” Cayetano said.  “If anything, the emails will only increase the public’s disgust and disappointment with how the City has managed the rail project.  Recent polls show that currently 53% of the public now oppose rail. The tide of public opinion has turned against rail and we expect that trend to continue and the gap between pro-railers and anti-railers to widen further.”

The emails, whether they are in 2006, 2009, or 2010, have recurring themes: City officials are not listening to the FTA and the FTA is frustrated with the city’s manipulation, unrealistic demands, politics and poor management of the project.

For example, on October 12, 2006, an email from James Ryan at the FTA to other FTA officials said: ”We seem to be proceeding in the hallowed tradition of Honolulu rapid transit studies: never enough time to do it right, but lots of time to do it over.”

Another email from FTA’s Joseph Ossi to other FTA administrators on November 14, 2006, said: “This isn’t an FTA issue. Let the city deal with it. They have produced 3 failed projects and are well on their way to a fourth, so why is FTA wasting time on the City’s problems?”

The response from the FTA’s Raymond Sukys to his peers in the FTA said: “This is different. This time they have a huge cash flow, which will build something. It seems likely that we will get involved in litigation again especially since we have an erroneous NOI out there. I do not think the FTA should be associated with their lousy practices of public manipulation and we should call them on it.”

Sukys wrote again Ossi on January 4, 2006, noting: “Toru Hamayasu, the city’s transportation director, “again has aggravated a lot of people. He was recently named in a suit over a procurement issue and during scoping indicated that one of the alternatives (hot lanes) stated in the NOI would be dropped from evaluation since FTA would not fund it, despite our notice that we would evaluate it.”

Ossi wrote to other FTA officials in 2009 stating what many critics had during city’s EIS process: “As you know, the EPA has recently submitted a letter questioning why alternatives to an elevated rail line, such as light rail at street level and bus rapid transit, weren’t evaluated in the project’s environmental impact study.”

Then he asked other FTA administrators: “Would EPA’s questioning of the EIS process possibly impact the timeline of the project?”

Ossi added: “Unless we have good justification in the public NEPA record for eliminating the EPA alternative from consideration, we would be extremely vulnerable in a NEPA suit, and there are numerous potential litigants. If we do not have good justification in the public NEPA record for eliminating the EPA alternative from consideration, then we should supplement the NEPA record. That will take time, but not as much time as litigation.” [Note that the “bus rapid transit” in the EPA letter was “bus rapid transit on a busway.”]

Neither the city administration nor the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit issued a response to the FTA’s criticism detailed in emails between 2006 and 2010.

The FTA released this statement shortly after Cayetano’s press conference: “There is no question that this project has overcome early obstacles because of a much-improved Federal partnership with the City of Honolulu and State of Hawaii over the last several years.  The Federal Transit Administration believes that this project will bring much needed relief from the suffocating congestion on the H-1 Freeway and provide a real transportation alternative for the people of Oahu as gas prices rise.”

Ray LaHood, US Secretary of Transportation

On Thursday, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who appeared at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development on March 15, dismissed the emails. He told Hawaii’s Senior Senator Daniel Inouye the emails were exchanged under a prior administration and now the federal government is fully committed to the project.

“Since I have taken this position, I have had the privilege of being with you in your state. We’ve talked about this project. You were kind enough to convene a meeting about this and other projects in Hawaii. I want you to know that we are committed to this project. This is an important project. This will deliver people all over the island. It’s an important project and at this point, we will continue to work through whatever issues need to be worked through. We’re committed to this. We’re committed to the money; we’re committed to the project. And, until we hear differently from others who are intimately involved in this, I see no reason why we won’t go forward,” LaHood said.

Cliff Slater, who runs HonoluluTraffic.com and organized the lawsuit, said more damning emails are sure to surface after all of the record from the city and federal government is reviewed.