Council Members Still Waiting for Key Information About City’s Controversial Rail Project, But They Move Forward Three Key Funding Bills

Daniel Grabauskas
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Daniel Grabauskas

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Honolulu City Council members on the Budget Committee heard from Daniel Grabauskas, new CEO of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Department, yesterday.

Grabauskas, who started work on Monday, already met with media on Tuesday and been asked many of the same questions the council would ask yesterday.


He had few answers either time to tough questions about rail financing, rail construction, or his office staffing and budget.

Council members, the media and the public have been frustrated by HART agency’s lack of transparency under the previous interim director, Toru Hamayasu.

The new director promised that will change.

But council members were disappointed not to receive more information yesterday.

That included a report on what actual jobs have been created by the rail project.

In its Environmental Impact Statement for the project, the city claimed 3,183 jobs would be created in 2010 by the rail project, 8,209 jobs were created in 2011 by the rail project and 11,682 jobs would be created this year.

city EIS shows job count during rail construction

But has this prediction panned out? Many council members, including Council Member Tulsi Gabbard, Council Member Tom Berg, the media and the public want to know where these jobs are, and whether they are going to local or mainland workers.

So far, the only jobs made public are 350 for Kewitt construction, 289 for Alsaldo and 82 at the city’s HART office. HART wants to increase its employee count to 142 people in the next fiscal year.

Council members also were surprised they did not receive a financial analysis, which supposedly shows it is more cost effective to construct the rail columns – and tear them down – rather than to wait to start construction until a federal lawsuit challenging the project is resolved in August.

Hamayasu gave council members that assessment last month, claiming every month there is a delay in the project, the  cost increases by $10 million because of “inflation.”

Hamayasu promised Council members three weeks ago they’d receive the jobs report and the financial analysis about one of his more controversial statements on the project.

Council members asked whether it was necessary for HART to increase its operation budget to fund an increase in staff from 82 to 147 and an annual office rent of $2 million. They have asked repeatedly for details on the staffing at HART, and under Hamayasu, were not given information they requested.

Grabauskas pledged to get them the documents they need after he reviews them.

Grabauskas also reiterated what he told the media on Tuesday – there will be no more waste of taxpayers’ money on  coloring books, T-shirts, hats, lanyards, pens, pencils, backpacks and water bottles to promote the city’s rail.

The coloring books, brought up by Honolulu City Council Member Tom Berg in a recent hearing, sparked outrage in the community from rail opponents who called them “propaganda.”  Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who is running for Honolulu Mayor and is opposed to the rail project, said in his 28 years in public office, he has never seen anything like it.

HART will safeguard the public’s money and ensure it is spent on the rail construction and maintenance, and not on promotional items, Grabauskas said. HART will even tone down radio commercials that many listeners believed were advocating for the project, rather than informing the public about construction schedules.

“There are going to be no more coloring books. Period. I gave instructions yesterday to staff that we are to produce nothing that is not related to the construction of this project. Public information is going to be necessary, safety around construction, that kind of stuff, we’re going to spend money, but no coloring books are going to be produced on my watch,” he told the media April 10.

Grabauskas had no new information on whether HART will need to use $244 million from TheBus and Handivan maintenance funds over the next 7 years to fund the rail.

“I am very concerned about HART using the $244 million that is supposed to go to the Handivan and bus maintenance,” Kobayashi said, noting she is opposed to the idea and has asked HART to remove the funding from the rail financial plan.

That financial plan, which the HART will submit to the federal government in hopes the FTA will approve a $1.55 billion Federal Funding Grant Agreement, will be sent in this May. Originally HART’s Hamayasu said March or April.

The city still plans to ask the council to include a $450 million line of credit for the rail project, up $100 million from the original plan and that was discussed yesterday.

While Council Member Stanley Chang said several times he was pleased about the new era of transparency, Gabbard and Kobayashi noted the council still does not have the information it needs to make the correct decisions about the rail’s future.

After a three hour hearing, the council budget committee passed Bill 31, 32 and 33, which provided the financing and bond request for the project and the annual operations budget for HART’s office.

Bill 31 included $22 million in funding for the HART office.

Bill 32 included about $200 million for the construction of the rail line. The Committee voted to cut the rail construction budget by $291 million from $492 million, and Chair Kobayashi said the rest of the funding can come from the transit fund, which is collected through a half percent addition to the state’s General Excise Tax.

Kobayashi was the only one to vote against Bill 33, which authorizes up to $1.9 billion in the sale of general obligation bonds for the project. The city will have to come to the council again for approval before it sells the bonds.

In 2006, city officials under the Mayor Hannemann administration promised no money would be borrowed to pay for the rail. Kobayashi said that promise has been broken and she is concerned taxpayers – and her children and grandchildren – will be left with debt from the rail project. She said it might take property tax increases to cover the rail debt.

The city council’s support could change in future council hearings as the bills make their way through council readings. Much depends on the information Grabauskas releases about the controversial project. He’s promised to make public “warts and all.”

But Kobayashi told Hawaii Reporter that Grabauskas was not as forthcoming or concise as she’d hoped and essentially provided no new information to council members during the three hour hearing.