House Transit Funding Cut Proposal Could Spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E for Honolulu Rail Project

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BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – While Congress debates funding for the nation’s transportation projects, a new report by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association documents that Hawaii’s federal transit allocation – like other states – may decrease by more than one third in fiscal year 2012.

The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that the nation needs an annual $28.5 billion increase in federal highway investment to maintain current conditions and an additional $2 billion for maintenance of public transportation facilities and operations.



However, the U.S. House of Representatives, which is seeking to cut government spending, wants to limit funding for the nation’s highways and rail systems over the next 6 years to levels sustainable by Highway Trust Fund revenues.


If this proposal passes for fiscal year 2012, Hawaii would see a 37.31 percent drop in funding from $161,399,324 to $101,173,351 – or a decrease of $60,225,973.
Other states would see similar declines in funding of between 35 percent and 37 percent.


“Everyone knew the reauthorization of the federal surface transportation programs … would be the most difficult transportation bill in decades. As it turns out, this assess­ment may have been optimistic,” the American Road and Transportation Builders Association said in its report, which also asked its members to lobby for additional funding.


“We are almost two years past when this measure was due and incoming Highway Trust Fund revenues are projected to only be able to support 65 percent of current investment levels ($41 billion for highways and $10.3 billion for public transit).  Without new resources, draconian cuts of 35 percent to both the highway and public transportation programs are likely.”


University of Hawaii Engineering Professor Panos Prevedouros the funding decrease could mean bad news for advocates of the city’s proposed rail system, which is counting on more than $1.5 billion from the federal government.


The city is planning to build a $5.3 billion 20-mile, elevated steel-on-steel rail system from Kapolei to Honolulu over the next several years.


Hawaii’s U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, who is the Senate’s appropriations chair, has pledged to get Hawaii the $1.5 billion for the rail, but Prevedouros points out that there is nothing allocated in the federal budget for Hawaii’s rail system until October 2012.


“Things will be much worse at that time (in 2012). And since the current president has Hawaii in his pocket, there is little chance that precious federal monies will be diverted here prior to a critical election for him,” Prevedouros said.


(See US Congress: Appropriations Committee Releases the Fiscal Year 2012 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Funding Bill, House Appropriations Committee, 9/07/11 (


The city has not received the final go-ahead from the federal government, so the only work on the rail to date is a contract to relocate utility lines along the route.


The city also issued a $1.4 billion contract to Ansaldo, however, its financial stability has been questioned by two losing bidders which are challenging the city’s contract award.

The federal transit funding bill for all 50 states contains a total of $1.8 billion for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).


The President had requested $1.9 billion more than that to fund the nation’s highway systems. But the allocation is still an increase of $169 million over last year.


The legislation also provides $5.2 billion in state and local bus grants – the amount estimated to be available from the Mass Transit Account (trust fund) for fiscal year 2012.


“Like the highway program, the transit program still requires reauthorization to operate beyond September 2011, and the Committee is prepared to support a higher formula bus spending level should a new, multi-year authorization bill be enacted,” Prevedouros said.


“The legislation also limits transit capital investments – only funding “Small Starts” projects and those projects that have signed Full-Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA) with the FTA prior to November 1, 2011.”


Honolulu Area Rapid Transit, the city agency that is supposed to manage the rail project, does not have a Full-Funding Grant Agreement with the FTA, Prevedouros points out.


In addition to funding shortages, the city is also facing a lawsuit by several community leaders, including former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano, retired businessman Cliff Slater, University of Hawaii Law Professor Randall Roth and Retired Judge Walter Heen.


Other groups such as the Small Business Hawaii Entrepreneurial Education Foundation and the environmental advocacy group Hawaii’s Thousand Friends also are plaintiffs.


The lawsuit is challenging the city’s Environmental Impact Statement, saying that it has not considered alternatives that are less costly and more environmentally friendly.