When it Comes to Promoting Honolulu Rail, Handlers are Everywhere

article top
City's rail rendering

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Honolulu City Council Budget Chair Ann Kobayashi and Council Member Tom Berg have sought a list of “public relations” people and businesses employed to promote the Honolulu rail project for several months.

At Wednesday’s city council meeting, the city’s rail authority released some of the information they requested. (See the list of PR firms and staff here)


HART’s executive director claimed the semi autonomous agency had five people on its staff conducting public relations and outreach. But Berg said that “turned out to be a big lie.”

“There are 19 entities getting funding in addition to the 5 staff members with HART,” Berg said.

Berg and Kobayashi suggest that state agencies and city offices often have just one public relations person if any, and they question why HART needs five on staff.

“The whole state Department of Transportation, with its harbors, roads and airports divisions, has only one public relations person. And for this project, which is just 20 miles, there are five. Why do we need so many people?” Kobayashi asked.

Kobayashi noted that besides the public relations being done by unions and so many other organizations, HART also hired several public relations companies.

“If as Dr. Grabauskas says, this project’s funding is secure and the project is moving forward, why do we need so many public relations people?” Kobayashi asked.

Other public relations and advertising contracts going to the 19 companies are also a waste of money, Berg said.

“The taxpayers are spending a half a million dollars for a two year contract just to send people to neighborhood board meeting to promote the rail project, and half the time, they don’t even show up. The mayor’s representatives are already there – they should just give the rail report. And since rail is supposed to be a ‘done deal’, according to our mayor, why are we paying these people? It is pure propaganda,” Berg said.

Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who served as mayor from 2004 through 2010 and is now running for Congress, previously issued contracts for as many as 10 public relations and advertising firms with some $5 million to promote the elevated steel on steel rail project.

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who is running for Honolulu mayor and opposes the $5.3 billion rail project, said a 2009 poll by the Honolulu Advertiser showed 73 percent of the public believed rail would reduce traffic congestion.

The public relations effort worked – temporarily – Cayetano said. By a narrow margin, the public supported the rail project through a 2008 ballot question.

Now as the rail project is losing favor with the public, rail backers and the city administration and HART are stepping up their public relations and advertising efforts.

Cayetano wrote in a recent Facebook posting: “Subsequently, the public discovered that both the City and the Federal Transit Administration admit in the EIS and other documents that rail will not reduce traffic congestion — that “traffic congestion in the future with rail will be worse than it is today without rail.”

The public’s reaction, Cayetano said, shows up in recent polls by both Civil Beat and the Star-Advertiser, which revealed that public support for rail “has eroded dramatically and the majority (53-55 percent) now oppose rail.”

Cayetano said: “Why? They see the city rushing the project, awarding multi-million dollar contracts even though the FTA and Congress have not approved a Full Funding Agreement. They hear preposterous statements such as “it’s cheaper to build (rail structures) and tear it down later” and wonder why construction was started in an empty field 3-4 miles from Kapolei town rather than from the city and build outward and what happens if the $1.5 billion federal funding is not approved.

He added: “This dramatic turn around in public opinion may be attributed to one major reason: the majority of the public have concluded that the city has misled them — a feeling shared by a FTA staffer who wrote that the FTA should disassociate itself from the city’s ‘public manipulation.’”

With so many public relations people on staff, Berg has been frustrated that HART refuses to release the salaries of those HART employees.

“They say it is proprietary, but the taxpayers are paying these people, and we are entitled to know what the city is spending to promote the rail project,” Berg said.