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Rail News Home Passenger Rail

August 2019

Rail News: Passenger Rail

Honolulu transit leaders eye late 2020 start to city's first passenger-rail system

Columns shown as of April 10, 2019, along the H1 freeway headed toward Honolulu International Airport.
Photo – Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit, Flickr


By Julie Sneider, Senior Associate Editor

Every second and fourth Monday of the month, Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART) Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Andrew Robbins appears on the “Mike Buck Radio Show” in Honolulu to talk about transit rail. The city is building a 20-mile, elevated guideway passenger-rail system along Oahu’s south shore between East Kapolei and Ala Moana Center.

As Buck tells his listening audience during the show — dubbed “HART Beat” — there are no questions that Robbins won’t take regarding the controversial project, which began construction in 2011 and is slated to be partially completed sometime next year, when the first 10-mile segment enters service.

Robbins, who took over as HART’s leader in September 2017, has taken to the air waves to build support for the rail system, which will be the first fully automated transit-rail line in the United States. When entirely completed in 2025, the system will feature 21 stations and — except for a 0.6-mile at-grade portion of the station at Leeward Community College — will be elevated.

Buck encourages listeners to call in or email questions to Robbins. The radio show is just one way that Robbins and HART officials are trying to spread the word on the status of the beleaguered project, which has had a history of blowing through deadlines, schedules and budgets.

Other HART officials’ communication efforts have included construction videos and reports on the authority’s website and social media sites; newsletters and emails sent to anyone who signs up for them; HART interviews with local media outlets; and public meetings with local businesses impacted by construction.

The Aloha Stadium Station shown under construction in April.
HART, Flickr

This summer, the authority also reinstituted its town hall meetings to keep various neighborhoods along the route informed on the construction, as well as what HART officials believe the new transit-rail system will do to help alleviate longtime traffic congestion in Hawaii’s capital city. By 2030, nearly 70 percent of Oahu’s population and most of the island’s jobs will be located along the 20-mile rail corridor, with stations at such key locations as Honolulu International Airport, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, downtown Honolulu and Ala Moana Center.

Robbins is a specialist in driverless transit systems similar to the one HART is building, and has experience in urban passenger rail, rail equipment, infrastructure, construction management, systems integration and airport transit. At HART, he succeeded interim director and CEO Krishniah Murthy, who was appointed to the position in October 2016. Murthy took the job after HART’s previous leader Dan Grabauskas resigned in August that same year. At the time he was tapped to take over for Murthy, Robbins was a senior executive at Bombardier Transportation.

Turnover in HART’s executive leadership post has been just one component of the project’s troubled history. Voters approved the plan to build the system in 2008, and HART was formed in 2011 to oversee the rail system’s planning, construction and ramp-up to service.

However, local opposition, lengthy legal battles and delays have plagued the program for the past several years. As a result of the delays, project costs continued to spike: When construction began in 2011, the project was estimated to cost around $6 billion. Currently, HART’s capital budget for the project stands at $8.165 billion, not including financing costs.

In September 2017, HART was required to submit to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) — which had committed $1.55 billion to the project — a recovery plan that addressed the funding shortfall, as well as cost controls and procedures, risk management and other steps necessary to get the project on track. About the same time, the Hawaii Legislature passed a measure to extend the tax surcharge that lawmakers had passed initially to pay for the rail system’s construction.

An escalator and stairs were constructed this spring at what will be the Ho’ae’ae Station.
HART, Flickr

In June, HART submitted its latest revised recovery plan for the project to address the FTA’s follow-up questions and concerns. By then, five updated recovery plans had been submitted to the FTA since September 2017. As of press time, the authority was awaiting the FTA’s approval of the latest report in order to receive the remaining $744 million of the original $1.55 billion the federal government had committed to the project. The FTA has been withholding the remaining funds until the agency is satisfied that HART has addressed federal officials’ concerns.

According to the latest recovery plan, the project will be completed at a cost under $8.299 billion, excluding financing expenses, and has a revenue service timeframe for the full system of no later than September 2026. HART’s commitment to Honolulu residents is to complete the project at a cost not to exceed $8.165 billion. A state general excise and use tax surcharge will cover 80 percent of the project’s cost.

An interim launch within sight

After considerable delays, the project’s pace is ramping up to a point where a soft launch of service along the first 10 miles is within sight, according to Robbins.

“We have 10 miles of guideway completed, and we intend to finish the first nine stations that are tied into those 10 miles by the end of this year,” he says. “Testing is well underway. And that will lead to what we call an interim opening before the end of next year for the first 10 miles.”

That first 10 miles will be along the system’s western half, between East Kopolei and Aloha Stadium. The system’s Rail Operations Center in Waipahu, where the trains will be maintained and stored, is located near Leeward Community College. HART recently activated the automatic train display system and energized nearly 5 miles of track located inside the yard.

In June, Hitachi Rail Italy, which is supplying the trains to HART, activated all 17 automated routes in the yard to test the system in driverless mode.

“That is a huge step for us and our test program, to be able to activate the yard completely,” Robbins says. “And now it’s a progression onto the main line, all leading up to service next year.”

As for the rail system’s second half? Construction is about 50 percent completed on the 5 miles that HART officials refer to as the Airport Guideway section, which involves elevated track between the Middle Street Transit Center Station and Aloha Stadium. Four stations will be built within that section: Pearl Harbor Naval Base, Honolulu International Airport, Lagoon Drive and Middle Transit Center. That portion is slated for completion in late 2021, with passenger service expected to begin in 2022.

The rail system’s final segment is the City Center portion, which will operate from Middle Street to Ala Moana Center. It involves construction of 4.5-miles of elevated guideway and eight stations, as well as a transit center and parking garage. That portion of the project — valued at $1.4 billion — will be completed through a public-private-partnership (P3). The authority is seeking a partner not only to design, build and finance the construction, but to operate and maintain the entire rail system.

Seeking certainty through a P3

HART officials concluded in mid-2018 that a P3 arrangement under a design-build-finance-operate-maintain (DBFOM) contract would be advantageous, especially after the project’s earlier track record of running late and over budget.

“We are looking for certainty in terms of budget and schedule,” Robbins says. “Part of a solution of a P3 is to introduce a certain portion of private-sector financing. So, under the private finance, the partner will partially finance the $1.4 billion worth of construction, and they will arrange that financing through private sources.”

Once the rail system is up and running according to performance standards of the contract, HART would make availability payments backed by its public sources of funds, Robbins says.

Additionally, authority officials wanted to introduce a long-term operations and maintenance component of the project “so that we can ensure for the next 30 years that we have a sustainable transit operation, that is always meeting its performance standards and is reinvested in over the years,” he adds.

Under the P3, Hitachi — which previously had been awarded a design-build-operate-maintain agreement to supply the trains, communications and signaling system, as well as operations during the interim period and then for five years once the full system is running — will be part of the delivery team.

Currently, HART has short-listed and invited three qualified bidders for the DBFOM agreement to respond to a request for proposals that was issued in May. Responses are due in September or October, with the HART board expected to make a decision by year’s end, Robbins says.

Besides adopting a new procurement strategy, HART has adopted what Robbins describes as “much more robust project controls,” as well as a risk management program.

“When you build a mega project in a major metropolitan area, you have to be able to manage and mitigate risk,” Robbins says. “So, to have a robust project control and risk management program is important, and it has paid a lot of dividends to us since we introduced it at the beginning of 2017.”

Controversy continues

Still, objections over the rail project’s past, present and potential future remain. Some of its critics continue to call for all work to be suspended or for the project to be scrapped altogether.

Moreover, early this year HART was served with four subpoenas seeking records related to the rail project as part of a federal grand jury, which — according to the Honolulu Civil Beat — is weighing possible criminal indictments involving individuals responsible for previous contract awards. Robbins says HART has complied with the requests for documents.

And last month, City Council Chair Ikaika Anderson proposed a resolution calling for city voters to amend the city charter so that HART would be eliminated and the city’s Department of Transportation Services would assume responsibility for the rail project’s completion. If approved by the council, the measure would have to be approved by the voters in November.

Despite those challenges, Robbins and his staff remain focused on advancing the project so that the first 10 miles will be ready to open next year.

And, in addition to answering questions about the project’s budget, guideway and station construction, the testing of signals and trains and (yet-to-be-determined) ticket prices, Robbins and his staff are championing the convenience and reliability of riding the rails.

“My mantra is clean, safe and reliable,” Robbins says. “We are emphasizing in the P3 documents that those are the priorities of our system and we have performance standards for all three. We are trying to appeal to people to hop on the rail and get to your destination reliably in 15, 20 or 30 minutes.”

Eventually, the rail system will become part of the fabric of Honolulu, Robbins believes.

“Once it’s established, I think people will see how it fits into their daily lives,” he says. “Not only will it improve people’s mobility, it will help shape communities into the future.”

Email comments or questions to julie.sneider@tradepress.com.

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