Posted tagged ‘Rail transit’

Bunda a curious choice for transit authority

September 8, 2011

The plan of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation to appoint former state Sen. Robert Bunda as its final voting member is baffling.

Previous appointments to HART by Mayor Peter Carlisle and the City Council were politically connected people with zero experience running a commuter rail system.

No personal knock on Bunda, who was a decent legislator, but to fail to fill the void in transit expertise with the final appointment and instead name a veteran politician makes a mockery of the intended purpose of HART to take politics out of the running of the city’s $5.3 million rail project.

Making matters worse, the transit authority is refusing to reveal the names of the 16 applicants for the job so that the public can judge for itself whether Bunda was the most appropriate choice.

It seems that every time those overseeing rail have an opportunity to reassure the public that the project is being run on the up and up, they do the opposite.

It bodes ill for the most important appointment before the board — executive director — for which HART is supposedly undertaking a nationwide search to fill the vital post held on an interim basis by Toru Hamayasu.

HART will hear public testimony and make a final decision on the Bunda appointment Sept. 16.

Rail car snag will show what HART is made of

August 3, 2011

I’d love to be a fly on the wall when the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation goes into executive session Thursday to discuss the city’s troubled $1.45 billion contract with Ansaldo Honolulu to provide and operate cars for the $5.3 billion rail system.

In two disturbing developments last week, the city admitted it made no reference calls to check Ansaldo’s spotty performance in other cities and Ansaldo’s parent company conceded the rail division has “structural problems” in producing rail cars for customers and may be sold if “urgent restructuring”  doesn’t solve financial and managerial problems.

The disarray involving a major contractor leaves unwelcome question marks hanging over the fledgling Honolulu rail project before construction is even started.

Further clouding the matter are challenges to the bidding process filed by two of Ansaldo’s competitors — Sumitomo and Bombardier — that could end up in court.

It’ll be the first test of what HART is made of; will the board deal forthrightly and independently with an unacceptable lapse of due diligence by the city, or will it join the city administration in putting a happy face on rail-related snags?

I have further thoughts on the rail car mess in my column in today’s Star-Advertiser, “City missteps cast doubt on direction of rail project.”

HART saves the fight for another day

July 5, 2011

Members of the new Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation were smart to sidestep a lawsuit over who sets its budget, but it remains to be seen if the matter is settled or just postponed for a year.

The City Council insists it has the right under the City Charter to approve HART’s annual budget, while the Carlisle administration argues that the semi-autonomous agency sets it’s own budget independently of the council.

At its first meeting Friday, the HART board avoided a confrontation by adopting exactly the $20.5 million operating budget and $354.7 million capital budget passed by the council.

“Legal action is clearly not in the best interest of the taxpayers,” said HART finance chairman Don Horner, in a sentiment that surely reflects the public mood on this contentious $5.3 billion project. “We’re confident the majority of the council want to see rail move forward and there’s no sense in arguing about technicalities at this point.”

Of course, the operative words were “at this point.” We’ll see next year whether HART submits its budget to the council for approval — or what the board does if the council adopts its own budget for the agency.

Horner pledged somewhat vaguely to “provide oversight” to both the council and city administration on finances and “to engage the public in the budgetary process.”

It’ll be an interesting tap dance — especially with the always combative Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi back in charge of the Budget Committee.

But now was not the right time for a fight the mayor and council seemed to be champing at the bit for, and the HART board deserves early kudos for recognizing it.

Mayor, council heading to court on rail

June 22, 2011

Mayor Peter Carlisle and the City Council appear headed to court in a battle over fiscal control of O‘ahu’s $5.3 billion rail project.

Carlisle yesterday vetoed the $17.5 budget the council passed for 2012 operations of the new Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit, arguing that the City Charter amendment creating HART gives the semi-autonomous agency the right to set its own budget.

The council, which passed the budget 8-1, is expected to override the veto, leaving the courts to resolve the dispute if the two sides can’t come to an agreement.

Council members have expressed frustration at what they describe as a heavy-handed attempt by the administration to cut them out of rail funding decisions, which they say was never the intent of the charter amendment.

The council may have already misplayed its best leverage to negotiate concessions from the administration on control of rail.

One area where the council clearly holds the power is in the approval of bonds to pay for the project.

Six council votes are needed for bonds to be floated, and when Carlisle last month requested approval for $104 million in rail bonds that won’t actually be needed until September 2012, the council rolled over and gave 6-3 approval despite the fact that at least half of the members voting “aye” had expressed serious concern about the administration’s heavy-handedness on rail.

The better play if they were worried about rail funding would have been to withhold approval of the bonds until the administration gave ground on the project’s financial transparency.

Shakeup could toughen up City Council

June 16, 2011

There’s not much to do except shake our heads at the abrupt leadership change at the City Council until what seems best described as a semi-friendly coup fully plays out with the appointment of committee chairs.

Council Chairman Nestor Garcia announced he was stepping down after only six months as the council’s leader and handing over the reins to Budget Chairman Ernie Martin.

Garcia said the shift was voluntary, but he seemed to be keeping one step ahead of the sheriff amid reports that a majority of his colleagues were unhappy with his leadership that has been uninspired and compromised by his nearly six-figure outside income from pro-rail interests.

Garcia and Councilman Breene Harimoto, the other apparent target of the reorganization, were criticized for their handling of the council’s three appointees to the new rail authority, with other members feeling they didn’t get fair input in the selections.

Martin is one of five freshmen members of the council, but he’s a city hall veteran with 20 years of experience in community services — including a stint as acting director of the department. He displayed a steady hand in leading the inexperienced council through this year’s challenging budget process.

He and Councilman Ikaika Anderson, who will replace Harimoto as vice chairman if the council approves the reorganization next month, have favored taking a tougher stance with the Carlisle administration than Garcia and Harimoto have advocated in monitoring the $5.3 rail project.

Fasten your seatbelts.

Djou makes sense on rail

June 6, 2011

Former U.S. Rep. Charles Djou took a break from the federal issues that have been his major focus of late and wrote a thoughtful piece in Hawaii Reporter on one of his pet local issues — Oahu rail transit.

Djou notes that the community is as divided as ever on the $1.3 billion project and argues it didn’t have to be that way if the Hannemann and Carlisle administrations had made any effort to build community consensus after the 2008 voter referendum that narrowly approved steel-on-steel rail.

In the months following the ’08 vote, the city squandered any goodwill resulting from the vote. Rather than reach out to proponents and opponents alike, the Hannemann administration, the majority on the City Council and the rail transit division charted a divisive path relying on the narrow mandate from the public to do as it pleased without regard to the nearly 50 percent of residents who opposed rail.

Since the 2008 election, the city has not adequately followed up with any broad outreach to the community in seeking consensus on rail. Instead of pausing to reflect and explain the costs of rail to the public, the current city administration and Council have brushed aside legitimate concerns by rail opponents.

Today, rail is embroiled in litigation and it appears the courts may ultimately dictate how rail gets done.

Djou, a former councilman, speaks with some credibility on the matter. He was the council’s leading rail opponent for years, believing the city couldn’t afford the expensive heavy-rail design being pursued.

But he respected the decision voters made in 2008 in favor of rail and shifted his focus from trying to kill the project to trying to improve it; he brokered the well-received deal to reroute the train past the airport instead of through Salt Lake.

Djou makes some good suggestions going forward.

As long as the city relies on a razor-thin majority favoring rail, it will subject success of the project to the whim of just 2 percent of the electorate changing its mind.

The city should alter its approach and start by making a stronger effort to include those who oppose rail in the decision-making process. …

The City Council should insist on transparent financial plans that clearly explain to the public what will happen to the project, and the city’s ability to finance the project if tenuous federal funding fails to materialize.

Decision-making should include all residents and not be limited to just the strongest rail supporters. …

If we want to move beyond constant squabbles, we need more consensus-building by city officials on this project. They need to understand that reasonable people can disagree.

Mayor Peter Carlisle blew a chance to improve public confidence when instead of bringing in some new faces with a more conciliatory tone, he kept on Hannemann’s top transit people who had lost their credibility with much of public and council because of their dismissive attacks on anybody who dared voice a contrary view.

The new transit authority that will soon be taking the reins has another chance to put a more open and accessible face on the project by bringing in some new players capable of involving a broader spectrum of the community in the planning.

They’ll only get one chance to make a good first impression.

Hawai‘i federal judges look like poster kids for rail suit

May 16, 2011

There’s more than a little irony in the decision of all of Hawai‘i’s  federal judges to recuse themselves from presiding over an environmental lawsuit seeking to stop the $5.3 billion O‘ahu rail project.

The judges stepped aside because eight of the nine of them signed a letter in 2008 asking the city to reconsider the rail route, expressing security concerns about an elevated train whizzing down Halekauwila Street right past the windows of their chambers.

The mass recusal throws the lawsuit filed by former Gov. Ben Cayetano, state Sen. Sam Slom, businessman Cliff Slater and others to Judge A. Wallace Tashima of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

The irony is that the judges might be one of the best examples of the plaintiffs’ claim that city officials gave illegally short shrift to alternate proposals in their headlong rush to ram the project through on an accelerated schedule.

Federal buildings have been one of the most worrisome targets of terrorist attacks since the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Hawai‘i judges made a reasonable argument that running the train so close to the Honolulu federal building posed unacceptable risks.

They received an arrogant and insulting response from the city to the effect that there are easier ways to blow away a judge than from a train, typical of the hostility toward reasonable concerns raised by responsible people that threatened any delay in the project.

If the Hawai‘i judges won’t be wielding the gavel, they might make interesting witnesses.

All tracks lead to Don Horner

April 18, 2011

I applauded when Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed First Hawaiian Bank chairman and CEO Don Horner to the Board of Education.

He seemed just the kind of guy needed to help shake the school system out of its bureaucratic morass and establish a culture of clear goals and accountability.

I’m less enthusiastic about Mayor Peter Carlisle’s appointment of Horner to the new Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which will oversee construction and operation of the city’s $5.5 billion rail project.

For one thing, Horner seems to be spreading himself a bit thin. The BOE, where he’s currently chairman, and the transit authority are both big jobs, and presumably, he’s still expected to pull a few shifts at the helm of FHB.

There’s also a concern about undue concentration of power. The public schools and rail are arguably the highest current priorities of the state and city, and it seems inappropriate to have one guy in the middle of both.

There are other banks and other CEO’s in this town if those credentials are deemed essential to these projects.

Carlisle said his three appointees to the transit authority “will keep politics out of the rail project,” but it’s difficult to see how.

In addition to Horner, he named outgoing corporation counsel Carrie Okinaga and William “Buzzy” Hong, retired executive director of the Hawaii Building and Construction Trades Council.

Okinaga has been in the middle of the political fight between the administration and City Council about fiscal oversight of the transit authority, and Hong’s group was a leader in the political battle to win approval of rail.

The City Council has appointed attorney and former city finance director Ivan Lui-Kwan, planner Kelsie Hui and Damien Kim of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The city and state transportation directors are also members, and those eight will choose the ninth member.

New rail lawsuit takes shape

March 24, 2011

The city dodged a legal bullet on its $5.5 billion rail plan when a state judge yesterday threw out a lawsuit by Hawaiians trying to delay construction until the city completes a survey of burial sites along the project’s entire 20-mile route.

But a bigger legal challenge could be soon at hand with a group that includes former Gov. Ben Cayetano expected to file a federal lawsuit next month challenging the project’s environmental impact statement.

Nicholas Yost, the San Francisco attorney handling the lawsuit, will be in Honolulu next week to discuss the case with potential plaintiffs.

During the Carter administration, Yost played a lead role in drafting regulations governing federal environmental impact statements. He received the American Bar Association’s 2010 award for distinguished achievement in environmental law.

In a memo this week to Cayetano and anti-rail activist Cliff Slater, Yost indicated that the lawsuit would focus on allegations that the city:

•Violated the Transportation Act and National Historic Preservation Act by failing consider alternatives for avoiding historic sites.

•Used outdated information for population and ridership projections that skewed the results of the environmental study and fell short of the legal requirement for scientifically valid methodology.

•Improperly limited the EIS to the 20 miles between East Kapolei and Ala Moana Center while failing to include studies of future extensions to West Kapolei, Waikiki and the University of Hawai’i.

•Failed to meet its obligation under the National Environmental Policy Act to study all reasonable alternatives to heavy rail and give each equal consideration. Yost said the EIS omitted the managed lane alternative and gave short shrift to bus rapid transit and light rail.

He said the city’s EIS misstated the purpose and need for the project as “providing high capacity rapid transit” instead of the correct broader purpose of “moving people from west to east and east to west.”

“It confuses a potential alternative solution with the underlying purpose and need,” he said. “So stated, all non-rapid transit alternatives are automatically excluded. … That violates the law.”

Cayetano accused Mayor Peter Carlisle of a “publicity stunt” to impress visiting U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood when he announced this week that a $574 million contract has been awarded to AnsaldoBreda to provide cars for the rail system, along with a $372 million contract to Kiewit Infrastructure West to build the second phase of the rail line from Pearl Highlands to Aloha Stadium. Kiewit earlier got the contract for the first phase starting in Kapolei.

Cayetano said the city doesn’t have the funds on hand to cover the more than $1 billion in contracts awarded by Carlisle and former Mayor Mufi Hannemann and that it’s “irresponsible to award such contracts while there is no full funding agreement between the (Federal Transit Administration) and the City.”

Stakes going up in legal fight over O’ahu rail

March 15, 2011

The continuing fight over the $5.5 billion O’ahu rail project may soon be headed to federal court.

A group that includes former Gov. Ben Cayetano has retained nationally prominent environmental attorney Nicholas Yost for a possible lawsuit to halt the proposed 20-mile commuter line between Kapolei and Ala Moana.

Cayetano didn’t disclose the others in the coalition, but said they include “liberals, conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, environmentalists, businessmen and libertarians.”

The lawsuit is expected to challenge the findings of the rail environmental impact statement, its methodology, the project’s finances and the city’s projections on population and ridership, among other issues.

The city anticipated a lawsuit to delay the train and included funds in the rail budget for a legal defense.

Yost, based in San Francisco, is a heavy-hitter on environmental law who received the American Bar Association’s 2010 award for distinguished achievement in environmental law and policy.

He was general counsel for the Council on Environmental Quality in the Carter administration, playing a lead role in drafting regulations to implement the National Environmental Policy Act, which governs environmental impact statements for projects involving federal funds. He was also senior attorney for the Center for Law in the Public Interest.

In private practice, he has represented numerous clients on issues related to NEPA compliance.


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