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Charter amendment proposal would dissolve HART

by Gordon Pang, Star Advertiser

City Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson wants voters to abolish the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation and transfer oversight of the island’s troubled rail construction project to an agency that answers directly to the mayor.

In response, HART Executive Director and CEO Andrew Robbins said he’s worried the timing of Anderson’s resolution on the proposal could put a crimp in the city’s timetable for having its project recovery plan approved as required by the Federal Transit Administration before it releases $755 million promised for the $9.2 billion project.

Anderson is slated to introduce the resolution Monday that would place on the November 2020 general election ballot a proposed amendment to the City Charter dissolving the semi-autonomous HART and moving its responsibilities for construction of Hawaii’s most expensive public works project to the Department of Transportation Services.

The move would provide better accountability and oversight, Anderson said, and give the city’s elected officials direct responsibility for the project’s progress.

“HART was an experiment the city tried and, I believe, failed,” said Anderson, who is firmly in support of rail.

HART was established by a charter amendment passed by Oahu voters in 2010 and began operating in July 2011. An unpaid, 10-member HART board was created with three members appointed by the Council and three by the mayor, plus two voting ex-officio members made up of the state and city transportation directors, and a ninth voting member selected by the other eight. The 10th member is the nonvoting ex-officio director of planning and permitting.

The board selects the agency’s executive director/chief executive officer but final say over the HART budget still rests with the mayor and the Council.

The main argument for establishing a quasi-independent HART was that such a setup takes project management out of the sphere of political influence by keeping the city’s elected officials one step removed. Prior to that, HART’s functions were part of a division within DTS.

Anderson said the opposite has happened, with elected officials unable to do much as the project’s price tag swelled from $5.3 billion in 2012 to $9.2 billion in 2018. The initial opening date of the full East Kapolei-to- Ala Moana line was pushed back to December 2025.

According to Anderson’s resolution, the project has been beset by “numerous setbacks, significant delays, legal actions, leadership changes.”

Anderson also brought up the FTA’s demand of a recovery plan after withholding $755 million of a promised $1.55 billion contribution as a result of the project’s escalating price tag. Meanwhile, he said, the project has been the subject of various audits and is the target of a federal investigation that’s resulted in a subpoena of HART records.

“There is a lack of direct accountability to the people of Honolulu,” Anderson said.

He questioned why the HART board would not give up its closed-session minutes to either the state auditor or under federal subpoena.

“I believe that sends a terrible message to the federal government and to the FTA when HART is not willing to cooperate with a federal government agency,” he said.

Robbins declined to comment on the specifics of Anderson’s proposal because he has not yet discussed it with the HART board. But he said the administration and Council do play key roles in that they appoint most of the board members and hold the purse strings on budget appropriations.

Robbins said he’s concerned that introduction of the resolution may affect the timetable for HART to receive FTA approval of its recovery plan, which is expected soon.

“Of course the recovery plan is predicated on HART managing the project, so I believe the timing and the uncertainty that would come from this resolution would be problematic,” Robbins said. “If the resolution were to pass and management transfers back to the city, that would be a significant change in the way the process is managed, and I think it would potentially need a redrafting of the recovery plan to reflect that.”

HART is also in the process of procuring a public- private partnership with a nongovernment entity that will help finance final construction and operate and maintain the system for the next decade.

“We have bidders working hard on putting their proposal together,” Robbins said. Putting the resolution in the hopper now would create “uncertainty in that process.”

Robbins said the Council already has a significant role in rail construction. “They control the budget, they control the decision on issuing bonds,” in addition to appointing three members of the HART board.

Anderson said he expects the resolution will get its first airing in August. It will require three full Council approvals, the final of which must be supported by a “super majority” of six votes. Councilman Ron Menor, who is chairman of the Council Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee, has agreed to hear the measure in his committee, Anderson said.

If the resolution is placed on the ballot and passed by voters in 2020, DTS would be required to begin taking over construction by Jan. 1, 2021, and HART would have to be dissolved by June 30 of that year.

HART board Chairman Damien Kim, who’s been on the panel since its inception in 2011, said he wants to learn more about the nuances of Anderson’s resolution before deciding whether it’s something he will support or oppose.

While he said he understands what’s motivating Anderson to propose abolishing HART, he’s not certain DTS leadership answerable to the mayor would have done much differently than the rail authority, especially since Robbins came on board in fall 2017.

“I think what Andy Robbins has built today is a really good team that’s been working through a lot of the issues that were from the past,” he said.

Kim said he doesn’t know of any issues where HART doesn’t consult with the mayor and Council.

In 2016, voters approved a charter amendment clarifying that operation of a future Oahu rail line would be the responsibility of DTS, leaving only the project’s construction the key respon- sibility of HART.

Particularly since HART is barred from planning or developing anything outside the approved East Kapolei- to-Ala Moana segment, it’s been assumed HART would likely have no more work after the first segment is completed in 2025 and would be shut down.

Kim said the issue of who has oversight of rail construction may be moot since the HART board and Council last year agreed to seek the public-private partnership model.

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