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HART CEO Lori Kahikina on rail progress, hotel tax revenue and more

Crews prepare the truss near Pearl Harbor station
Robert ʻAukai Reynolds
City & County of Honolulu; Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation
Crews prepare the truss near Pearl Harbor station

A measure allowing Honolulu to hike the hotel room tax by 3% and use some of the revenue for the $11.4 billion Honolulu rail is just a signature away from becoming law. Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi is expected to sign it soon.

The Conversation talked to Lori Kahikina, interim executive director of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, to get a handle on the new timeline for meeting with Federal Transit Administration officials to present its new recovery plan.


On additional funding from Honolulu's new 3% transient accommodations tax, or TAT

LORI KAHIKINA: We are so thankful that the administration and city council and, of course, the support of our board, that we were considered to get 1% for the first two years and 1.5% in perpetuity. And what I presented to city council was that we believe we have enough funds right now to get to Chinatown, and a little bit past. The TAT would help us get to downtown Honolulu, which is a much more functional and viable, pausing, if I may, versus Chinatown — because of the bus routes that are already in existence in the downtown area. So that's a good thing for us, with that TAT, regarding a future trip to Washington D.C. Yes, I would like to do that. You know, I've never met Nuria (Fernandez), the new FTA administrator, and it would be good if Mayor Rick Blangiardi and I could go up. There is a conference in the March timeframe in Washington D.C., the legislative conference, so I'm trying to see if maybe mayor and I can set up a meeting with Nuria at that point.

On creating and sending a recovery plan to the Federal Transit Administration

When Rick and I first came in earlier this year, our goal was to get something to them before the end of the year. But as our discussions were ongoing with FTA, their recommendation was, you know, there's a lot of moving pieces that need to be completed before you give us an approvable recovery plan. So they said the soonest we think you could get us something would be April. They wanted us to do a peer review, an independent cost and schedule analysis; they wanted to get us to get our project management plan updated. So there's about 25 subplans to that. So we've done those things. And now it's a matter of financially where are we able to get to and so that discussion needs to be done. But our goal is still an April timeframe to get them something.

On the pressure to pause or stop rail construction at Middle Street

Our FTA Full-Funding Grant Agreement and managing director testified to this at several council meetings when we were discussing the TAT, that the contract with the federal government, and he reminded the council members, that the contract is with the city. It's not HART. It's with the city and the FTA. And that contract states we need to get all the way to Ala Moana. And so if we stopped short, there would have to be a discussion with FTA for that. Regarding Middle Street, that is absolutely not going to work. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, we do have the funds to get past Middle Street, probably can't have enough to get to downtown right now. But Middle Street just will not work. The ridership is not there compared to Ala Moana or even downtown. You're missing all of the key riders along Dillingham. Director J. Roger Morton from Honolulu Department of Transportation Services can speak much more eloquently on this topic than me, but going down on Middle Street, there's no way for the buses heading east to turn left into that existing Middle Street Transit Center. More importantly, if we could somehow get the riders off of the rail onto the bus at Middle Street, they're just going to be sitting in that same traffic on Dillingham. So it is key that we get past Dillingham, you know, the next best location from Ala Moana is downtown, according to DTS, because they have a robust bus system there already.

On the relocation of utilities along Dillingham

We are in the process of getting 100% designs done. The goal is about the second quarter of next year and to get it all approved, again like we did for the areas two through six, that's Iwilei to Ala Moana, get the city approval, third-party approval and then we go out to bid about summer timeframe next year and we would like to award before the end of next year on Dillingham.

As far as acquisitions, we are working very closely — the two big ones because we're doing that mauka shift is Kamehameha Schools and UH. So we're working very closely with them.

On fixing the wheel-rail interface problems

What was holding us up, at first, we hired TTCI to do an analysis on what could be a temporary fix. And they came back with: we could fill the gap, void with a weld. And that way the weld allows us to start trial running sooner because you could use either the thinner or the thicker wheel simultaneously, because to change out all of the wheels, it's going to take about a year, year and a half. We don't want to delay any further than we have to. So by doing that weld, we can use either one until they're all completely replaced, all the wheels are replaced. But the good news was we do not have to swap out the tracks, the wheels is a quicker and cheaper option. Then the next problem was we couldn't get any certified, licensed, Hawai'i-licensed contractors that could do manganese welding. So two weeks ago, God bless the Hawai'i Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, we presented to them, asking for an exemption. And they granted us one, a conditional one. Meaning the exemption is only good until I think it's June or July of next year. And if we bring in a mainland contractor, after we sign a contract with them, they have 60 days to apply for a Hawai'i license. So we're moving quickly on this. I think, I believe we have bidders that are going to be submitting their packages by this Friday. And if we can get that work done that would speed things up for us.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Dec. 7, 2021.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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