Monday, May 28, 2012
Sunday’s One-Two Punch in Star-Advertiser Was Wakeup Call for Residents: Buying into Unknown Transit Plan Could Stick Them with Huge Costs & No Viable Project To Address Congestion Problem
Oahu residents got a shot of reality in yesterday’s newspaper about perhaps the biggest decision this or any other generation has faced since Statehood.
The issue is whether to build the Honolulu rail project or abandon it on the thinnest of promises that something else would be better.
The Star-Advertiser's page-one story – headlined City has much to lose if rail is halted (subscription) – detailed the “uncharted territory” that lies ahead if rail dies, including possible damage payments to contractors in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the loss of jobs and almost certainly the loss of confidence in Honolulu’s ability to make big decisions and stick with them.
The newspaper called out mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano for his lack of transparency on his alleged transportation plan and urged him to do the right thing – tell Oahu residents exactly what he proposes to implement after he kills rail if he's elected to lead the city.
In asking What exactly is Cayetano’s transit plan?, the editorial was also reminding residents of the obvious: They wouldn’t make a major investment in a home without knowing its age, its location, its cost, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, the kitchen's layout, where the nearest schools are, the size of the monthly payments and all other major details. They wouldn’t buy a new car without knowing the make and model, the number of seats and doors, the anticipated gas mileage, its operating expenses and all its features.
Mr. Cayetano has provided virtually no details about his proposed bus rapid transit plan, so in effect, he’s asking residents to buy his “house” and “car” without answering the most basic questions – cost, location, features and all the rest. The newspaper’s editorial was suggesting that residents might well be cautious about Mr. Cayetano's "deal."
According to yesterday’s page-one story, the city has spend $503 million in the past six years on planning, design, property acquisition and some project construction work. It also has awarded $2.18 billion con contracts to build half of the 20-mile line, provide rail cars and operate the system.
“Daniel Grabauskas, executive director of (the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation), said he can’t guess how much it would cost to stop the project and cancel those contracts.
“’I know this much. I know we would pay lawyers a boatload of cash to either try to settle or litigate the claims,’ Grabauskas said. ‘I don’t know what that number is. Honestly, you could come up with a whole range.'”
The Star-Advertiser contacted Martin Robins, director emeritus of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, for his assessment of what Honolulu faces if rail is terminated.
“’The unraveling of that is going to be very, very costly,’ said Robins…. ‘Companies have mobilized to do all this contracting.’
‘If the mayor comes in (and) pulls the plug on the project, all the work is going to have to stop, and the companies are going to have incurred costs,’ Robins said. ‘They have moved people and did a huge number of things. They organized offices, they have leases, they have all kinds of financial reliance that they played on the process, and that’s another level of contractual liability that the city has.’”
Mr. Cayetano told the newspaper he doesn’t believe the city has spent more than $500 million on rail – which begs the question: Is he quibbling about $3 million? And this: “Didn’t the city understand this risk when they prematurely awarded contracts and started construction?” he asked.
What seems like a “premature” construction start to Mr. Cayetano was perfectly agreeable to the Federal Transit Administration, which has approved the city’s schedule and provided notices to proceed along the way.
It’s also perfectly clear where the responsibility lies for any potential delays or cancellations that lie ahead in what the newspaper calls rail’s “uncharted territory.” Mr. Cayetano, anti-railer-in-chief Cliff Slater and others are plaintiffs in the lawsuit that intends to kill rail.
That lawsuit will be argued in Federal District Court in a hearing scheduled to begin 10 days after the August 11 primary election that either will be an outright win for Mr. Cayetano or one of his opponents or will narrow the field to two candidates.
Consider the Possibilities
There are two basic possible outcomes in that election: (1) One candidate receives 50 percent plus one of the votes cast and thereby is elected mayor in August, or (2) None of the three reaches that threshold, and the top two vote-getters proceed to a runoff election in November.
But within those two scenarios are other possible outcomes:
• Rail could hear a death knell if Mr. Cayetano achieves the 50-plus-one support level.
• Rail could be the outright winner if Mayor Peter Carlisle or former Managing Director Kirk Caldwell, both pro-rail, achieves that level of support.
• Anti-rail Mr. Cayetano would face off in November with one of the pro-rail candidates.
• Pro-rail Messrs. Carlisle and Caldwell would win more votes than Mr. Cayetano but not achieve 50-plus-one and run for outright election in November.
The newspaper wants Oahu residents to think hard about rail and what may or may not be available as an alternative. With less than three months to go before the August primary, that’s not too much to ask when the states are this high.