You’d be forgiven for wondering what an urban rail system in Honolulu has to do with crushing the coronavirus.
Yet tucked inside last month’s nearly $2 trillion COVID-19 spending spree is $70 million headed for Hawaii to bail out a struggling 20-mile railway that has been under construction for a decade, was supposed to have opened a year ago, hasn’t carried a single passenger, and despite the federal help will still find itself a few billion — with a B — in the red.
The $70 million injection went without much notice inside the Beltway amid the rest of the record spending until Wednesday, when it earned the “Squeal Award” from Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican who came to Washington promising to make the big spenders squeal the same as the hogs she used to castrate on the farm growing up.
“More money won’t get this train back on the right track,” said Ms. Ernst. “Now, let’s put the brakes on federal funding for this project — and others like it — once and for all.”
Known as the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, or HART, the project has been debated for decades, and has been a work-in-progress for more than 15 years.
The goal is to connect the city’s downtown with some densely populated outlying neighborhoods, with the initial section running around Pearl Harbor.
But construction has been maddeningly slow. As of last week, the project listed itself as 60.3% complete, with a final deadline of 2026 — though local news outlets said a more recent estimate puts completion at 2031. As of a year ago, HART said it was 55.7% complete, and listed 2025 as its completion date.
Ms. Ernst says the project began with $65 million in earmarks, or spending Hawaii lawmakers tucked into federal spending bills more than a decade ago.
Since then, even as the railway has languished, beset by overruns, missed deadlines and allegations of financial mischief, the federal government continues to pump money to it. Ms. Ernst’s office says the Federal Transit Administration’s commitment totals $1.8 billion.
Honolulu Rail Transit didn’t respond to a message seeking comment Wednesday.
For budget watchdogs, the railway is a cautionary tale in boondogglery, combining the worst impulses of local government officials in Hawaii and federal lawmakers in Washington.
Then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann was strikingly honest in 2009 when he said “the longer we delay, the greater the chance the money will go away.”
His solution was to declare the project “shovel-ready,” hoping to create the perception that the project was on track, in order to keep the people with the money interested. The construction contract was awarded “prematurely,” the state auditor ruled.
Since then, the list of red flags for the project has ballooned.
⦁ A former executive director earned $257,000 in salary plus another $42,000 in allowance and stipends, at one point becoming Honolulu’s highest-paid public servant, even though he had no construction experience, according to Honolulu Civil Beat.
⦁ Work was stopped in 2012 after human remains were found on the route, forcing the need for an archaeological survey. But contractors who sat idle were still paid, Hawaii Business reported.
⦁ The federal Transportation Department’s inspector general is reviewing claims that the agency overpaid for the real estate to build the railway.
⦁ KHON News reported last year that HART blew $190,000 to create a video game, “Outrun da Train.” HART told the outlet the spending was an obligation as part of its contract, which requires it to do outreach to the community to compensate for digging up historic and cultural resources. Before the video game, HART paid to create a comic book.
⦁ A federal grand jury subpoenaed more than 30,000 documents from HART in 2019 dealing with consultants’ contracts, which were reportedly overwhelming.
The rail project’s original price tag was about $5 billion. The current price tag is $12.5, but only $8 billion in funding has been identified, even including the new federal $70 million tank-up, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported last month.
The new interim CEO also revealed a problem with the rail’s wheels at track junctions, which could push the opening date back another year, the newspaper reported.
The CEO is facing calls to cut losses and curtail the scope of the rail line, but she told the newspaper that would make it “a train to nowhere.”
Ms. Ernst called on Congress to take several steps to cancel the rail and curtail other projects like it, including passing her Billion Dollar Boondoggle Act, which would require reporting of every federal project more than $1 billion over budget or five years behind schedule.
She also urged lawmakers not to embrace earmarks again.