by Andrew Walden
Has Kirk Caldwell been moonlighting as a Star-Advertiser reporter? In Saturday’s edition, it appears that Caldwell is the only source the Star-Advertiser has reporting on Rail funding decisions allegedly made by Federal Transit Administration Acting Administrator Therese McMillan:
The head of the Federal Transit Administration said the agency would withhold the release of $250million in grant money for the city’s $6.57 billion rail project unless it gets assurances that the City Council will pass an extension of the 0.5 percent surcharge on the general excise tax.
That’s according to Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who met for about an hour this week with FTA Acting Administrator Therese McMillan.
Caldwell said that McMillan also made it clear that the agency expects the city to carry through with its agreement to construct a 20-mile, 21-station rail line from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center as promised.
With HART and members of the Honolulu Council saying they had no information on any federal funding freeze, we at Hawai’i Free Press tried a novel approach—actually contacting FTA spokespeople in Washington to see what they had to say about it.
First we got an “unofficial” response which was apparently sent to us when a FTA spokesperson “accidentally” included us in an email discussion of our request (emphasis added):
I'm not clear on exactly what was told to Mayor Caldwell. (FTA Acting Administrator) Therese (McMillian) sent an email to Dan Grabauskus (sic) in late October related to the $250M. I didn't see the final, but draft versions did not make the release of funds solely contingent on local action to pass the GET tax. I'm sure Therese conveyed the same message to the Mayor that she has with Dan.
A few hours later, we received an “official” response to be attributed as “according to FTA” (emphasis added):
FTA Acting Administrator Therese McMillan communicated to Mayor Caldwell during a November 12, 2015 meeting that FTA must be assured of the commitment of the revenue needed for the Honolulu rail project before the award of FY 2015 New Starts funds.
Until FTA receives and approves a revised project cost estimate, schedule, and financial plan which includes a commitment of all of the local funds needed to cover that cost estimate, FTA cannot award the FY 2015 increment of New Starts (Section 5309) funds under the terms of the Full Funding Grant Agreement. The receipt of the requested deliverables is needed for FTA to re-assess and validate HART’s information, since FTA has concerns that the total contingency may be underestimated, the most recently provided schedule has a low probability for success, and the Honolulu City Council must take timely action to extend the general excise tax to mitigate further cost increases and slippage in the schedule.
Did you notice? The FTA found a way to protect both Caldwell and Grabauskas.
Update Nov 16: FTA Letter to Caldwell