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Sunday, September 18, 2016
Feds: $540M in Highway Funds can be spent on Rail
By Andrew Walden @ 10:36 PM :: 2945 Views :: Rail

by Andrew Walden

DoTax is not the only State agency using the Honolulu rail project to milk the taxpayers. 

Documents obtained by a Hawai’i Free Press under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the State Department of Transportation (HIDOT) and the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization (OahuMPO)—not federal authorities--decide which Honolulu projects get federal transportation dollars.

Apparently unaware of this, the late Representative Mark Takai writes to Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Acting Director Gregory Nadeau August 27, 2015:

As you know, Honolulu is constructing its elevated rail project from West Oahu to Honolulu.  As this project crosses into three heavily populated communities—Waipahu, Pearl City, and Aiea—improvements to two major traffic corridors on two state highways, Farrington Highway and Kamehameha Highway are in desperate need of reconstruction.  My strong belief is that these two projects qualify to use federal Highway Trust Funds.  I urge you to work with the State Department of Transportation to have these roadway projects eligible for much-needed federal assistance.

Takai co-chaired the legislatively-created Kamehameha Highway Task Force along with the State DoT Director and the City Department of Transportation Services (DTS) Director.   But, judging from this request, it appears that Takai believed that federal authorization would have been required to spend FHWA funds rebuilding Farrington Hwy and Kamehameha Hwy which had been allowed to deteriorate for years before rail construction began. 

FHWA Acting Director Nadeau responded on October 7, 2015:

I appreciate your recommendations regarding Farrington Highway and Kamehameha Highway.  In general, however, FHWA does not select projects.  Instead Congress makes Federal-aid highway funds available to HIDOT each year, by formula, funds that FHWA administers.  Officials of HIDOT work with local officials such as the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization (OahuMPO) to select projects for funding through the metropolitan transportation planning process.  Because Farrington Highway and Kamehameha Highway are on the National Highway System, the reconstruction projects are eligible for Federal aid funds, subject to selection by OahuMPO and HIDOT.

The Honolulu rail system was designed to pass above parts of the National Highway System from the intersection of Fort Weaver Road and Farrington Highway to the point where the rail line enters Honolulu Airport.  By paying for the highway rebuild via HART, the cost is transferred from Federal taxpayers to local GE Tax payers—leaving HIDOT with more money than it know how to spend—literally.  As of July, 2016 HIDOT was sitting on $540M in unspent federal funds.  The feds have even been threatening to cut off future HIDOT funds because the existing funds are not being spent.

Edwin Sniffen, HDOT Deputy Director, Highways Division, provided reporters with the following statement August 31, 2015 about Takai's proposal:

The state is still running through its prioritization processes, and has not yet reached any agreements to fund any proposed betterments to state highways through HART. Any decision to adjust prioritization invariably requires that other priorities get displaced. Therefore, the state will make these decisions carefully.

The pipeline of funds have been obligated to specific projects, and are therefore dedicated to those projects. Funds in the pipeline are not available for any other projects. Therefore, if the state does decide to fund work on state highways through HART, funding for the betterment work would come out of future federal funding apportionments, not from the pipeline of obligated funds.

The pipeline was at its highest in 2010 with a value of about $950 mil. By January of this year, that amount was reduced to $750 mil. To date, HDOT, in partnership with the counties and FHWA has successfully reduced the amount by $120 mil to $630 mil. HDOT is confident that the pipeline goals, $450 mil by 2018, set in partnership with FHWA, will be met and that federal funds will not be at risk.

The State receives approximately $160 mil annually from the Federal Highway Trust Fund. These funds address statewide needs such as safety improvements, system preservation, federally mandated initiatives, capacity and congestion improvements, and highway enhancements. The gap between state highway system needs and available state and federal funding for all programs is in the billions. Therefore, the state is not considering any funding to HART that funds rail. HDOT is only looking at funding state highway improvements.

In light of Nadeau’s response, it is now clear that Sniffen means “Funds in the pipeline are not available for any other projects”—only because we at HIDOT and OahuMPO say so.  The rest of his statement consists of an argument against spending HIDOT funds on rail-related road work.

Returning last month from a Seattle meeting on Honolulu rail, Council Chair Ernie Martin said: "The FTA themselves asked the county to work with the state to potentially identify federal highway funds that the state already has. Perhaps some of that could be reallocated to the project. They want us to look in every possible corner for any type of additional revenue source."

Now we know that includes HIDOT.

---30---

PDF: FOIA Takai-Nadeau Letters

Map: National Highway System on Oahu

Map: HART Route

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