Mayor wants $4.1M for rapid transit office
City officials say it is needed to satisfy federal requirements
The city wants to ramp up oversight of its planned mass transit system with Mayor Mufi Hannemann asking the City Council for 35 new positions and a $4.1 million budget for a new rapid transit office.
City transportation officials said the positions are needed to fulfill a Federal Transit Administration requirement that the city have sufficient resources to manage the transit project while it is being developed.
"In essence, what it requires the city to do is to have its own team," said city Transportation Services Director Melvin Kaku.
The budget request asks for 35 full-time positions at a cost of $2.3 million along with an additional $1.8 million for expenses and equipment. The unit will be funded by the 0.5 percent general excise tax county surcharge.
Toru Hamayasu, the city chief transportation planner, said as part of the process to obtain federal funding, the FTA will be checking whether the city has the appropriate skills on board to sufficiently oversee the progress. That expertise includes engineering, finance, design, planning and scheduling.
"In that process, FTA will hire a consultant called project management oversight, and they will check every part of this project and the way we manage, including our capacity and qualifications to manage the project," Hamayasu said. "They would require a lot of resources dedicated to this project in order for them to feel good that they are funding a project that the ... City and County of Honolulu has the capacity to do."
But with a low unemployment rate and the city having difficulty recruiting highly skilled employees like engineers, hiring the necessary number of people might prove to be challenging.
That is why, Hamayasu said, the city will likely contract with a consulting firm first to meet the immediate need.
"Because we don't think we can hire the civil service people immediately, we are procuring management service companies with all these skilled people with the understanding that over the next 30 months or so, we'll be replacing them with the internal (civil service) process," Hamayasu said.
The function of the office will also evolve over time. For the first three or four years, the office will focus on project development, then move onto construction and then, finally, operations of the transit system.
What that final operational entity will look like has yet to be decided, Kaku said.
"The size of the city management side may reduce once the operations start, and much of the cost to operate will shift to the operator, whether that's going to be a different unit or if you're talking about something like (Oahu Transit Services)," said Hamayasu, referring to the private company that runs the municipal bus system.
The next task is to get the budget item approved by the City Council, which begins hearings today on the budget.
"Obviously we need something to move this project forward," Council Budget Chairman Todd Apo said. "How big of an animal or vehicle do we need I'm sure is going to be a significant discussion when we take a look at that portion of the budget.
"We need to make sure that this is what we need and not more than we need and also not less than we need -- we can't skimp on this upfront and cause us problems down the road."
Apo said the right kind of funding also needs to be used.
"Right now, we have a pot of money from the surcharge. How do we properly expend that and use that to make sure that this capital improvement project is planned and built correctly?" he said.