State briefs for December 23

Deadline extended to keep $250M Honolulu rail project grant

HONOLULU — U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has helped Honolulu get an extension on a deadline to develop plans for the last segment of the city’s rail line. The city had been required to submit a viable plan to the Federal Transit Administration by the end of this year or risk losing a $250 million federal grant.

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The Democratic senator from Hawaii, who is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he worked with congressional leaders to include a one-year deadline extension in an appropriations deal.

“My objective was to prevent the loss of these federal dollars,” Schatz said in a statement.

He said the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, or HART, and the city must now revise their financial plan and “come back with something that can actually work.”

Honolulu officials had pushed hard for the extension.

Plans for the rail line’s final 4-mile (6.4 kilometer) segment to Ala Moana have yet to be finalized. There is fear that its cost will come in far higher than the $1.6 billion that HART, the semi-autonomous Honolulu agency in charge of building it, has estimated.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell sent the FTA a seven-page letter in November saying the $5.5 billion estimated cost for the 20-mile (32-kilometer) rail line has ballooned to $9.1 billion. Caldwell also said in his letter that the rail line is now projected to be finished in 2033, eight years after initially scheduled.

The rail authority’s board last Thursday decided not to renew the contract of CEO Andrew Robbins. Negotiations have begun to appoint a new interim CEO and president starting Jan. 1.

Honolulu won’t count prisoners’ infections in reopening data

HONOLULU — Honolulu officials will no longer count COVID-19 cases among prisoners at Halawa Correctional Facility in metrics used to decide whether to tighten or loosen pandemic restrictions on Oahu.

The city will still include infections among prison guards and staff.

Honolulu consults weekly averages of confirmed positive cases on the island to determine whether it’s safe to allow more businesses to reopen or whether it should force more to close.

The state Department of Health on Monday reported 104 new cases on Oahu. Of these, 55 were connected to Halawa prison.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said the outbreak at the prison is inflating the island’s numbers and that residents and businesses shouldn’t be punished for that. He said the city wants to avoid going back to its most restrictive rules.

Subtracting infections among Halawa inmates from Oahu’s numbers would give the island a seven-day average of 82.6 cases, he said. That would put the island below the threshold that requires the city to adopt the most restrictive “Tier One” rules.

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“We’re going to put health and safety first, but we do not want to have a snap back to Tier One,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell proposed the changes to Gov. David Ige and other mayors during their regular meeting. Ige said Monday that he agreed to the plan.

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