HONOLULU — The Honolulu rail authority apparently shortchanged 16 tenants or property owners who were relocated to make way for the city’s 20-mile rail line, and made overpayments or ineligible payments to 28 other property owners, according to an intensive federal review of Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation relocation records.
HART has failed in the past to comply with the federal law that governs relocations and property acquisitions for federally funded projects, and does not have adequate staffing to comply in the future, according to the July 30 report.
The report, which was released Friday afternoon by the city, was based on a review of 100 HART relocation files that were scrutinized by Federal Transit Administration staff and an outside consultant in May.
Bruce Robinson, FTA’s acting associate administrator for program management, said in a letter to the rail authority that HART must now meet with everyone who has been displaced by the rail project to determine whether the owners and tenants were provided with proper relocation assistance, and whether they were paid what they were owed under federal law.
The FTA will not allow HART to use federal funding for any past, current or future relocation costs, according to the letter from Robinson, which is dated Monday and accompanied the federal report. A spokesman for HART said Friday that restriction will not reduce the overall $1.55 billion federal commitment to help fund the city’s rail project.
The problems with HART’s relocation program already have attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, which is conducting a criminal investigation of rail. In February HART was served with a federal grand jury subpoena seeking information about the rail relocation program, including files for properties where overpayments were made.
HART has never disclosed how large those overpayments were or who received them. HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins has said the names of the property owners who received overpayments are confidential.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said in a written statement Friday, “It is incumbent upon HART to implement all of the recommendations made by the FTA in an expeditious manner. These recommended improvements must be followed by HART for the remainder of the project.”
The intensive FTA review of the rail authority’s relocation program was triggered by a report from HART to the FTA on Feb. 22, 2018, disclosing there had been overpayments to property owners that did not comply with the federal Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act.
To reassure the federal government, HART pledged to use $3.28 million in city funding to offset all federal payments for Honolulu relocations as a way to guarantee that no federal funding would be spent on the city’s flawed relocation process.
HART spokesman Bill Brennan said the federal review of 100 files covers “almost all ” of HART’s relocation files.
The report identified 44 files where HART was out of compliance in ways that likely had a “negative impact ” on owners or tenants. That includes 16 cases where displaced tenants or owners were underpaid or were never offered relocation payments for which they qualified.
The report recommends an overhaul of HART’s relocation process and procedures. HART does not have qualified staff now to do this work, and needs to hire qualified staff to do the labor-intensive work of reviewing each file and meeting each person who was displaced to ensure they received the correct relocation benefits, according to the study.
The Honolulu rail authority issued a statement Friday promising that “HART will work with FTA to develop and execute a corrective action plan that will ensure that all the individuals and businesses that were relocated as part of the project during the time period reviewed are treated fairly and consistently.”
“Since self-reporting relocation program issues in February 2018, HART has been utilizing a consultant who is an expert on the federal process and believes that all cases processed since that time have been in full compliance with the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act,” the rail authority said in its statement.
“HART has been working on, and is committed to augmenting, its in-house staff with the necessary expertise to carry out the relocation program work,” the statement said.