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$14 Billion to Fix Hawaii

But Even That Won’t Cover Everything

(page 2 of 2)

Federal Funds

One advantage for highways is the availability of federal funds, including Hawaii’s annual allotment from the Federal Highways Trust Fund, which is typically a grant of about $140 million a year. Although this money cannot be used for normal maintenance and operations, Morioka points out, these federal funds account for about 80 percent of capital spending.

Of course, the state also benefits from the maneuvers of our congressional delegation. Mazie Hirono, for example, as the first Hawaii representative on the House Transportation Committee, is able to help local officials identify specific funding opportunities. And, of course, as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Daniel Inouye is the source of hundreds of millions of dollars a year in earmarks, much of which makes its way to transportation projects like Saddle Road on the Big Island.

Last year, DOT also benefited from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, receiving a one-time payment of $126 billion. (The Great Recession may provoke one of the largest periods of infrastructure investment since the Great Depression.) Morioka notes that this money was the source of some controversy in Washington. “We were criticized from the federal level about why we were so slow to spend the money,” he says. But he defends the department’s approach: “I think we actually did a better job than most other states in choosing the right kind of projects that really address some of our infrastructure backlogs.” The work has been diverse: bridge replacements in Windward Oahu, a new bike path on Kauai, a new road in Kona. “A lot of other states just did resurfacing,” Morioka says. “To us, that was shortsighted. Something like resurfacing a road employs people for like three months, whereas our projects are going to employ them for three years. I think we utilized our funds very effectively.”

Revenue Bonds

Despite this outside money, DOT is still dependent on local fees to meet its infrastructure goals. Its budget is almost evenly divided between capital-improvement projects, and maintenance and operations, each of which receives $200 million to $250 million a year. “So, in the big picture of the overall highways program,” Morioka says, “federal funds account for only about 34 percent of the budget. The rest comes from the state highway fund.” This fund, separate from the state’s general fund, is financed by a variety of user fees.

More important, it also covers the highways division’s considerable interest payments on its revenue bonds, which pay for the transportation projects. Morioka notes, “Our highways modernization proposal increased the gasoline tax, increased registration fees, increased the weight tax and increased the rental vehicle surcharge. Together, these would have increased the annual revenues into our highway fund so we could pay for the annual debt service on a $2 billion bond float.” That $2 billion, added to DOT’s $1.5 billion budget and the $500 million in stimulus funds, accounts for the $4 billion budget Highways Modernization Plan.

Without those increases in fees, Morioka acknowledges that DOT has probably swallowed as much as it can chew. “We’re almost at our limit in terms of what our current revenue streams can afford,” he says. “The administration has really pushed the limits in terms of spending down available balances without jeopardizing our bond ratings.” In fact, according to the state’s 2008 comprehensive annual financial report, the highway fund coverage – the ratio of its available revenue to the amount required to cover its existing debt obligations – is already at 103 percent, very close to the statutory single-year limit of 100 percent. So, until the department is able to raise fees, widespread improvements of the state’s transportation infrastructure will continue to wait.

   The moribund Highway Modernization Program included
   more than $57 million for rehabilitating H1’s Pearl City and
   Waimalu viaduct.
   Photo Courtesy of Department of Transportation

City Lights

Compared to the state, Honolulu county is even more dependent on revenue bonds to pay for its ambitious sewer modernization plans. That’s because, unlike transportation, wastewater infrastructure can’t rely on a steady diet of federal funds. It’s true that the city, like the state, did receive some federal stimulus money (more than $7 million went into the Waimalu Sewer Project). But the county’s Department of Environmental Services relies almost exclusively on sewer fees, both for maintenance and operations, and for its massive plan for capital improvements.

The need to fund those capital improvements was highlighted, of course, by the disastrous Ala Wai sewage spill in March 2006. “But even prior to that,” Mayor Mufi Hannemann says, “our administration said that we were going to incrementally raise sewer fees. Sewer fees had not been raised for the last 10 years or so. Also, those funds were always being diverted to do other things. So I made two pledges: One committed to this long-term plan of raising sewer fees; and, since 2005, they’ve gone up by 275 percent. The second was that we would never raid the sewer fund again; whatever we raised would go back to sewer purchase only.”

As with the state, these increases in revenues have allowed the Department of Environmental Services to float the revenue bonds necessary to seriously address the sewer system’s most egregious shortcomings. Many of these, like sanitary sewer overflows and faulty pumps at the major treatment plants, were the subject of existing consent decrees with the Environmental Protection Agency. Nevertheless, the current administration has shown real enthusiasm for fixing the problems. “This department has been meticulously fixing the collection system and making upgrades to our pumping stations and our wastewater treatment plants,” Hannemann says, “to the tune of $1.5 billion. And we’ve committed to another $1.6 billion for the next six years. That’s a lot of money.” Indeed, much like the DOT, the department is approaching the legal limit in terms of its allowable debt load – in this case, 18.5 percent of its revenues.

Tim Steinberger, director of environmental services, puts the city’s efforts into perspective. “Just to give you an idea,” he says, “$80 million used to be a good year for CIP. Now, $250 million to $300 million is kind of the norm. This year, we’re doing $345 million.” Most of that money, he points out, has gone into the most critical elements, like the Waikiki bypass and the contracts to replace the great trunk lines, such as those running along Ala Moana and Kalanianaole Highway. “We’ve addressed most of the big pipes now,” he says. “And when I say ‘big pipes,’ I’m talking about 30-inch to 42-inch nodes. Now, we’re looking mostly at pipes in the 15-inch to 24-inch category.” Perhaps more importantly, he says, some of the projects on the books are starting to address the eight-inch pipes. “And about 78 percent of our island is 8-inch diameter pipe.”

But there’s a catch. Since 1995, the EPA consent decree has largely shaped the city’s investment in wastewater infrastructure. Last year, EPA added to the city’s troubles by revoking a longstanding waiver on the requirement to use secondary treatment on wastewater prior to releasing it into the ocean. At issue is whether the city should be required to build these secondary treatment facilities at its Sand Island and Honouliuli plants, a requirement the city says will likely cost more than $1 billion.

Although the Hannemann administration has vigorously contested the science behind this ruling, EPA has so far stuck to its position. Currently, the two are in intense, quasi-secret negotiations over details. How those negotiations turn out may decide whether the city finishes its work on the wastewater collection system, or builds the treatment plants. Privately, city officials acknowledge that installing secondary treatment is probably inevitable. For his part, Hannemann says he has always advocated for a “global settlement” – basically, a long enough timetable for the city to afford both. For now, however, the future of the city’s single largest infrastructure system remains up in the air.

 

BOSS survey

Grim Year for Construction Companies, Survey Indicates

Almost all Hawaii construction companies were hit hard in the past year and expect flat or lower revenues again this year, according to the BOSS survey conducted by Hawaii Business and QMark Research.

In a telephone survey conducted in April, 403 top executives were interviewed from a mix of large, medium and small companies doing business in Hawaii. Of those interviewed, 109, or 29 percent, identified themselves as being involved directly or indirectly in construction.

The executives were asked to describe their revenue, pre-tax profits and staff changes in the past year.

The chart below compares responses from all those surveyed to the responses of construction executives. In every category, construction companies fared worse.

The chart on the following page shows the expectation of construction executives for the coming year.

 

 

INCREASE

STAY THE SAME

DECREASE

 

Overall

Constr.

Overall

Constr.

Overall

Constr.

Gross revenue

18%

16%

14%

7%

64%

76%

Profit before taxes

20%

19%

16%

14%

55%

62%

Employment changes

10%

6%

51%

40%

38%

54%

Editor’s Note: Other BOSS Survey responses on a variety of topics plus a complete methodology can be found in the June issue of Hawaii Business.

 

Expected Revenue This Year for Construction Companies

Substantially more than last year

12%

About the same as last year

50%

Substantially less than last year

39%

 

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