Airport upgrades are nicely underway, however particular funds are looming in Hawaii

HONOLULU (KHON2) – The dramatic slowdown in tourist traffic since last spring has given Hawaii’s airports time to improve. However, there could be complications with future funding. As the state stares at a multi-billion dollar budget deficit, some are trying to raise cash from a number of specialty funds. This includes transport accounts and money that the airport department claims it needs to keep up with new projects and corrections.

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If, like many people in Hawaii, you’ve avoided traveling during the pandemic, there are plenty of new improvements waiting for you in the state’s airports as soon as you can fly again.

“Two of the marquee projects with the airport department of the State Department of Transportation are the car rental and the Mauka hall (at HNL),” explains DOT spokesman Tim Sakahara. “Both are worth hundreds of millions of dollars and they’re doing really well. You are actually approaching the finish line. “

With passenger numbers down more than 90 percent below normal over the past year, everyone from construction to maintenance has made this downtime their travel time.

“Although the number of passengers is much lower, the workload has increased,” said Sakahara. “Not only the construction, but also the caretakers did a phenomenal job and continuously renovated and cleaned the airport facilities, all these common points of contact such as doorknobs and elevators and handrails, elevator buttons and the like.”

In terms of retail, it’s still kind of a ghost town. Some grocers have reopened. A handful of stores turn the lights on when enough landings are expected. This has also led to a decrease in the percentage of rents.

“It is not that the state can force an airport concession to open,” said Sakahara. “Retail will come back last.”

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Toilets at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, Honolulu, Hawaii, January 29, 2021

Toilets are a common complaint. KHON2 even heard from viewers who couldn’t find soap while traveling during COVID. We saw soap on spot checks recently but still lots of the usual broken stalls. The state says the bathrooms are getting a makeover.

“The toilets were an area that needed to be upgraded and that is happening across the country,” said Sakahara. “As we speak, everyone at HNL is working on every toilet. Actually, this is another project that only started last year. It’s about halfway through. “

It’s not just at HNL. Kahului has a new terminal project and a federal inspection station is underway in Kona.

How do you pay for all of this with reduced passenger numbers, concessions and landing fees?

“One of the things DOT did was refinance some of the bonds they had in the past at a lower interest rate. That alone saved $ 100 million over the next two years, ”said Sakahara. “Of course you have the federal stimulus money, which was vital to keeping all projects up and running, as well as work and employment.”

Money also comes from various special funds, but the legislature sees these as cash to fill a huge general fund hole. Nationwide, all agencies have nearly $ 800 million that lawmakers believe could be diverted

“I’ve just introduced two invoices. One of them is the cancellation of all special funds, “Rep. Sylvia Luke told Always Investigating.” And the second calculation is to draw all unencumbered amounts from special funds. “(HB1298 and HB1299)

“We’re also reviewing the Department of Transportation’s funding, not just airports, but ports and highways as well,” Luke said. “The airport special fund not only includes the airline’s landing fees. It also includes tons of other fees, including the amounts the concessionaires pay, the lease rent, and other things required to run the airport. “

KHON2 asked Luke: What would you say to those who have invested in these funds in one way or another saying, “Hey, wait, it’s a bait and a bill. I thought I would pay for it. Now is it taken for it? ‘”

“So, much like general excise tax and income tax, I say, you and I both pay general excise tax and income tax,” Luke said. “Regardless of whether it is for a specific purpose or a general purpose, every taxpayer pays for all types of services. This is not the time to say, “Hey, you know what we put into this fund so it should be protected.” Well, that goes for all regular taxpayers because they put billions and billions of dollars in income tax. “

According to Luke, an alternative to the larger funds is to swap cash for construction bonds that keep the work going.

“Last year we moved about $ 250 million to $ 300 million into the Rental Housing Trust Fund,” said Luke. “We exchanged cash for building funds. Exchanging doesn’t slow down work or any type of contract. They were very willing to swap it out because it didn’t interfere with some of the projects. They didn’t miss a beat. You keep placing commitments and assignments for a new project. “

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DOT hopes the dollars can stay with the department that spends them.

“These funds are critical to staying with the Department of Transportation,” said Sakahara, “to continue working on these projects and construction works to further boost the economy and keep people at work.”

We’ll keep track of the bills and see what happens to the special funds and airport improvement projects.