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Thursday, October 02, 2014         

VOLCANIC ASH


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Less rant, more rationale needed on cost of rail transit

By David Shapiro

POSTED:



I finally found some time to spend with the 138-page financial analysis of the $5.5 billion Oahu rail project that former Gov. Linda Lingle released on her way out the door.

I can't vouch for the conclusions by Infrastructure Management Group Inc. that transit tax revenues could be 30 percent below city projections, costs could exceed estimates by $1.7 billion or more and ridership assumptions might be overly optimistic.

But the analysis is measured in tone, with ample supporting data, and isn't the "anti-rail rant" that Mayor Peter Carlisle described in his own rant the day after the $350,000 study came out.

He called it an "appalling waste" of taxpayer dollars because one of the consultants has favored buses over rail -- as did the city's primary rail contractor, Parsons Brinckerhoff, when the company advised former Mayor Jeremy Harris on bus rapid transit.

Carlisle now says the city is analyzing the IMG study, but it appears more for the purpose of refutation than a serious attempt to see whether there is anything to be learned.

IMG isn't the first to question whether the city is raising enough to pay for rail from the half-cent excise tax imposed in 2007 -- especially with the $1.5 billion federal share less certain because of Republican gains in Washington.

It's a fair question to ask what Plan B is if the city comes up short, but the administration has avoided a straight answer.

Carlisle said excise tax collections for rail are 99 percent on target, which if true is only because the city trimmed its original projections by $300 million and made up the difference by diverting money from TheBus and Handi-Van -- funds that eventually could have to be covered by the general fund and property taxes.

Even with the lowered projections for tax collections, the city had to use a fiscal year ending in March for transit tax accounting to make its numbers line up.

Such manipulations are exactly what make people suspicious that the city is being overly optimistic and that there are hidden costs -- and taxes -- down the road.

If the IMG conclusions prove valid, the current half-cent excise tax for transit would need to be raised by 24 percent to 76 percent or extended five to 19 years beyond its 2022 expiration to finish paying for the 20-mile commuter line between Kapolei and Honolulu.

Carlisle made clear during the campaign that he supported rail, and that's fine; nobody expected him to reverse policy.

But we did expect him to elevate the discussion to a more respectful tone. It's disappointing that the new city administration, like the old, is responding to contrary views on rail with name-calling as a first resort.

David Shapiro can be reached at volcanicash@gmail.com or blog.volcanicash.net.

 






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