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Voters deserve another crack at city rail proposal

By Tom Berg

LAST UPDATED: 2:05 a.m. HST, Nov 21, 2011

In the pursuit of bringing rail to our landscape, the state Legislature and city officials have failed to advance the most effective means of traffic relief. This has spawned a lawsuit that stands to derail the current rail project.

How did our government dupe the public into thinking we were to get the best traffic solution available?

It did so via Act 247, Hawaii Session Laws 2005, which included language that any general excise tax increase on Oahu cannot be used for highway technology such as managed lanes, reversible expressways or what we refer to as bus rapid transit.

The state worried that if all forms of transportation technologies were examined, the conclusion would yield the same results as studied by former Mayor Jeremy Harris earlier: that the bus beats rail on all fronts.

That is why our state government acted in bad faith, pretending the tax increase would be about traffic relief when it clearly was not; taxpayers then were forced to pick steel-wheel rail or get nothing at all.

More disturbing is that the federal government subsidizes highway technology by 80 percent, while rail gets, at most, 20 percent. In our economic climate, going with the smaller subsidy and taxing our residents more for a system that moves no goods, services or freight, and is worthless in times of emergency evacuations, makes little sense.

But there is hope. There are other forms of rail transit technologies available to us that can be built without the huge amounts of public subsidies dumped into them, and with the ability to sustain themselves with private investments.

Unfortunately, as things stand now, this means that over the 30 years the GET rail surcharge is levied to build the 34-mile segment, an Oahu family of four will pay almost $27,000 in additional taxes to construct this particular rail system.

In contrast, the monorail and magnetic levitation rail systems could be public-private-partnerships lessening the tax burden significantly.

Since the city cannot put any type of highway solution on the ballot using the GE tax surcharge as a funding mechanism, let's do rail right and get the best system for our island.

If the ballot question were done over and the choices permitted were to include rail systems like the monorail and magnetic levitation, I believe the voter would reject the steel-wheel-on-steel-rail scenario and rather, want a quieter, less-expensive, easier-to-maintain rail system that is more in tune with 21st-century technology.

I authored Resolution 11-328 in an attempt to put on the 2012 ballot a choice for voters to go with superior rail technology and stop this steel-rail plan before it's too late.

However, the resolution was rejected Nov. 2 at the full Council meeting by a 7-2 vote.

There is something inherently wrong with this rail project when the folks who are pitching it do not want the public to weigh in on it any more and do not want to offer the opportunity for voters who are paying for it to change their mind.

I believe we have time to stop this steel-rail ordeal and get a better transit system.

A last-ditch effort to hear everyone out before we make that final plunge will be offered and take place at the Mission Memorial Auditorium on Dec. 6, starting at 6 p.m.

Honolulu deserves to have the opportunity to get a quieter, less-expensive rail system that future generations would be proud of and that our construction unions would be honored to bring to our landscape.

City Councilman Tom Berg represents Oahu's District 1 (Ewa, Kapolei, Waianae).

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