POSTED: 06:39 p.m. HST, May 18, 2012
The three candidates vying for Honolulu mayor engaged in the first debate of the campaign season Wednesday night, touching on a variety of subjects but ultimately trying to score points against one another on the singularly contentious issue of rail transit.
Both Mayor Peter Carlisle and former city Managing Director Kirk Caldwell support completion of the $5.27 billion project, while former Gov. Ben Cayetano has vowed to kill it. Construction began last week.
Though mostly cordial, the forum before 150 people at the Plaza Club downtown had its moments of bite, largely because of Cayetano, the former two-term Democratic governor who leveled some of the night's harshest criticism at Caldwell, a fellow Democrat. Although the race is nonpartisan, Cayetano and Caldwell are likely to attract Democratic voters.
In a round of questions on what motivates each to run for office, Cayetano bristled at the suggestion by Caldwell that his private-sector experience might translate better to running the city.
"The trouble with you is, you have never made a hard decision in your life in government," Cayetano said.
Caldwell called the remark "insulting."
"None of us in this room may have been governor, like Ben, but I know that every single one of us in this room has made hard decisions in our life," Caldwell said. "It's insulting to think that because we weren't governor that we didn't make hard decisions."
Cayetano continued to bring the discussion back to rail and his notion that the city cannot afford the system when there are more pressing needs facing the city such as roads and sewers. He cited three studies suggesting the price tag is likely to be closer to $7 billion. Neither Carlisle nor Caldwell challenged him on the figure.
"We should tend to the things that are most important," Cayetano said.
He did not offer specifics on his plans for a bus rapid transit system, and was not challenged on it, saying only that an alternative analysis had previously shown a bus system would be more flexible and better suited for Honolulu than an "eyesore" rail line that would take money away from core services and drive visitors away.
Carlisle and Caldwell repeated their support of the project for its potential to create jobs, not only in the construction of the rail line but in development around rail stations that would shape the future of island growth.
Both said transit-oriented development would create affordable housing around more livable, walkable communities that would in turn lead to healthier citizens and a healthier environment through reduced automobile emissions.
Construction began on the first segment of the project last week. One of the last key hurdles is obtaining a Full Funding Grant Agreement for $1.55 billion from the Federal Transit Administration, which is expected to come this fall.
Carlisle seized on a comment from U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye last month, stating the only thing that would stop the rail project is "World War III." Caldwell, who once worked for Inouye, repeated his confidence in the senator's ability to bring home the federal funds.
Cayetano continuously raised the issue of funding and what would happen if the federal government and Inouye, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, are unable to come through. "Sen. Inouye has been listening to the government," Cayetano said. "He is at the 30,000-foot level dealing at the national and international level.
"He is out of touch, as far as I'm concerned. I respect Sen. Inouye, but we should not defer to him. … What are you guys, potted plants?"
Carlisle said he was following the law in regard to the 2008 City Charter amendment approved by voters calling for a steel-on-steel rail system.
"I follow the law," Carlisle said. "It passed. It's on the books. … In terms of federal funds, we know Sen. Inouye has virtually guaranteed it."
Carlisle disputed Cayetano's assertion that he would have to raise taxes. "We will do nothing to impair our bond rating and nothing to raise taxes," the mayor said. He said if the funding does not come, he still would be obligated to implement the law, but the system would look different.
Caldwell said if the federal money did not come, he would take the issue back to voters to let them decide.
Cayetano called that unrealistic, particularly if construction had begun and columns already were sticking 30 feet out of the ground. During time when candidates had a chance to expand on any question put forward, Cayetano badgered Caldwell to answer what he would do if the project ran out of money.
Caldwell said he felt he answered the question, saying he would take the issue to the people, adding that he was not going to be goaded into the answer Cayetano wanted.
"How are you going to take it back to the people," Cayetano said. "It's hanging in the air.
"I don't know if they like the answer but I think they can figure you out."
None committed to a site on where they felt would best suit the city's next solid waste landfill, although all agreed that more needed to be done to increase recycling and reduce the amount of waste diverted to the landfill.
Carlisle noted that the recent decision by an advisory panel naming Kahuku as the best site for a new landfill was only a recommendation. "It's simply a starting point for discussion," he said. "That's all it is."