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GOP shift means isle leaders need to discuss rail funding


City officials and other local leaders say they’re confident that $1.5 billion in anticipated federal funding for the $5.5 billion Oahu rail transit line will still be forthcoming despite the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Here’s hoping they’re right, but it would be a mistake not to factor the new political landscape into our thinking and have an honest discussion about contingencies before we spend hundreds of millions starting a project we may not be able to finish.

There’s no escaping that a huge shift has taken place in Washington, with Republicans gaining firm control of the House and cutting deeply into the Democratic majority in the Senate.

Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar, the main booster for Oahu rail outside of the Hawaii delegation, lost his seat and Republicans gained control of the transportation committee he led.

Honolulu transit officials say political changes shouldn’t affect funding for a project as far along as ours, but the Republicans campaigned on a promise to cut spending and many conservatives have a deep-seated aversion to rail. Newly elected Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin have said they’ll stop rail projects.

Even senior Hawaii U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who remains hopeful, says "nothing is guaranteed."

It means that before we start construction — possibly as early as March, according to Mayor Peter Carlisle — we should give realistic consideration to what we’ll do if federal funding doesn’t materialize.

Are we willing to pay for the system with 100 percent local funding if necessary? If so, how would we raise the money? The current half-cent Oahu excise tax for rail won’t cover it.

Carlisle and the City Council need to address these concerns up front so there are no surprises later, and it’s a discussion that Gov.-elect Neil Abercrombie and the Legislature should be pressed to join.

Abercrombie says he won’t hold up approval of the rail environmental impact statement for the study of rail finances ordered by Gov. Linda Lingle, arguing that financial issues are between the city and the Federal Transit Administration.

He’s right that environmental impact and financial impact are separate issues, but it’s not true that there’s no state involvement in the financing. The governor and Legislature had to approve the current Oahu rail tax and would need to consent to any increase or extension of the tax if federal or local funding falls short.

Oahu taxpayers deserve a forthright answer on where our leaders stand on future funding before we start pouring concrete into a pit that could become deeper if federal support wavers.

It’s reasonable to hope for the best after all the effort that’s gone into this project, but it would be foolhardy not to plan for the worst.

David Shapiro can be reached at or


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