comscore Rail success relies on wise vetting
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Rail success relies on wise vetting

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Everybody involved in the proposal to build a rail project in Honolulu needs to take a deep breath and then review the facts in clear view of the taxpaying public.

The release last week of a financial analysis commissioned by Linda Lingle during the waning months of her administration added another fear factor to the already scary $5.5 billion price tag for the 20-mile elevated rail project. It doesn’t seem to be the dispassionate review of the numbers that Lingle promised, but neither should it be shelved without serious comment, as the city seems inclined to do.

The analysis, conducted by Infrastructure Management Group Inc. and CB Richard Ellis, showed a cost overrun of about $1.7 billion, and that the revenue from the general excise tax surcharge on Oahu may not raise as much of the local financing as previously believed.

Further, the report continued, the federal financing could come in lower than anticipated and construction costs could go higher, leaving taxpayers holding a larger bill.

Mayor Peter Carlisle seems to have completely dismissed the report. He simply asserts that the projections of diminished tax revenues and increased costs are inaccurate, period.

He has a rational basis for healthy skepticism: Among the members of the consultants team was Thomas Rubin, an Oakland transit analyst known widely as an opponent of fixed rail. A cursory search of the Web turns up volumes of Rubin’s publications and general advocacy for bus systems over rail. The phrase once used by Rubin that Carlisle found objectionable was the opening line taken from one of his 2004 addresses: "Bus is good; rail is bad."

Lingle contended that an independent review of rail finances was necessary. Even those who agree with her would have to admit that Rubin’s association with this report diminishes its credibility as an unbiased assessment that’s worth the $350,000 spent on it.

However, Carlisle needs to conduct a more detailed and public discussion of this report than has happened so far. The IMG Inc. analysis presents a view competing with the city’s own financial models, and although the particulars may be too technical for general consumption, the taxpayer deserves to have at least a general explanation of why the latest critique is, as the mayor asserts, completely worthless.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has pledged to sign off on the project’s environmental impact statement on its own merits — the financial aspects are generally not required to be covered in an EIS, in any case. He should move ahead on that.

But the state also has a compelling interest in the successful, efficient development of the state’s costliest public works project, and Abercrombie should at least assess this latest report. Done correctly, the rail can expand transportation capacity and help direct development density in the urbanized center and preserve open space. Taxpayers and the leaders they elect have made a commitment to rail, and they deserve every confidence that this investment is being made in the most deliberate way possible.

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