There’s every reason to feel nervous about committing to the $5.3 billion rail development: Honolulu has never spent so much on a single public works project, and the city is just now climbing out of a deep recessionary hole. But there’s also every reason to stay the course — while illuminating that course through regular and clear communications with the taxpayers who are paying for it.
Let’s separate those two elements. Staying the course means that on Wednesday, when Bill 40 comes up, the City Council should vote to authorize the issuance of general obligation bonds as part of the financing of the project. In general terms, it makes sense to borrow money when interest rates are as low as they are now, especially if it enables the early segments to proceed while contractors are hungry for jobs and costs can be somewhat contained.
Further, it should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the project closely that bond financing would be a component, even at this point. The financial plan issued in May 2009 indicated that debt financing would not be needed through the current fiscal year but would be a factor during the construction years of 2012-2019.
Some alarm bells are being sounded by Council members such as Ann Kobayashi, who has been around the project long enough to know better. Her protestations last week that the administration promised it would be paid with tax revenues and federal funds ring hollow. Kobayashi has overseen enough capital improvements to be aware of the role bond financing has played in upgrades to the bus system, and she’s presumably read the financial plan on this project. Her proposal to scrub bond financing from the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s first budget should be ignored in any rational analysis.
The amount being borrowed still must be approved by the Council in a separate action — no bonds will be issued immediately after the passage of Bill 40. But the proposed HART budget in Bill 33 is what’s making people nervous, because the anticipated amount to make the budget pencil out is $104 million. That’s a scary figure, especially given that the federal government’s Full Funding Grant Agreement hasn’t been approved.
City officials insist that the Federal Transit Administration is still flashing green lights that the funding will be forthcoming. We cautiously accept their assertions, but Honolulu taxpayers must be forgiven for feeling wary. There’s a reason why "I’ll believe it when I see it" is a common human reaction.
Some reassurance from the city appears in the draft, which tops the results list when searching for "financial plan" at the city rail site, honolulutransit.org.
"The city’s financial commitment to the project merits a high rating by FTA," the plan states.
Still, it would be better to get a thorough report from city officials when the draft of the updated financial plan comes before the Council on Thursday.
The whole purpose of creating a semi-autonomous agency was to put the project in the hands of professionals who would be somewhat insulated from the political grandstanding that is so commonplace at the Council. We can’t wait for HART to begin meeting officially after July 1 and hope it has a firm grasp on the reins. However, the new overseers also must fulfill its duty to the ultimate authority — the taxpayers — by insisting on full public reports of how every penny of the funds are being spent.
The transit project will be an essential component of a 21st-century Honolulu, but only if it is developed with oversight and efficiency. Rail has been at the center of heated controversy for decades, and it’s still encountering headwinds of public distrust. Transparency at every stage can help garner the public support and confidence necessary for the project to succeed.