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Editorial | Island Voices

City’s wall against rail critics starts to crumble

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Since it became apparent that former Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s steel-rail legacy survived his 2010 gubernatorial defeat, the scattered opposition to the project has revived, regrouped and broadened. A mostly Republican-inclined viewpoint has become a broader-based coalition. The financial picture has changed rapidly, and the supposed fait accompli of the rail project again is an open question.

The new mayor has been attempting to lock the project down before public opinion turns further, but in so doing, he has overreached. For an image, think of his ceremonial groundbreaking in the weeds of Ewa and his shout of "Hallelujah." The harder he pushes, the more resistance he generates.

When he recently proposed giving nearly $400 million next year to the operating and CIP budgets of the Honolulu Authority on Rail Transit (HART), including general obligation bond money, without City Council oversight, he additionally lost support — both for the project itself and his handling of it.

In all, the city has issued contracts approaching $2 billion, even though engineering is not complete, architectural design (of the 21 stations) hasn’t started, and there is no final financial agreement with the federal government.

The Council is rightly fighting its potential loss of oversight. The $200 million in bonds particularly was a divide that many did not want to cross in the absence of serious federal funding.

Meanwhile, the much-anticipated $1.55 billion from the federal government has become ever more of a question mark. Granted, this is a bad year, but the entire national budget for rail transit in 2011 is what Honolulu hopes to get for the project. The city’s actual share for this year is $50 million, which is less than 4 percent of the magical number.

All of these factors converge on a revised financial plan, which is scheduled to be before the Council’s Transportation Committee today. The Federal Transportation Authority, contradicting its pep talks, in August 2009 gave the financial plan a rating of "low" in regard to Honolulu’s financial capacity. It said that the plan would not be approved in its then-present form. The reality is that the financial plan has gone from weak to weaker, as our financial capacity has weakened.

One glaring indicator of weakness is the quarter billion of money still to be taken from TheBus, an item that the FTA specifically called out.

What the FTA calls the revenue "stress test" — the idea that a given community can or will pay only so much in taxes — is more of an issue now than in 2009, because the state and city are both in such great distress. Various taxes already have gone up. More will go up. The sewer and water settlement will cost the city $5 billion. The highway repair budget is being cut.

Simply put, it is why you hear people asking, "Why spend all this money on rail when we’re not taking care of our basics?"

While the current focus is on finance, court cases are next. Legal action is more than the usual factor, because the fast-tracking and shortcuts have created serious weaknesses in the process. If litigation succeeds, it will reset the calendar of analyzing alternatives and potentially lead the city to a more widely supported mode and routing of transit.

If that were to happen, if there were to be an open process and open discussion, people would unite around the goal of improved transit for the weary commuter.

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