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Concern grows over rail’s cost

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Although he believes something needs to be done about traffic congestion on Oahu, Kuliouou resident Les Peetz says he does not think a 20-mile rail route from Kapolei to Ala Moana is the answer.

"The way this thing is set up, I don’t think anybody’s going to want to ride it," said Peetz, a local writer and jazz musician. "This thing’s going to cost three times more than it’s estimated, and nobody’s going to ride it."

Peetz was in the minority of those surveyed on whether the rail work should be finished, but his views on the project’s potential cost overruns were reflected in a new Hawaii Poll conducted by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now.

While about half of Honolulu residents remain in favor of completing the rail transit system, nearly 9 in 10 agree the project is likely to cost more than the $5.3 billion estimated price tag.

Residents appeared mostly split on whether they think the jobs created by the project or the reduction in traffic will be worth the cost and that rail is the best solution to Oahu’s traffic, according to poll data released today.

The telephone poll of 443 likely voters on Oahu was conducted May 4 through Tuesday by Ward Research Inc. of Honolulu and has a margin of error of 4.7 percentage points in either direction.

Forty-nine percent said they believe work should continue on the rail project, compared with 45 percent who said work should be stopped and 6 percent who said they did not know or refused to answer.

The split is similar to the result of the 2008 ballot question asking Honolulu voters whether the city should have the authority to construct a steel-wheel-on-steel-rail transit system. Voters approved the measure 52.6 percent to 47.4 percent.

"It’s still a majority that want us to proceed with the rail project and believe it’s the best way to deal with traffic here on the island of Oahu," Mayor Peter Carlisle said of the poll results. "It doesn’t seem like people have moved off of their feelings about it."

But continuous criticism of the rail transit project by opponents and those concerned with the overall cost of the project appears to be influencing public opinion as well.

Asked whether they strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree or strongly disagree that "the rail project will end up costing a lot more than is currently estimated," a combined 88 percent said they agree; 66 percent said they strongly agreed. A combined 11 percent said they disagreed.

Three years ago, when the question was posed to voters, the project’s cost was estimated at $4 billion.

Cliff Slater, an opponent of rail and one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit field last week trying to stop the project, said it was hard to make sense of the data, noting that the number who say work should be completed is roughly equivalent to the number who say they do not think the jobs created by the project will be worth the cost.

When asked whether they agree or disagree that "the jobs created will boost the economy so much that the cost of the project will be worth it," a combined 49 percent said they strongly or somewhat disagree, compared with a combined 44 percent who agreed.

While he acknowledged that, historically, costs for large-scale public works projects often end up higher than anticipated, Carlisle said government agencies at all levels were working "to make absolutely certain that we’re keeping a handle on the costs."

Slater also contends the final environmental impact statement indicates that traffic congestion is expected to get worse with the project. The city says his claim is based on selective information.

In a poll question asking whether "the reduction in traffic will not be worth the cost of the project," 35 percent said they strongly agreed, with 18 percent somewhat in agreement. Twenty percent said they somewhat disagree, with another 20 percent in strong disagreement.

Asked whether "something needs to be done about traffic and rail is the best solution," a combined 50 percent agreed, compared with a combined 47 percent who disagreed.

Panos Prevedouros, a University of Hawaii engineering professor who has twice run failed mayoral campaigns opposing rail, called the results remarkable.

"They speak volumes of the public’s desperation for relief from traffic congestion and, since this is the only project on the table, they barely are going for it," he said in an email message. "Most would tell you that they want rail so that the other people can use it.

"Well, any desirable project would have had over two-thirds of the public supporting it by now."

John White, executive director of the Pacific Resource Partnership, an organization that connects the Hawaii Carpenters Union with contractors, supports the project and said he understands the concern over cost.

But with fuel prices at all-time highs and the amount of time spent in traffic, he said he believes costs for consumers are already pushing the limit.

"It will cost too much if we don’t build it," White said. "The reality is, without a viable alternative transportation system, more people will have to pay higher and higher gas prices than ever before, and more people will be spending time in traffic and cars when they should be spending time with their family.

"Rail transit gives us the opportunity to address these concerns and also some of the other benefits that come from that, which is the development that occurs around these stations."

Carlisle said he expects sentiment to shift in stronger favor of the project when real, tangible benefits are felt.

"I think once we have people who are employed and that reaches out into those people’s extended families and communities, that to my mind is going to be a very big plus," he said. "Once they see how it’s working to get the dollars that we’re spending on our own people back to work and back to having the ability to pay for their families, pay for their homes, rent their apartments, then I think that people will be more satisfied because they will have concrete results of the expenditures of those funds that are beneficial to all of the members of the community here on Oahu."

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