A voter-mandated board is scheduled on July 1 to start controlling spending on the rail transit project, but a nervous City Council is moving to preclude its authority. The Council’s attempt to oversee the expenditures flies in the face of a City Charter amendment approved last year by Oahu voters, and Mayor Peter Carlisle is right in his threat to veto the measure if the Council passes the proposal.
The charter amendment gives the Hono-lulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, or HART, board "management and control over moneys made available to the authority in the special transit fund established to receive the county surcharge" on the state’s general excise tax.
In urging that the Council intervene, Councilman Ikaika Anderson asserted that the Council "will look over their budget, and we will approve it or not approve it" while the HART board would be limited "to run the day-to-day operations of the transit system." That was not the intent of the charter amendment, which gave HART "semi-autonomous" authority similar to that of the city Board of Water Supply, which manages its own budget without City Council oversight.
The amendment does give the Council the power to approve or reject the transit board’s decision to issue revenue bonds, and that is significant. While there indeed might be future need to safeguard against improprieties, the Council should not use its bond-issuance authority to take a political stand. It needs to weigh carefully before rejecting bonds to be paid with forthcoming tax surcharge revenue or federal funding. Wayne Yoshioka, the city’s transportation director, says short-term borrowing will be needed midway through the rail’s construction because money at some point will be going out faster than that coming in from the tax surcharge and federal funds. Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said last week that his agency is proposing to budget $250 million for the project in fiscal year 2012.
Anderson’s proposal puts forth concerns by rail opponents, returning to the Council the arguments on whether or not to build rail transit at all, a political dispute that the charter amendment was intended to bring to an end. The political decision to go forward with the project has been made by a majority of voters and their representatives on the past City Council.
The legal decision has yet to be made in federal court in response to a lawsuit filed recently by opponents of the $5.3 billion project. Plaintiffs contend the project violates federal environmental, historic preservation and transportation laws in preparing the environmental impact statement. A state judge rejected a lawsuit in March challenging the way the city is conducting a survey of ancient Hawaii burial sites, ruling that it need not complete the survey along the entire 20-mile route before ground is broken for beginning the project.
The city is prepared to defend the federal lawsuit — but it may face more problems if the City Council improperly chooses to throw up procedural and financial roadblocks. Voters have made the decision for rail, and have created HART to expeditiously bring it to fruition.
For its part, HART needs to be transparent, financially responsible and publicly accessible as it moves forward.
The Council’s nervousness over this new entity might be understandable, but only serves to delay the project unnecessarily.