Last November, by a vote of 64 percent to 29 percent, Honolulu voters overwhelmingly chose to amend the City Charter to create the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.
Like the Board of Water Supply, HART is a semi-autonomous body with a professional board of directors whose single-minded focus is to build and operate the rail transit project honestly, transparently, on time, and within budget.
The charter explicitly authorizes the HART board to review, modify as necessary, and adopt annual operating and capital budgets submitted by the executive director of the authority.
In a recent QMark research poll conducted in May, 79 percent of Oahu residents surveyed indicated that the authority should prepare and manage its own budget separate and apart from the city budget.
The poll also showed that 76 percent agreed that a semi-autonomous authority would keep politics out of decision-making.
I believe in and wholeheartedly embrace the voters’ choice of a semi-autono- mous authority having stewardship over the rail project.
Unfortunately, this spring the City Council members created and passed two budget bills that transferred control over transit funds to themselves instead of leaving that control with HART where it belongs. These bills were vetoed for the following reasons:
First, most people don’t want the Council to control HART’s budget. Second, it’s not legal. The City Charter does not authorize the Council to create these budgets. These bills change the charter without the required vote of the people, which is impermissible under the charter and fails to respect fundamental principles of democracy. The city corporation counsel, consisting of lawyers serving the Council and the mayor, has refused to sign off on either bill because each is legally flawed.
Finally, it’s poor policy because it puts politicians in charge of rail and its finances. The people don’t want the largest public works project in Honolulu’s history to be a ping pong ball between elected officials — this includes myself as the mayor as well as the Council — and to be tinkered with before and after every election cycle.
Semi-autonomy does not mean HART operates in a vacuum. In addition to strict oversight by the Federal Transit Administration and independent financial consultants, there are safeguards built into the charter giving the Council broad oversight but not micromanagement of the rail project.
The HART board of directors will hold public hearings and approve the operating and capital budgets related to transit funds, including the half-percent state tax surcharge and federal funds dedicated to the project. This non-political board can make timely decisions and take timely action based on technical developments and the needs of the project, and not based on the push and pull of special interest groups and the timing of elections. This is the more sensible model to run a mass-transit project. It’s what many jurisdictions around the country already use.
The new HART board takes over the transit project on July 1, this coming Friday. All members have given every indication that they take very seriously their fiduciary duty to build and operate the rail transit system openly, honestly and responsively to the people.
Therefore, for these reasons, the Council should heed the voice of the people and keep the politics out of HART.
As the editorial page staff of the Star-Advertiser so sagely stated on June 23, "The best service the Council can offer the public is not to rush into litigation but to let HART do its job."