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Hawaii Senate advances 5-year extension plan for Oahu’s rail tax

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    Aside from all the financial questions

The state Senate has advanced a measure that would extend Oahu’s rail tax an additional five years after 2022, a move that many senators hope would close the rail project’s nearly billion-dollar budget gap.

The vote was 22 to 3, with Sens. Gil Riviere, Sam Slom and Laura Thielen voting against the bill. Slom, the chamber’s lone Republican and a staunch rail opponent, criticized the measure, saying that transportation leaders have not given state lawmakers straight answers on the proposed rail tax extension. Riviere (D, Heeia-Laie-Waialua) said he’s not opposed to completing the project but he’s against writing an “endless check” to fund the project. 

“Is there a member on this floor who believes that’s the final price?  Five years?” Riviere said. “Let HART (Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation) demonstrate some fiscal accountability. They’ve given us none.”

However, other senators countered that it is important to advance the bill, Senate Bill 19, in order to keep the discussion going on how to deal with rail’s fiscal crisis — and to keep holding rail officials’ feet to the fire.

“The best way to have that accountability … is to fully engage and to ask the tough questions,” said Sen. Ronald Kouchi (D, Kauai, Niihau), who serves as the Ways and Means Committee’s vice chair.

Sen. Will Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) responded to Riviere: “If he wants to keep the country country, we need to build this.”

The Senate measure now moves to the House. 

The House will take up its own measure later Tuesday on the half-percent general surcharge and whether to extend it. That measure, House Bill 134, would reduce the rail surcharge by half starting in 2017 but it does not set an expiration date.

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