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Council committee to tackle proposed extension of rail tax

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Discussion on a bill extending the 0.5 percent excise tax surcharge for rail on Oahu through the end of 2027 will be heard by a Honolulu City Council committee in the coming weeks, Council Chairman Ernie Martin said Wednesday.

“It’s a matter of finding an available date” when Council members can convene, he said. The Legislative Matters Committee is chaired by Martin and consists of all nine Council members. Unlike other committees, which meet on a monthly basis, Legislative Matters meets at the request of Council members.

Martin, who has historically supported the rail project, as have nearly all other current Council members, said that given recent news about the escalating cost of the now $6 billion project, he is not certain that Bill 23 will make it out of the Legislative Matters Committee.

“I don’t know if it can get out of committee, to tell you the truth,” Martin said. “There’s so much adverse publicity about it that, you know, there’s no guarantee.”

After announcing this summer that the total price tag for the rail project could increase by as much as $910 million, Honolulu Authority for Rail Transit officials said several weeks ago that it could rise by an additional $210 million.

“I think, without doubt, the members are extremely disappointed with respect to these deficits that we’ve encountered, significant deficits so early in the game,” Martin said. Council members “want assurances that there’s some finality to the deficits we are facing, given that we’re less than 30 percent into the project. … How much larger is that deficit going to grow?”

Martin said among the ideas that may be brought up could be a proposal to shorten the length of the rail line, which is now slated to run 20 miles from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center.

The surcharge currently is scheduled to end in 2022. But earlier this year, at the urging of city officials who said additional funding is needed, the state Legislature approved a five-year extension.

In related news, city Corporation Counsel Donna Leong filed a brief Wednesday asking for dismissal of a lawsuit seeking to halt the rail project. Filed by Campbell Estate heiress Abigail Kawananakoa, the lawsuit questions the validity of votes cast by six current or former Council members on key bills and resolutions tied to the rail project.

It seeks new votes on the bills and resolutions in question.

The lawsuit points out that Chuck Totto, executive director of the city Ethics Commission, has stated that votes made by former Council members Romy Cachola and Nestor Garcia should not have counted because both had failed to disclose before voting that they had received gifts from lobbyists who would benefit from various developments, including rail.

Cachola, in agreeing to pay fines, said at least four other current or former Council members accepted similar gifts and did not disclose them.

Leong, in her filing Wednesday, said the court should dismiss the case and allow the Ethics Commission the opportunity to follow through on its investigations into the other four — current members Ikaika Anderson and Ann Kobayashi, and former members Todd Apo and Donovan Dela Cruz.

“The Hawaii Supreme Court has recognized the clear benefits to the public from the existence of the city’s standards of conduct,” Leong said in a statement. “However, the court has said that enforcement of those standards nevertheless does not lie with the courts, but with the Ethics Commission.”

Martin told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Wednesday that he expects the commission to take up the investigations into the four other Council members in private meetings soon.

Ethics Commission officials could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

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