Cast net wider for rail funding
The news from the feds was disappointing, but not unexpected. Officials of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation said they had been receiving signals for sometime, that the $1.55 billion in federal subsidy for the 20-mile elevated-rail construction likely was all Uncle Sam would be sending for the “new start” project.
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The news from the feds was disappointing, but not unexpected. Officials of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation said they had been receiving signals for some time, that the $1.55 billion in federal subsidy for the 20-mile elevated-rail construction likely was all Uncle Sam would be sending for the “new start” project.
So when that word was underscored in this week’s discussions with the Federal Transit Administration, HART and city officials could not be surprised.
But the confirmation of the federal stance seems to have dissolved the opposition to spending more money on the project. That was one of the core contentions of mayoral candidate Charles Djou, who has seen FTA’s writing on the wall and has reversed his position: he now supports completion of the $8 billion project to Ala Moana Center, as planned.
Now the debate, during the campaign season and beyond, must focus on conceiving a revised plan for completion that draws on a variety of community resources, public and private.
In addition to the refusal to provide a federal bailout, another door slammed shut when the FTA nixed an option for bringing the increasingly costly project within budgetary bounds — ending the rail line 5 miles short of the planned terminus, at the Middle Street station.
That “solution” would not yield an acceptable project within the federal parameters. So the city would not get the full $1.55 billion it was counting on, and would fall even further behind its budgetary goals.
Heads are now turning to the state, with hands outstretched for help. It seems all but certain the state will play some role in the project’s “recovery plan” in the final analysis. But city and HART officials must not rely on a gimme-more strategy alone.
Those officials must start now to seek out other ways of bringing supplemental financing into the pot. And that should happen well before any overtures are made early next year to state lawmakers, who have long telegraphed their hesitance to ride to the rescue.
There does seem to be a chink in the armor. Gov. David Ige has indicated in recent public statements some willingness to discuss an adjustment in the “skim” the state takes from tax revenue earmarked for rail.
This is the 10 percent of the half-percentage point added onto the state general excise tax on Oahu, which is reserved by statute as revenue for the city’s rail project. Ever since the GET surcharge was added to Oahu transactions a decade ago, the state has been skimming off 10 percent as an administrative fee.
That was marginally excusable in the early days of the surcharge but should have been sharply reduced long ago. But the Legislature has been tapping the revenue for its own budgetary programs ever since and has been loath to give it up.
Now that the governor seems willing to broach the subject, however, state lawmakers should be willing to do so, too. And pressure is mounting for a renewed discussion about extending the authorization of the tax even beyond the five-year extension approved in 2015.
But the city owes the state’s elected officials and taxpayers some straight talk, too — detailed, reality-based projections of costs, to begin with. If this had been provided before the current crisis point, the state might have been more inclined to reassess its own position on the project.
Above all, in the next several months the city has to pull together inventive plans on public-private partnerships that could help reduce the costs of the remaining rail-station construction work.
It was to encourage
development that the
transit-oriented development land-use rules were adopted, and some developers are already trying to seize the opportunity to capture some of the benefit.
They should participate in shouldering the expense, though. In particular, the stops planned for the City Center would yield tremendous real-estate value to developers planning projects alongside the rail alignment. Part of the community benefits assessed of them should be a share of rail-station costs.
This planning should include real commitments — and a resolve by City Council members and the new administration to insist on them.
Only if the city shows it’s serious about alternative planning to rescue this project will the state be willing to meet it halfway. As headache-inducing as this project has been, it remains essential to the transportation system for the state’s metropolitan core.
And both city and state authorities, as well as the private sector set to benefit, bear responsibility to deliver on the promise.