The latest Hawaii Poll by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser suggests a majority of likely Oahu voters want the city’s rail project to reach Ala Moana Center but are reluctant to pay more taxes to do so.
A clear majority of those polled oppose extending the Oahu-only general excise tax surcharge for rail construction beyond 2027, and they are even less supportive of paying more property taxes to fund it.
But by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, those polled also said they want the rail line to stretch from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center as proposed, a scenario Mayor Kirk Caldwell and other city officials say won’t happen unless either the surcharge is extended an additional 10 years or property taxes go up.
One in four respondents said construction on the $10 billion rail line should be halted immediately.
The poll results come at a key point in the project’s timeline. City officials said they need this year’s state Legislature to extend the GET surcharge at least 10 years, until 2037, to complete the project. They warn that without the extension, property taxes across the board would need to increase by 8 to 14 percent starting next year to get the rail to Ala Moana.
With the bill expected to go into conference committee proceedings where the Senate and House hash out their differences, city officials are hoping the lawmakers will take another look at a 10-year extension.
The city won a five-year extension, to 2027, from legislators two years ago and was warned by some lawmakers not to come back. Meanwhile, the estimated project cost has skyrocketed to $10 billion from $5.26 billion in late 2014.
Caldwell said the results of the Hawaii Poll validate his argument.
“The vast majority of the people of this island, the taxpayers of this island, support building rail all the way to Ala Moana Center — all 20 miles, 21 stations,” he said.
Current funding will get construction to Middle Street, but most people don’t want it to end there, he said. City officials have repeatedly told state lawmakers that they need the 10-year extension to reach Ala Moana, and that stopping at Middle Street would not bring in enough riders to make the project viable.
The House version of Senate Bill 1183 gives the city only a two-year extension, through 2029. It also cuts the state’s collection fee to 1 percent of the money collected from the current 10 percent. Together, the plan would net the city about $2.1 billion, about what the city said it needs to build to Ala Moana, House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke has reasoned.
The version passed by the Senate earlier this session is even less palatable to the city. It provides no extension of the surcharge but eliminates the state’s skim altogether.
City officials say the House version isn’t going to provide enough money because it doesn’t factor in between $1.4 billion and $2 billion in debt service on bonds that are needed for the project to maintain cash flow in the next few years when the greatest costs are being incurred.
Cliff Slater, chairman of the anti-rail group HonoluluTraffic.com, said more than 25 percent of the people he’s spoken to want construction stopped immediately.
If the poll asked respondents if they would still support the project going to Ala Moana even if it meant more taxes, a lot less than 64 percent would still support it, Slater said. “It’s a pity the two questions weren’t put together,” he said.
Slater and other rail opponents say the ultimate project cost will be closer to $13 billion and that the city’s ridership projections, which they dispute, don’t take enough cars off the road to justify it. “It’s a question of whether they want to pay $4 billion (to stop the project) or $13 billion,” he said.
Council Chairman Ron Menor disagreed and said a majority of residents would prefer to see the project built to Ala Moana, even if it means extending the surcharge.
No one wants to pay more taxes of any kind, he said, but extending the excise tax is preferable to raising property taxes. “The reality is the city needs to come up with a funding mechanism to extend the rail line to Ala Moana,” he said.
Poll respondent and Honolulu resident Kevin Benavente, 22, said he reluctantly supports a GET surcharge extension. Rising costs are typical with big projects, he said. “It’s not my first choice, but whatever it takes to get the rail completed (to Ala Moana) at this point,” he said. “It just needs to be done.”
A clinical researcher at The Queen’s Medical Center, Benavente said that as a one-time Waipahu resident, he knows what it’s like to be stuck in traffic. The line needs to stretch to Ala Moana to help the visitor industry, he said.
But Kalihi resident Craig Ihara, 65, said he’s seen enough. Ihara said he gets excellent service riding TheBus five days a week to his job as a general cleaner for a Waikiki hotel and believes the city should just look at expanding TheBus. Rail wouldn’t help his daily commute because he’d have to ride a bus to it, ride the train, and then get on another bus to reach his destination.
Kaneohe resident Fred den Haan, an 86-year-old retiree, said construction has progressed to the point that it would be ridiculous to stop it now, he said. “A half cent doesn’t hurt that much, and everybody is already paying it,” den Haan said.
Diamond Head resident Susan Yamada said, “I don’t mind supporting rail” because West Oahu residents need transportation options. It was OK when the project cost $5 billion and the federal government was chipping in $1.55 billion of it, she said. But with every estimate showing the price tag continuing to climb since then, the University of Hawaii employee said she’s opposed to both a surcharge extension and more property taxes.
“I have no faith, at this point, that $10 billion is to be what it’s going to cost at the end of the day, absolutely no faith,” she said.
The poll was conducted for the Star-Advertiser by Ward Research Inc. April 3-8 on cellphones and landlines and included 401 likely primary voters on Oahu. The margin of error is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
Public poll on RAIL by Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Scribd