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State lawmakers vow to hold special session on rail within next 2 months

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    Construction workers in March work on the Honolulu rail line near Leeward Community College.

Lawmakers haven’t yet agreed on the details, but leaders in the state House and Senate announced today that they plan to hold a special session this summer to try to resolve their impasse over how to provide more funding for the city’s 20-mile rail project.

Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki sent a joint letter to Federal Transit Administration Executive Director Max Welbes today promising to convene the special session in July or August.

They said no specific dates have been set for the session and no funding mechanism has been agreed upon.

“After working with members of our federal delegation, it was deemed necessary and prudent to assure the FTA that the Legislature recognizes and understands the requirements under the Full Funding Grant Agreement between the City and County of Honolulu and the FTA,” according to a statement from Kouchi and Saiki.

Lawmakers were divided over how to fund the city’s rail project, which is vastly over-budget and is now expected to cost about $10 billion including interest. The FTA has pledged to provide $1.55 billion in federal funding for the project.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell this year asked lawmakers to extend the half-percent general excise tax surcharge that is now scheduled to end in 2027 to bail out the project, but lawmakers could not agree on a bill to provide more funding for rail during the regular legislature session that ended on May 4.

Caldwell has said he plans to press lawmakers for a new rail funding agreement that could be ratified in the special session.

The rail issue dominated the entire legislative session, but the House and Senate deadlocked over whether to extend the half-percent excise surcharge on Oahu for rail as the city requested, or try another approach to fund rail that involved an increase in the state’s hotel room tax.

Lawmakers and Gov. David Ige have said there is little point in holding a special session until lawmakers have reached an agreement on how to continue funding rail, so the timing for the session likely will depend on lawmakers’ private negotiations over the rail issue.

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