The latest bill to bail out Honolulu’s woefully over-budget rail transit project has cleared another key hurdle, with the state Senate advancing the measure to the House, where it’s expected to pass handily.
The Senate’s 16-9 final vote Wednesday on Senate Bill 4 leaves a much clearer path for the Legislature’s proposed $2.4 billion funding bill to pass when its weeklong special session ends Friday.
Prior to the vote, opponents vented from the Senate floor that such a giant spending measure would sap valuable dollars from Hawaii’s other pressing issues such as public schools and hospitals, homelessness and affordable housing.
|THE SENATE VOTES
Stanley Chang, Donovan Dela Cruz, Will Espero, Mike Gabbard, Brickwood Galuteria, Les Ihara, Gil Keith-Agaran, Michelle Kidani, Donna Mercado Kim, Clarence Nishihara, Karl Rhoads, Maile Shimabukuro, Jill Tokuda, Glenn Wakai, Ron Kouchi, Brian Taniguchi
Roz Baker, J. Kalani English, Josh Green, Breene Harimoto, Lorraine Inouye, Kaiali’i Kahele, Gil Riviere, Russell Ruderman, Laura Thielen
Supporters, meanwhile, remained steadfast that despite widespread anger from constituents and their own frustration on how rail has been managed, it’s too late to turn back now on Hawaii’s largest-ever public works project.
The system aims to provide commuters, particularly on Oahu’s west side, an alternative to get across the island’s often gridlocked south shore and to spur development along the 20-mile line. But the price has soared in the past three years, and the city lacks the funding to finish the project’s final four and most-challenging miles to Ala Moana Center. Officials currently estimate the system could cost as much as $10 billion, including financing.
“I’m opposed to a Brobdingnagian, budget-busting boondoggle that has become a black hole sucking in” all the money for other state priorities, Sen. Gil Riviere (D, Heeia-Laie-Waialua) said, asserting that he’s not anti-rail but against the current project.
“We need to complete this for the sake of Oahu, Honolulu’s economy and for future generations,” Sen. Will Espero (D, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) said before voting in favor. “Our backs are against the wall.”
Later in the day, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa told House lawmakers that rail’s fiercely debated “stress test,” which would assume a 10 percent increase in capital costs, “has not been called for or even required at this point in time until they see what these legislative bodies pass,” based on a discussion she had Wednesday with Federal Transit Administration acting Executive Director Matthew Welbes.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has clashed with Hana- busa, legislative leaders and his own rail allies over that stress test, and whether SB 4 provides enough funding. On Wednesday, he appeared resigned to the outcome of the special session, which almost certainly will be the passage of SB 4.
“I think the bill should pass. I don’t want the bill to die,” Caldwell said. “I’m hopeful that the numbers and assumptions that have been made in this bill will prove correct, and there will be adequate funding to build all the way to Ala Moana.”
He added that “should there be an issue regarding sufficiency of funds, I think it would be something that would have to be discussed at another day.”
Hanabusa also made it clear she doubts Caldwell’s claim that the money provided may be $600 million to $900 million short of what the city needs to complete construction.
“I can understand why the mayor wants all this money. Why wouldn’t he, if he can convince you to give him money? But please remember, it is the people who have to pay this.”
Hanabusa said the city has control over many of the expenses that Caldwell cited, such as the administrative costs for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation and marketing costs that the city will have to pay.
Nonetheless, the mayor still questioned whether the bill would be enough and expressed concerns that frustrated some House members. “With all due respect, I don’t believe you anymore with costs,” said Rep. Matt LoPresti (D, Ewa Villages-Ocean Pointe-Ewa Beach). “No one believes you anymore.”
The city faces a Sept. 15 deadline to provide its financial solution for rail. In a statement Wednesday, an FTA spokeswoman said the agency would “examine the assumptions made within the financial plan to determine its reasonableness.”
Prior to their vote, some senators voiced concerns about limited public input on the proposal.
Key House and Senate committees held an Aug. 14 joint informational briefing on rail that stretched on for seven hours and included public testimony — but that was before legislators unveiled their deal. After the proposal was drafted, the bill was vetted by the Senate Ways and Means Committee at a five-hour public hearing Monday, and was heard by the House Finance and Transportation committees on Wednesday.
“Among the greatest costs of rail, we can now add the severe degradation of the democratic process. By that I mean this bill was crafted behind closed doors and presented to us with the instructions that there will be no changes before we ever heard from the public,” said Sen. Russell Ruderman (D, Puna-Kau), who voted against SB 4. “We have a major new tax being enacted and we never heard from the public before we wrote the bill.”
Sen. Laura Thielen, who also cast a “no” vote, noted that while the hotel room tax would be increased statewide under the bill, no public hearings were held on the neighbor islands. She added that the weeklong special session was “designed to quash any discussion or debate of alternatives.”
Thielen (D, Hawaii Kai-Waimanalo-Kailua) criticized her colleagues for failing to address dire state needs in plain sight, making reference to a man who has been sleeping on the lawn between the state Capitol and The Queen’s Medical Center for the past few days.
“The irony is every single one of us that drive into this building off of Punchbowl, this entire week we’re driving by an elderly, sick, probably severely mentally ill gentleman, who is lying on the grass slowly dying,” she said. “It’s like a third-world country where we ignore that and we come in here and in a five-day session we pass a bill for $2 billion … and then we walk away.”
Sen. Jill Tokuda noted that the bill lawmakers are advancing during the special session is similar to a bill she supported near the close of the regular session this year. The controversy over that bill in May proved to be a political catalyst that led to the removal of Tokuda as chairwoman of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee.
To provide additional scrutiny of rail expenses, lawmakers included a new requirement in the bill that the city must pay rail project vendors, and then submit requests to the state for reimbursements from the excise surcharge and hotel room tax revenue.
House panels give OK
After the morning vote in the Senate, lawmakers with the House Finance and Transportation committees held a joint public hearing on SB 4 Wednesday afternoon, and easily approved the measure.
The vote in the House Finance Committee was 8-6 in favor of the measure, with Reps. Romy Cachola (D, Sand Island-Kalihi-Airport), Lynn DeCoite (D, Lanai-Molokai-Paia-Hana), Bert Kobayashi (D, Diamond Head- Kaimuki-Kapahulu), Nicole Lowen (D, Holualoa-Kailua- Kona-Honokohau), Gene Ward (R, Kalama Valley- Queen’s Gate-Hawaii Kai) and Andria Tupola (R, Kalaeloa-Ko Olina-Maili) voting against the measure. Rep. Beth Fukumoto (D, Mililani-Mililani Mauka-Waipio Acres) was absent.
The transportation committee voted 4-2 in favor of the bill, with Reps. Sean Quinlan (D, Waialua-Kahuku- Waiahole) and Tom Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kaka- ako) voting against it. Rep. Mark Hashem (D, Hahaione Valley-Aina Haina-Kahala) was absent.
The measure now goes to the full House for a procedural floor vote today, and what is expected to be a final floor vote on Friday.
Star-Advertiser reporters Nanea Kalani and Kevin Dayton contributed to this report.