Richard Borreca: City’s big idea of rail transit creates big money pit that next mayor will need to fill
Now is the time for the 2020 candidates for Honolulu mayor to spell out their solutions.
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It was Daniel Burnham, American architect and urban planner, who first advised: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
It is one of my favorite quotes, but in the case of Honolulu, it doesn’t cover the rest of the story.
When those big plans are drawn, their execution demands more than high hopes; someone has to pay for them.
Today Honolulu appears to be paying for it. Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s legacy project of turning the Neal
Blaisdell Center into a revitalization of a Honolulu arts and cultural district at a cost of almost $1 billion just dissolved in the face of mounting bills for rail.
When former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann convinced the Legislature
to allow the city to raise
Oahu’s state general excise tax to pay for a 20-mile
elevated rail line, it was a
big plan with a big bill. If you search back to 2006 you can find reports of Hannemann
estimating rail to cost
Yes, it was a state tax increase, but it was going to the city. The important catch was, if more money was needed, the city would pay.
Now Caldwell finds that his big plans are not so much stirring the taxpayers’ blood as breaking the bank.
Two years ago, state House leaders warned Caldwell he couldn’t afford both trains and concerts. Caldwell shot back, claiming the city has lots of ways to get money.
“Funding for the Neal S. Blaisdell Center Master Plan and construction of the rail project come from completely different sources. Any attempt to confuse the public regarding these separate funding sources does a disservice to our community,” Caldwell said.
Those two pots apparently both had holes in them, because economics have now forced Caldwell to cross out his legacy culture-and-arts project, admitting that no money means no money.
“Given that the final construction cost is yet unknown for the last 4.16 miles of our rail system and the City’s financial responsibilities for the operations of the upcoming rail service, in addition to a new administration and City Council starting in less than one year, we decided that it is a logical time to pause the project,” Caldwell said of his Blaisdell plan.
The slippage has been astounding. Back in 2014, Bloomberg News reported Honolulu rail’s first trips were planned for 2017, and the $5.2 billion rail project was expected to reduce congestion by 18%. Rail is now at more than $9 billion and climbing, while no one knows when the project will be complete, except that it is sometime after 2025.
Now is the time for the 2020 candidates for Honolulu mayor to spell out their solutions. Do they stop rail at Middle Street or plow on with the route to Ala Moana shopping center?
Or is there time to change the route? Given the decade of poor performance and misleading city answers, the candidates need to address the rail crisis with reality and honesty.