Voters’ decisions on six charter amendment questions will shape the way Honolulu manages its operations. The first ballot question has generated the most attention because it pertains to the city’s rail transit plan.

The amendment would create a semi-autonomous agency that would have the power to set fares, buy and sell land, make contracts and issue revenue bonds pertaining to the rail project. Critics argue that the agency would have too much independence from the City Council.

Here’s what you’ll read when you vote:

“Shall the Revised City Charter be amended to create a semi-autonomous public transit authority responsible for the planning, construction, operation, maintenance, and expansion of the City’s fixed guideway mass transit system?”

As listed in the question, above, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) would be responsible for:

  • Planning
  • Construction
  • Operation
  • Maintenance
  • Expansion

It’s a straightforward list that carries with it some serious and complex responsibilities.

As it stands, the city’s director of the transportation services department, Wayne Yoshioka, is charged with supervising transportation systems in that capacity.

If passed, this charter amendment would transfer those directorial duties to a 10-member transit authority board, and any staffers currently in the department’s rapid transit division would instead work for HART.

“It is configured in a way so that the rapid transit division would not be part of my department any more,” Yoshioka said. “I think it’s a good thing. My department would get smaller, and it allows (transit division staffers) to focus on their primary activity, which would be to build the rail.”

Yoshioka said the separation from the rest of the department would make it easy for the public to track costs and spending on rail.

“As a semi-autonomous authority, the finances are isolated,” Yoshioksa said. “They’re not mixed in with everything else.”

But transit division finances are already parsed out in Yoshioka’s departmental budget: “Every single line in the budget, how much we spend on office supplies and everything,” he said.

It appears one of the most significant changes would be the City Council’s involvement. Specifically, the transit authority would make and execute contracts and labor agreements. It would be able to enter into agreements with public and private agencies as it sees fit.

HART would also establish all fares, fees and charges for the rail line. It would oversee and manage all financial accounts pertaining to the line, and develop corresponding operating and capital budgets each year.

“I always thought the transit authority was alright, and I voted for it, but we’re talking about very large sums of money,” said Honolulu City Councilmember Ann Kobayashi, who is a vocal rail skeptic. “This is the largest project ever, and I worry about transparency.”

The new agency would still have to filter some of its decisions through the City Council. For example, it would have the power to purchase land for the rail line after notifying the council. The City Council would have 45 days to draft and approve a resolution objecting to the property acquisition, if it chooses.

The authority may also recommend to the City Council the sale of real property — all proceeds would go to the authority, to be used on the rail line. Further, it would be responsible for promoting transit-oriented development projects near the fixed guideway system. The agency’s purview would not extend beyond the rail project — for example, oversight of TheBus — without another charter amendment.

The authority would be charged with seeking federal assistance through grants, and would be allowed to issue revenue bonds, subject to council approval.

“I think elected officials want accountability, especially with a visible project like this,” Yoshioka said. “They want to help but they get too much involved maybe. With (a transit authority), there’s less detail to the council but all that detail shows up in the annual report but it’s not intermingled with everything.”

At least one city councilmember said the distance from the council that a semi-autonomous agency promises worries her.

“Whenever we spend taxpayers’ money, then there should always be a check and balances,” City Councilmember Ann Kobayashi said. “Because now the transit fund is still in the city budget, which goes through the City Council. There’s that check and balance. But the letting of the contracts and how the money’s being spent would be decided by the transit authority. And it always comes down to who the people on the board are.”

Driving the Train

HART would be made up of 10 board members — nine voting members and one non-voting member — as follows:

  • State Department of Transportation director
  • City Department of Transportation Services director
  • City Department of Planning and Permitting director (non-voting member)
  • Board member appointed by mayor
  • Board member appointed by mayor
  • Board member appointed by mayor
  • Board member appointed by City Council
  • Board member appointed by City Council
  • Board member appointed by City Council
  • A tenth board member will be appointed by the eight voting board members

The board would choose its own executive director, and would have the right to remove that person after appointing him or her. Board members would be required to file an annual performance evaluation to the mayor and the City Council about its executive director, and about the authority’s overall activities. All board members would be considered part-time staffers.

If Honolulu voters opt for the creation of a transit authority, one of its first tasks will be to develop a six-year capital program. That has to happen within the first six months of the authority’s existence.

It’s a lot of responsibility for 10 people, but there are external checks and balances built into the charter amendment. In addition to required annual reports filed by the authority, tan annual financial evaluation by a certified public accountant — paid with the authority’s funds – would also be mandatory.

But anytime the agency would want to expand the rail line — or make alterations to the line as it’s planned thus far – the charter question specifies that the authority must seek council approval for “any new alignment, extension or addition to the fixed guideway system.”

Comparisons with the Honolulu Board of Water Supply

Yoshioka said the authority would operate much like the semi-autonomous Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which split off from what was then the city’s Sewer and Water Commission in 1929.

Kobayashi said, even with these checks and balances built in, comparisons to the Board of Water Supply maker her nervous.

“The Board of Water Supply, I don’t know what goes on there because a lot of what they do doesn’t need Council approval or public hearings,” Kobayashi said.

The Board of Water Supply does have public meetings, though, and some open records.

“The biggest difference (compared to city agencies) is that we are financially self-sufficient because we rely not on taxpayer dollars but water rates that we charge,” Board of Water Supply spokesman Kurt Tsu said. “Our operations are financed by the revenues we generate through fees, and federal and state grants. That’s the primary difference. We do work very closely with the city in our operations.”

Tsu said he’s “not aware,” of any downside to – or complaints about – the Board of Water Supply’s semi-autonomy. City officials associated with the rail project are similarly optimistic about the vision for HART.

City officials aren’t allowed to advocate or lobby for the creation of the authority, but many of them say it’s a natural move given that many cities with rail systems oversee them in a similar capacity. Kobayashi challenges that assumption.

“Other transit authorities around the country are there because they (have transit systems that) go between jurisdictions, different counties or even between states,” Kobayashi said. “But here, we’re only going 20 miles.”

DISCUSSION Do you think the city should create a transit authority? Join the conversation about rail in Honolulu.

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