Mayor Peter Carlisle in his State of the City Speech Thursday cast Honolulu’s rail project as a choice between the future and the past.

While he promised honesty, transparency and fiscal responsibility, he didn’t address perhaps the most important question as contractors prepare to begin actual construction next month.

That is one raised by opponents in a press release this week:

“Why is the City rushing to spend billions of local taxpayer dollars before first finding out (1) whether any of the requested $1.55 billion in federal funds will actually be approved by Congress, (2) how Judge Tashima will decide the federal lawsuit later this year, and (3) whether the voters ofHonolulu will elect as their next mayor someone who has announced his intent to stop the rail project regardless of how far it has progressed by the time of his election?” 

Clearly, there’s no need for the city to wait to see who’s elected mayor. Nor does it need to wait for a decision by a judge. If governments did either, they would be frozen.

But he should explain how pouring millions into the project before knowing it has the money fits with his commitment to fiscal responsibility. Perhaps it does. But the city hasn’t made clear what its options are if it doesn’t get the $1.55 billion it’s counting on from the federal government. All indications are that it will get the money, but we’ve seen earmarks go out the window and we know the political scene in Washington is volatile. This question is something Carlisle should address if he’s going to live up to his commitment to honesty, transparency and fiscal responsibility.

The following is a quick examination of the key points he did make.

  • Rail “will reduce the amount of cars on the road that run on fossil fuel.” Actually, Civil Beat has examined that and the number of cars that will be removed is negligible. It’s a weak argument for the project, especially as the first argument

  • Rail will “reduce our pollution and dependence on foreign oil.” Again, the electricity to power rail will largely be generated by foreign oil. As for reducing pollution, the effect is questionable. Here’s what a national opponent of rail, Randal O’Toole, has to say about the issue: Does Rail Transit Save Energy or Reduce CO2 Emissions?

  • “Without significant traffic alternatives for the West side, people will look for and demand other places to live.” Even with a significant traffic alternative for the West side, people will still look for and demand other places to live. Not everyone is going to want to live in “transit oriented development,” read higher density development. Decisions about where growth will occur will be controlled in part by political decisions, not just by transportation.

  • “The rail system is designed to allow the areas from Kapolei to the urban core to accommodate our island’s expected population growth.” This is the argument that the public will opt for the transit-oriented development that is hoped will come with rail. Will that be what the public wants? I’ve seen it be the case in other places. There’s no question that people want to live near rail lines if they provide good service. He’s right that a ribbon of steel can be a magnet for development.

  • “Unless we want more growth everywhere else on the island, we must provide rail transit for people along the corridor.” This is the there’s-no-alternative-to-rail approach. The lawsuit challenging the project questions whether all alternatives were considered. Could there have been an another way to provide transportation for people along the corridor, more effectively and at a lower cost? Opponents say yes. Carlisle still acts as if that question has been asked and answered.

  • “We in the city are not doing a good job helping you discern what is accurate. You deserve the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” But the mayor didn’t explain what the city would do differently to make sure that happened. He did, however, go on to give a number of milestones for the project.

  • “Honolulu has successfully progressed to this point.” The mayor cited a list of achievements, which were accurate. While obstacles remain, the city has come a long way.

  • Then he made perhaps his most important point, one that picked up on his future and past theme. “To the naysayers and critics, I ask, ‘What do you have to offer these workers in the next seven years if we have to start all over again?’ And, ‘What do you have to offer the commuters from the West side, who in seven years would have a completed project?’” This is the if-not-this-then-what approach. Some opponents say they’re for rail, but not this elevated rail line. They want it on grade in the urban core, for example. Others argue for managed lanes, dedicated for buses and other vehicles that might be willing to pay for faster travel. They argue that approach wasn’t given adequate consideration in the alternatives study.

  • Carlisle concluded by saying the project was more than one project. He said it would protect “our agricultural land.” That’s true to a point. But rail will eat farm land. The Hawaii Land Use Commission is currently hearing a proposal that would take about 1,500 acres of the island’s best agricultural land and convert it for use for about 12,000 homes. The Hoopili project would be served by the rail line.

  • Rail is about “preserving the character of our island for future generations,” he said. However opponents say that rail would forever alter the character of the island, negatively.

In the end, he said it’s either “back to square one” or building rail. He made clear in no uncertain terms where he stands. The question in the mayoral race will be whether the voters stand with him or with his leading opponent, former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who’s as adamant in his opposition to the project as Carlisle is in his support.

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