Politics is a numbers game. Rail supporters and opponents are trying to tally votes on the Honolulu City Council, but council members are making calculations of their own for the election.

In the weeks since two Hawaii polls showed the public opinion has turned against the controversial Honolulu rail project, council members — particularly those on the ballot this year — have asked sharper questions and expressed doubts about the future for rail transit.

Lawsuits and the anti-rail mayoral candidacy of Ben Cayetano are among the biggest threats to rail in Honolulu. But the council could make those issues moot before they’re resolved if it votes down a soon-to-be-introduced proposal key to securing federal funds.

A request from the administration to increase the city’s line of credit is in the works, and it’s critical as the city asks the federal government for $1.55 billion. But will the politics of rail’s unpopularity weigh on the minds of council members who have to face voters?

To answer that question and to start to weigh the prospects for the key measure, let’s look at the three council factions when it comes to rail, and how the 2012 election impacts each of them.

Little Pressure On Rail Supporters

Chair Ernie Martin, Breene Harimoto, Stanley Chang and Nestor Garcia are, in some order, the council’s strongest rail supporters.

Martin was quoted in the city’s press release when Mayor Peter Carlisle and HART Finance Chair Don Horner first unveiled the line of credit plan in February. Harimoto joined Carlisle at a press conference to rebut Cayetano’s claims about rail’s impact on future city spending.

Garcia recently reminded everyone that development has for decades been pushed toward Ewa and Kapolei (and away from East Honolulu and Windward Oahu) and that everyone chips in for sewage and water projects that don’t benefit them directly.

Coincidence or not, Martin, Harimoto and Chang were elected in 2010 to their first terms and don’t face re-election until 2014. Garcia is term-limited at the end of this year and has been noncommittal about his political future.

Rail Opponents Facing Voters

On the other side, Tom Berg, Ann Kobayashi and Romy Cachola have been most vocal in their frustration with the direction of the rail system.

Berg’s voted against rail whenever possible and has staked out perhaps the most unyielding position of any council member on any single city issue. Both Kobayashi and Cachola have been slinging arrows for perceived waste of public money, and have repeatedly asked HART to change the rail financial plan to exclude federal bus money.

The two have a history of talking a big game and still voting in favor of the project when the chips are down. But that appears to be changing; Kobayashi told Civil Beat and KHON point-blank she will not support the line-of-credit plan when it hits the council’s desk.

Berg, Kobayashi and Cachola are all expected to be on the ballot come August: Berg and Kobayashi are up for council re-election, and the term-limited Cachola is planning to run for a seat in the Hawaii House of Representatives.

Swing Votes On The Ballot

That leaves Ikaika Anderson and Tulsi Gabbard as the closest things to swing votes on the nine-member body.

Anderson, who represents the heavily anti-rail Windward Oahu district including the Republican stronghold of Kailua, is up for re-election, though no challenger has yet emerged. Gabbard first won her seat in 2010 and doesn’t have a council race this year. But she’s running for Congress against Mufi Hannemann, associated with the polarizing rail project more than any other Hawaii politician. A tougher stance on rail might be a political boon, especially in the rural Oahu and neighbor island areas that make up the district Gabbard’s seeking to represent in Washington.

The races come at a time when rail isn’t just polarizing but unpopular.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now released a poll in February found that 53 percent of those surveyed think rail work should stop versus 43 percent who said it should continue. The Civil Beat Poll of likely Honolulu voters conducted about a month later pegged the split at 55 percent against rail and 34 percent in favor.

Asked about the political challenges of rail’s newfound unpopularity, Anderson said the opposition is nothing new in his Windward Oahu district.

“I am aware of the recent polls done by Civil Beat as well as other media organizations showing that support for rail is dwindling,” he said. “In 2008, my district voted against the Charter amendment, making steel-on-steel part of the Charter. And when I ran in the special election in 2009, I knew that my district voted against rail.”

He said he pledged to uphold the will of the island’s voters despite his constituents’ opposition, and has not done any new internal polling “to see if supporting it, vocally or otherwise, would be detrimental to my re-election chances.” He said that while he has never been either a vocal rail supporter or a vocal rail critic, he’s inclined to continue supporting rail so long as he’s confident that federal funding will come through.

“If it does not, then I will remove my support for the project,” he said.

Anderson wouldn’t commit to a position on the line-of-credit bill, saying he would wait to see it first. He has asked pointed questions about the project’s financial plan, particularly at the budget committee deliberations last month.

He expressed disbelief when then-HART chief Toru Hamayasu said it would be cheaper to build columns now and tear them down rather than idling contractors until federal funding is secure, and told Civil Beat he’s still waiting for that analysis. He also reiterated his argument that using federal bus funds to pay for rail construction (and instead paying for bus maintenance with local money) would amount to an “end-run” around the city ordinance that disallows the city from spending general fund money on the project.

“Honestly, I don’t think that I’ve changed my stand or that I’ve altered my line of questions any in regards to rail since I first got elected to the council in 2009 to now,” Anderson said. “I have remained consistent in asking tough questions in regards to rail.”

Gabbard, however, has definitely sharpened her questions in recent months.

She wouldn’t telegraph her vote on the line of credit bill. In fact, Gabbard postponed and eventually declined an on-the-record interview to discuss her position on rail or why she’s changed the tenor of her inquiries.

Gabbard’s position is critical. Rail opponents would likely be outnumbered at a full council meeting, even with her in the fold, but her stance makes all the difference on the key subcommittee that could stop the line-of-credit proposal in its tracks. Hamayasu said a rejection from the council of the emergency financial option for rail would create a major problem for the city’s federal funding request.

Because it’s a matter of the city’s finances and not just a rail issue, a proposal to increase Honolulu Hale’s credit card limit from $350 million to $450 million would likely be referred to the council’s Budget Committee. Kobayashi is the chair, Gabbard is the vice chair, and Anderson, Cachola and Chang are the other members.

The future of Honolulu rail might come down to which side can count to three. Politics is a numbers game.

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