In coming months, the Honolulu City Council will undergo significant changes. With two resignations and three expired terms, the council will say goodbye to the majority — five — of its nine members.

The new makeup of the city’s legislative body will have implications for projects that aim to drastically alter Honolulu’s infrastructure, from the rail line that’s planned to run above city streets, to the sewage system that’s piped beneath them.

Council members will be required to issue special permits for rail construction to begin. They’ll have to approve a budget that outlines what kinds of sewage-fee hikes Honolulu residents will shoulder. They’ll also usher in a new era of city leadership, approving or rejecting Mayor-elect Peter Carlisle’s picks for city leadership.

Of the city’s two major multibillion-dollar capital projects on the docket, Honolulu’s sewage infrastructure overhaul is arguably more straightforward — if only because it is federally mandated as part of a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The future of rail appears murkier. While voters voiced their support for a steel-on-steel system in a 2008 ballot question, the rail debate hasn’t quieted since then. Now, the changing City Council will in turn shape the way the project moves forward.

A Changing City Council

District 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Leaving Todd Apo Donovan Dela Cruz Lee Donohue Rod Tam Gary Okino
Staying Ikaika Anderson Ann Kobayashi Romy Cachola Nestor Garcia

Nearly a year has passed since city officials said they would break ground on the rail line in October 2009, and the project’s opponents continue to speak out against it.

“For as much of the talk that’s going on, is something going to stop it?” City Council Chairman Todd Apo asked. “I don’t think so. But we need to continue to have the kind of attention we’ve had, making sure that it gets done correctly.”

Not everyone is as confident as the chairman, who’s leaving his post in November to take a job with Disney’s Aulani Resort & Spa.

In a rare admission of uncertainty about the rail plan’s future, acting Mayor Kirk Caldwell said recently that the new City Council could conceivably put a stop to rail. The City Council in 2006 approved the rail plan with a 7-2 vote. But even some councilors who supported it have said they have increasing doubts about the project.

“Of course I was the one who passed the thing, but you have to understand that at that time, the money we were talking about was way less,” said Councilmember Romy Cachola, who’s remaining in his seat. “It was about $3 billion. By November 2008, it was $3.7 billion and now it’s about $5.5 to $5.7 billion.”

The majority of returning City Councilors and City Council candidates characterize their concerns about the project as financial in nature. High cost is a worry in and of itself, but many also cite uncertainty over how Honolulu is going to pay for the project in the first place.

The FTA has told the city its financial plan needs to be strengthened. The federal agency’s next assessment of Honolulu’s financial readiness for the project will be released in February 2011. In the meantime, the project’s finances are undergoing independent scrutiny by the governor’s office, which must approve the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the project to go forward.

“I’m hoping we can get an indication from the governor as far as what she’s doing,” Doug Chin, incoming managing director for Mayor-elect Peter Carlisle, told Civil Beat in an interview. “I understand when people say they want to be sure we’re financially capable. Even though we’re supposedly in recovery as an economy, I don’t think it’s necessarily getting better in the next year or two as far as the fiscal state of the city is concerned.”

City transit officials explain that lower-than-expected revenue is offset by lower-than-expected costs, both of which can be traced back to the recession.

In tracking the evolving financial projections associated with the rail plan, the City Council has also repeatedly complained about a lack of transparency about finances from the administration.

“The financial plan is a public document, so everyone knows what’s there and has access to it,” Apo said. “The frustration has been getting some of the detailed information and background on the results and conclusions of the financial plan.”

In some cases, though, complaints about lacking transparency can be seen as a red herring raised by those who seek to halt or significantly alter the project.

“I think everyone recognizes that at least some of the complaints and issues that were raised were politically motivated to an extent,” Apo said. “It’s also necessary to balance having the information against allowing the administration to go through a process without fear that they will be attacked and crucified for trying to find creative ways of looking things. You need to lean more toward transparency but you don’t want to create a situation where you prevent some good ideas from being shared.”

As current City Council members continue to wrestle with some of these issues, candidates who seek to fill council vacancies have the potential to change the council’s overall tone on rail. The current council varies in its positions on the project, but with a majority in strong support of it. That may not be the case in the coming months.

Current Councilmembers on Rail

District 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Strong support Apo Dela Cruz Donohue* Okino Garcia
Some concerns Anderson Rod Tam
Serious concerns Djou* Kobayashi Cachola

*Charles Djou left the City Council when he was elected to Congress in a May special election. Former Honolulu Police Chief Lee Donohue was appointed to fill his seat, and is not seeking re-election.

Incoming Council Member Breene Harimoto won an uncontested race in District 8. In a Civil Beat questionnaire, Harimoto outlined his strong belief in rail and transit-oriented development, writing, “the decision on rail has been made.” But Harimoto is not unwavering in his support for the project.

“I have deep concerns regarding the finances,” Harimoto wrote. “I pledge to scrutinize the financial plans from a policy perspective.”

It’s still unclear who will take Apo’s District 1 seat — a special election is expected sometime after the November general election — but there are close battles in three other districts.

District 2

Councilmember Donovan Dela Cruz — a strong advocate for rail — is term limited and is now running for the state Senate after dropping out of the mayoral race.

Candidates Ernie Martin and John White are facing off to fill Dela Cruz’s seat.

White earned 37.5 percent of the vote in the Sept. 18 primary, edging Martin’s 30.3 percent. Like Dela Cruz, both candidates express strong support for the rail plan.

“I support rail, and I’m confident that the money is there,” White said. “Here’s the challenge: Rail will not be a reality if we don’t build it on time and on budget. [City Council members] are the check to the administration and our job is to oversee and ensure that contracts being let out are appropriate, fair and reasonable. We can’t pad contracts with extra fat. My commitment to rail is really on that end. If we don’t do that, rail will not happen.”

Martin is similarly straightforward in his rail support.

“Across the country, rail transit ridership is growing despite criticism by opponents about its costs,” Martin wrote in his questionnaire for Civil Beat. “Dollar for dollar – doing nothing will be a greater cost to future generations and to the future of this island.”

District 4

For eight years, Charles Djou was the council’s face of rail opposition in his District 4 post. When he won a special Congressional election in May, the City Council appointed former Honolulu Police Chief Lee Donohue to serve the remainder of his term. But he is not seeking re-election.

Stanley Chang and Rich Turbin are battling for Donohue’s seat in what appears to be the closest City Council race. Chang, who won the Sept. 18 primary with 34.2 percent of the vote, has his mind made up in support of rail.

“I think we do need a rail transit system,” Chang said. “I’ve spoken with Don Horner of the Hawaii Business Roundtable, and he’s run the numbers and feels good about them. In 1992, a similar line would have cost $1.7 billion. If we wait until 2020, 2030, are we looking at $20 billion? $30 billion? None of the costs are going to go down in the future. That being said, do we need a watchdog on the city council? Absolutely, absolutely.”

Runner-up Turbin got 31.8 percent of voters’ support, and isn’t sold on the city’s rail plan.

“I think it needs to be seriously tweaked.” Turbin said. “I have some reservations in the sense that I don’t think the best technology is being used. We should be using state-of-the-art light rail. It’s commonly used, it’s high-tech, it’s wonderful, it’s flexible, you can take it up, down and underground. Heavy rail seems like an antiquated system, and I just feel that the system that (former Mayor) Mufi (Hannemann) and the City Council voted on was kind of rammed through without having enough discussion and without discussing much better options.”

District 6

After a failed bid for mayor, Councilmember Rod Tam is leaving his post due to term limits, and former state Rep. Tulsi Tamayo is the front-runner in the runoff following the September primary. Tamayo earned 26.8 percent of the vote compared to Sesnita Moepono’s 16.4 percent finish. In her response to a Civil Beat questionnaire, Tamayo made her support for the rail project clear.

“Through the ballot box, the people have spoken in support of the rail,” Tamayo wrote. “Mass transit has been debated and talked about for decades. Now is the time to move forward.”

Moepono emphasized the importance of rail helping create jobs, but raised more questions in her questionnaire response.

“I am concerned that if there is not enough money to fund the project then the County will have to raise real property taxes,” Moepono wrote. “I am concerned given the unmet projections where the money will come to offset the shortfall. I don’t know if it will really attract riders and ease traffic congestion. I am supportive of a rail-transit project that won’t bankrupt our county.”

Future Councilmembers and Candidates on Rail

District 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Strong support Apo* Martin and White Chang Tamayo Garcia
Some concerns Anderson Turbin Moepono Harimoto
Serious concerns Kobayashi Cachola

*Todd Apo is resigning Nov. 8. A special election has yet to be scheduled.

The person who fills Apo’s seat could tip the balance of the council on rail. Through the lens of the rail project, the most drastic change could be the shift from a council that largely stood behind the rail project, to one with a majority that has at least some reservations about it.

Even the strongest rail critics on the council — such as Councilmember Ann Kobayashi — don’t tend to characterize their positions as out-and-out opposition. A popular stance from rail opponents goes something like this: I’m all for rail, I’m just against this rail project.

While an elected official may describe his or her stances in shades of gray, the eventual votes that will govern how rail moves forward are black and white: Aye or nay.

About the Author