Mayor Peter Carlisle unveiled his proposed budget Wednesday and made one particularly Fact Checkable claim regarding Honolulu’s planned rail transit project.

“The goal was to take it out of the hands of people who are intimately involved in the political process… and hopefully into an independent authority with people who have appropriate expertise,” Carlisle said. “The transit will be separate from the city starting July 1, 2011.”

The mayor is referring to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART), a yet-to-be-established agency with the power to set fares for rail, buy and sell land, make contracts and issue revenue bonds for the project. The unelected 10-members of the authority will have substantial power in overseeing construction and operation. An amendment establishing the authority was approved by an overwhelming majority of voters in the 2010 general election.

But will HART actually be independent of city government?

Not entirely.

Board Membership

The first evidence that the authority will have ties to city government is the makeup of its members.

As stipulated in the amendment, of the 10 members (nine of whom can vote), two will be in the mayor’s Cabinet.

The amendment says: “The state director of transportation and the city director of transportation services shall be ex officio voting members of the board. The (city) director of the Department of Planning and Permitting shall be the ex officio non-voting member of the board. The ex officio members of the board shall not be subject to any term limit.”

So, Carlisle’s director of the Transportation Services Department, Wayne Yoshioka, will (assuming he remains in office) be a voting member of the board. The other city director, David Tanoue, of the Planning and Permitting Department, while not having voting privileges, would still presumably carry clout.

Also, the mayor himself appoints three other voting members. And while – theoretically – the appointees will be independent of the mayor’s oversight, it seems reasonable to assume Carlisle would appoint members that agree with his transit perspective. What mayor wouldn’t?

When all is said and done, 44 percent of the authority’s voting members will be individuals either in the mayor’s Cabinet or appointed by the man himself. If you include the non-voting member, the figure is 50 percent.

Does that seem “independent” to you?

The Authority’s Powers

In the amendment, there is a list of the general powers of the authority.

Under 2 (a) of the “Powers, Duties, and Functions” segment, the amendment says HART has the ability: “To acquire by eminent domain, purchase, lease or otherwise, in the name of the city, all real property or any interest therein necessary for the construction, maintenance, repair, extension or operation of the fixed guideway system; provided, however that prior to commencing such action, the authority shall submit to the council, in writing, a list of the parcels and areas to be acquired. The authority shall have the right to proceed with such condemnation action so long as the council does not adopt a resolution objecting to the condemnation within 45 days of such notification. Alternatively, after receipt of the notice from the authority, the council may approve, upon a single reading of a resolution, such acquisition by eminent domain.”

As it reads, the authority may purchase land, pay for construction or maintenance or extend the project providing the Honolulu City Council does not object. HART doesn’t necessarily need permission to do what it wants, but if the council says “no,” it must comply.

Does that seem “independent” to you?

The Authority’s Budget

  • Under segment 3 (a) of the “Powers, Duties, and Functions” section, the amendments says: “The board shall… Have the authority to issue revenue bonds under the name of ‘Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’ in accordance with HRS Chapter 49, subject to council approval.”

  • Segment 3 (i) says: “The board shall… Submit an annual report to the mayor and council on its activities.”

  • Under the “Rates, Revenues and Appropriations” segment, it says: “The board shall fix and adjust reasonable rates and charges for the fixed guideway system so that the revenues derived therefrom, in conjunction with revenues received from the general excise and use tax surcharge, from the federal government, and from the revenue-generating properties of the authority, shall be sufficient or as nearly sufficient as possible, to support the fixed guideway system and the authority. The authority shall submit a line-item appropriation request for each of its proposed operating and capital budgets for the ensuing fiscal year to the council through the office of the mayor by December 1st of each year. The office of the mayor shall submit the authority’s line-item appropriation requests without alteration or amendment. The council shall, with or without amendments, approve the authority’s appropriation requests.”

The important language in the “Rates, Revenues and Appropriations” segment states that while the mayor may not be able to alter the authority’s budget, the council may add amendments, which could change its intent.

  • Under the “Receipt and Disbursement of Funds” segment, it says: “All moneys expended by the authority shall be disbursed with the written approval of the authority according to the procedures prescribed by the director of budget and fiscal services.”

The mayor’s director of Budget and Fiscal Services Department, Mike Hansen, will prescribe the procedures used by the authority to spend money.

You get the picture.

Project Funding

Perhaps the strongest argument that the authority will actually be separate comes down to dollars and cents. In 2006, the City Council passed a resolution defining exactly where revenue for the project could come from.

“Capital cost and any interest to finance that capital cost shall be paid entirely from general excise and use tax surcharge revenues, interest earned on the revenues, and any federal, state, or private revenues,” the resolution states.

The resolution does not say if the transit authority runs out of money for the project, it can dig into taxpayers’ pockets for more. It makes it seem like the authority is on its own.

The independence of the authority is not as cut and dried as Carlisle claims. Eight of the authority’s 10 members are either in the mayor’s Cabinet or appointed by the council or the mayor. Still, money talks, and the authority is, at least for now, on its own when it comes to paying for its project.