WASHINGTON — Four Honolulu City Council members visiting Washington for a rail conference this week say they remain uneasy about the operations and maintenance costs that the rail line will impose on taxpayers.
But a key rail planner said that those who want Honolulu’s rail system to be built have to go “all in,” and accept that rail service will require additional ongoing public funding. Expressing concerns were Council Chair Ernie Martin, Vice Chair Ikaika Anderson, Budget Chair Ann Kobayashi and Legal Affairs Chair Romy Cachola.
“Here I am, still worried about construction (costs) but operations and maintenance is forever,” Kobayashi said in an interview with Civil Beat in Washington. “Putting it in, that’s the easy part. It’s the operation and maintenance you worry about because that’s forever. It increases over time.”
A Civil Beat analysis found that an average of at least $50 million per year will be needed to help run and maintain the rail line — on top of costs covered by revenue from fares — in the first decade that it’s fully operational.
“Hopefully most people are over the fact that you have to pay for the services that you get,” said Terrance Ware, the city’s manager for transit oriented development. “The failure in planning is they create the illusion of an end-state, but in reality, cities are always evolving, always developing new technology, so society changes. We’re never done. We’ll never be done.”
Ware said that part of getting the community to support Honolulu rail requires officials to be straight with members of the public about how much it will cost and how patient they will have to be — “very,” he says — before it transforms day-to-day life in the ways that are being sold to them.
But Kobayashi said rail planners did not “make clear” that annual operations and maintenance costs of into the tens of millions of dollars would fall to the city. Anderson said he blames former Mayor Mufi Hannemann‘s administration for “willfully and intentionally” withholding specifics about the project’s finances from City Council members.
“The prior administration, while they did a great job in advocating for the project, they kept us out of the loop sometimes,” Anderson said. “We advocated for two years for the prior administration to show us draft documents, especially draft financial plans. They refused. This administration finally agreed to do that.”
Officials in the Hannemann administration have repeatedly insisted that they worked to keep the rail planning process as open to the public as possible. Many of those staffers remained in their positions with the Carlisle administration.
Anderson also said that he believes that city officials made a mistake when they established a 0.5 percent General Excise Tax surcharge to help pay for rail. The City Council vote approving the hike took place in 2005, and the increase took effect in 2007. Council veterans Kobayashi and Cachola both co-sponsored the bill that established the tax hike.
“The prior administration erred in the sense that they looked at a time period to collect the general excise tax surcharge, rather than putting a dollar amount on it,” Anderson said. “Instead, right now, it’s going to sunset in 2022 regardless of what dollar amount we collect. The decision was made and we’re stuck with it. No we have to meet the projections.”
The first stop for city officials seeking more revenue: real property tax rates. Martin said he plans to work “directly” with the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation to hash out concerns related to how operations and maintenance costs “are going to be absorbed by the city.”
He also said Honolulu residents can also expect a “vigorous” budget process next spring, led by council members who are committed to protecting taxpayer money by making sever cuts within the city if necessary.
“Budget chair (Kobayashi) has a very, very sharp knife,” Martin said.
Cachola reiterated Martin’s concerns. He said he is uncomfortable burdening the taxpayers at a time when other infrastructure upgrades like federally mandated sewer improvements are taking place.
“We have three big city projects that you have to look into: Rail is over $5 billion, then you have the sewer, which is $5 billion, and then the increasing water (fees), which is about $300 or $400 million a year,” Cachola said. “You are the taxpayers and you hear this, how are you feeling right now?”
Ware, in his capacity as the city’s manager of transit oriented development, may not be the taxpayer Cachola had in mind. But Ware does have an answer to Cachola’s question:
“‘You break it, you own it,’ that’s what Colin Powell said,” Ware said. “You have to be all in. Rightly so, people have a concern when money’s spent on the $800 hammer or the $1,400 toilet seat. I’m a taxpayer like everyone else, so I want to see my money spent efficiently. I want to see transparency so I understand how it was spent. But if you’re spending it to enhance the physical environment and making investment in infrastructure, and you’re doing it as responsibly as you can, I really can’t ask for more.”
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