The Obama administration has budgeted $250 million for Honolulu rail this coming year, more than for any other transit project in the country.
But the Federal Transit Administration is keeping a close eye on Honolulu politics, and won’t come through with a promise of $1.55 billion in federal money for rail unless Honolulu remains a “strong local partner,” FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff told reporters in a conference call Tuesday morning.
In the call with reporters from around the country, Rogoff and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood talked about the $2.2 billion FTA Fiscal Year 2013 budget rolled out Monday. The president’s proposal includes money for 29 transit projects in 15 states. The Honolulu rail project‘s quarter-billion-dollar haul would be the largest for any single project this coming year if the budget is approved by Congress — hardly a guarantee.
LaHood, a former Republican congressman, spoke in broad terms about the chances of success in the GOP-held U.S. House of Representatives. A recent transportation bill floated by Republicans would eliminate New Starts money for transit projects — the type of funding Honolulu is counting on.
“The House bill takes us back to the horse and buggy era,” LaHood said.
But lawmakers today began to consider dozens of amendments that would change the bill. “Our belief is that Congress will work its will on this. Transit funding is very popular right now because there are so many communities that benefit from it, and I think we’re in a very good position to make sure that these projects are funded.”
Rogoff, meanwhile, displayed familiarity with the specifics of Honolulu’s project as well as the recent poll showing anti-rail mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano with an early lead in the 2012 race.
Rogoff said he was “aware” of the survey, which also revealed that public support for rail has dried up significantly in the last nine months.
But Rogoff said the poll shows the two pro-rail candidates, if pooled together, poll stronger than Cayetano. Cayetano polled at 44 percent, followed by Mayor Peter Carlisle at 35 percent and former Acting Mayor Kirk Caldwell at 16 percent. Rogoff said that indicates Cayetano might well not win the job in the end.
“We are mindful of it, because it is important that we have a strong local partner,” he said in response to Civil Beat’s question about the impact of the mayoral race on the Full Funding Grant Agreement process.
For now, federal support remains strong. Honolulu has the largest allocation in the president’s budget, and Rogoff said that Honolulu would be “very high” on the priority list in the event that Congress cuts the president’s proposal.
“We would allocate those funds based on the readiness of the project,” Rogoff said. He downplayed concerns and questions about the project, saying the only thing that has changed on the ground is that the “punishing congestion” in Oahu has gotten worse.
“We are not going to let local politics slow us down,” Rogoff said.
Still, a Cayetano victory would all but spell doom for the project. Rogoff said a strong anti-rail candidate on the ballot might be a factor in determining the timing of the funding guarantee agreement.
“We will not move out on a project when we do not have a strong local partner,” Rogoff said.
Civil Beat asked: Does that mean the FTA will wait to see the results of the November general election before agreeing to fund the Honolulu rail project?
“That kind of hypothetical question,” LaHood said, “is not something we’re going to get into.”
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