Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi insists the current rail project costs more and goes fewer places than the plan voters thought they were approving in 2008.

Specifically, she says when the tax increase to fund the project went on the ballot, the understanding was it would cost $3.7 billion and go to the University of Hawaii and through Salt Lake.

When folks such as rail chief Dan Grabauskas or Mayor Peter Carlisle say they have a duty to uphold the will of the voters by bringing the project to fruition, Kobayashi often responds by saying the current plan isn’t what voters thought they were going to get.

One recent example of her standard rebuttal came at the April 30 meeting of the council’s Legislative Matters Committee.

“You know I’ve been hearing this all the time. I voted for the increase in the tax. I voted for the rail to go up to University of Hawaii. I think a lot of the voters voted for that, for it to go to Salt Lake, the University of Hawaii, at a cost of $3.7 billion,” she said. “And none of that has happened. That’s why, you know, the trust is not there.”

She elaborated in an interview with Civil Beat after the meeting.

“There was an understanding it would be $3.7 billion, it was going to UH — because all the students came here and were going to oppose it, but they were told it was going to UH, and so they supported it,” she said. “It was supposed to go to Salt Lake, and there are 50,000 people that live there … That was the understanding in 2007 when we put the bill together.”

Indeed, Kobayashi voted in favor of rail three times in the fall of 2006 when the Honolulu City Council was selecting a “locally preferred alternative” (“LPA”). The fixed guideway described in the ordinance eventually signed in January 2007 by Mayor Mufi Hannemann would have started in Kapolei proper, gone through Salt Lake and ended at the University of Hawaii, with a Waikiki branch.

Within weeks of approval, the council introduced and then passed a resolution defining the “minimum operable segment” as the 20-mile section from UH-West Oahu to Ala Moana via Salt Lake Boulevard. Here’s what the council said in that resolution, which passed by a narrow 5-4 vote.

WHEREAS, the council recognizes that a fixed guideway system covering the entire LPA alignment is the long-term goal and that a shorter system should be built first within the revenues available from the General Excise and Use Tax (“GET”) surcharge, and funds reasonably expected from the federal government and other state and private sources.

So the city had specific goals for the 2008 vote, but did the message get through? What did voters believe they were voting for when they walked into the voting booth that November Tuesday — a line to UH and Waikiki, or a starter segment to Ala Moana?

That’s a tough question to answer four years later.

Kobayashi said Monday that the many voters she has talked to since then have consistently said they were under the impression that they were voting for a $3.7 billion rail project that included stops at Salt Lake and the UH-Manoa campus.

“It may not have been written in the charter question, but that is what the voters believed,” she said.

Civil Beat also took a look at how the project was portrayed in the media at the time.

A February 2008 story in the Honolulu Advertiser describes a $3.7 billion, 20-mile rail project from east Kapolei to Ala Moana Center.

In October 2008, an analysis piece in the Advertiser, the newspaper of record at the time, talks about a “no” vote all but killing the 20-mile, $3.7 billion project from east Kapolei to Ala Moana.

In the days leading up to the vote in November, a Honolulu Advertiser story looked at the proposed costs for a rail transit system climbing in light of the environmental impact statement. This piece describes a 20-mile route through Salt Lake costing $4.28 billion, or $5.28 billion when adjusted for inflation — higher than the 2006 estimate of $3.7 billion, or $4.98 billion when adjusted for inflation. The story said the EIS did not list a cost for the entire 28-mile route with stops at UH-Manoa, Waikiki and West Oahu.

One radio spot produced by the city in 2008 and three different television commercials produced by a pro-rail group did not mention the route or the cost for the system.

Setting aside the perceived understanding of what project voters thought they were approving, let’s look at the actual question that appeared on the ballot in 2008.

“Shall the powers, duties and functions of the city, through its director of transportation services, include establishment of a steel wheel on steel rail transit system?”

As we know now, voters said “yes” to rail in 2008. The Advertiser story on the results describes a $4.28 billion project — the price tag reflecting the costs outlined in the study that was released the weekend before the vote — for a rail transit system running from east Kapolei to Ala Moana.

In the years since that vote, the Salt Lake alignment was abandoned in favor of one that curves closer to Honolulu International Airport. (That route has had subsequent problems, which Civil Beat investigated in its three-part series on Rail at the Airport.)

Romy Cachola, whose council district includes Salt Lake, routinely says his vote of support for rail — the decisive fifth “aye” for the Minimum Operable Segment — came only because the line would go through that neighborhood. He regularly notes that Salt Lake got “shafted” by the realignment.

Kobayashi says Salt Lake is home to 50,000 people, but the area’s population isn’t easily identifiable. The U.S. Census Bureau identifies 131 “Census Designated Places” — also known as CDPs and described colloquially as “towns” — in the state of Hawaii. Aiea, Pearl City, Mililani, Waipahu and others are broken out, but Salt Lake is not.

As for the idea that the Salt Lake alignment was attractive to voters — there might be something to that, but it’s not clear. Salt Lake voters were slightly more likely to support rail in 2008 than other Oahu voters. Islandwide, the election results were 50.6 percent in support and 45.7 percent opposed. But in House Districts 31 and 32 combined, which cover the Salt Lake area, the split was 54.7 percent to 41.5 percent. So that’s about four extra points of support, or an eight-point swing.

But even if those voters could see into the future — a future where rail went to the airport and not through Salt Lake — they alone would likely not have been able to swing the election against rail. Even in a scenario where support among the 16,000 Salt Lake voters dropped from nearly 55 percent to 25 percent, that still wouldn’t have changed the outcome.

So let’s stack up Kobayashi’s claims against some of this.

In terms of cost, the project’s price hasn’t actually changed much. The discrepancy between the $3.7 billion that was often quoted in 2008 versus the $5.2 billion that is frequently cited today has everything to do with whether officials are using the 2006 baseline-dollar amount or adjusting it to year-of-expenditure dollars.

Civil Beat asked Kobayashi after the April 30 meeting about this issue. She maintains that this difference was “never told to the public.”

“The $5 million the city spent lobbying for the project, they never said that,” Kobayashi said, adding that “they always talked about $3.7 billion.”

When pressed on whether the price had actually changed, she said, “If you don’t know that it’s in 2007 dollars, then you think it has changed.”

The rail financial plan, EIS and a widely distributed, eight-page, full-color brochure on the project clearly convey the cost in both year-of-expenditure and 2006 baseline dollars.

The brochure, for instance, has a chart on page 2 that shows the project would cost $3.72 billion in 2006 money, or $4.98 billion when adjusted to year-of-expenditure dollars.

A September 2008 Associated Press story also reported the cost in both ways, and did not include UH when identifying the route.

City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi and University of Hawaii engineering professor Panos Prevedouros sided with each other against incumbent Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s proposed rail system. It would run 20 miles from Kapolei to Ala Moana and is projected to cost $5 billion after inflation. It’s estimated to cost $3.7 billion in 2006 dollars.

BOTTOM LINE: There are three key elements to Kobayashi’s claim: Salt Lake, UH and $3.7 billion. The first element is clearly accurate: The system was to go through Salt Lake when voters headed to the polls in 2008. The second element has some truth to it — the Locally Preferred Alternative was to go to the university, but the Minimum Operable Segment was described as stopping at Ala Moana. The third element is the most questionable because it is comparing apples and oranges. One figure — the $3.7 billion estimate — is base-year dollars and the $5.2 billion estimate is year-of-expenditure dollars, a reality of long-term construction that was clearly stated before the vote. This is not a cost increase.

So, is Kobayashi right in downplaying the importance of the 2008 vote by pointing out the ways the system has changed in the public’s eyes in the four years since? Put together one true, one half-true and one false and it all averages out to a final grade of Half-True.

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