Mayor Kirk Caldwell stressed the need to move forward on the Honolulu rail project with an extension of the General Excise Tax during his 2015 State of the City address Tuesday while emphasizing the progress he has made since taking office two years ago on road repaving, park rejuvenation, bike lanes and the homelessness problem.
With the rail project — the biggest public works project in the state’s history — facing a $900 million shortfall with only two miles of the 20-mile guideway built, Caldwell vowed not to run from the political quagmire.
“Rail is the big elephant in this very big, outdoor room and we need to talk about it,” Caldwell told an audience of about 150 invited guests who convened on a grassy plot at Foster Botanical Garden in downtown Honolulu. “As a politician, I’m not going to run from it, I’m not going to blame anyone, I’m not going to look backwards and say, ‘Why didn’t you do this or that?’ I accept that this is happening under my watch.”
Caldwell’s remarks came after criticism last month that he was dodging the problem and trying to hand off responsibility to Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Executive Director Dan Grabauskas, a political appointee.
Caldwell has been lobbying the Legislature and top state officials to extend the half percent surcharge on the GET indefinitely to pay for the project, which was supposed to cost $5.2 billion.
Rail officials say they don’t know how much the project will end up costing. While they have projections, the mayor and HART officials have declined to disclose them, saying that it could hurt the city’s efforts to get the lowest priced bids for the final stages of the project.
“We sit in gridlock every day. We made a promise to the folks on the west side.” — Mayor Kirk Caldwell
The mayor reiterated his position that extending the tax, about a third of which is paid by visitors, is preferable to raising property taxes or shutting down the project.
“The (choice) I just don’t want to accept, but it is an alternative, is stop, don’t build anymore, tear down what you built,” he said. “That is crazy to me. We sit in gridlock every day. We made a promise to the folks on the west side.”
Shutting down the project could cost about $4 billion, according to HART estimates.
Caldwell noted that under the city’s general growth plan put in place in the 1970s, 70 percent of all development on the island was to occur on the Ewa plain.
“Then we doomed them with one freeway, with no other choice,” he said. “And rail is about giving people a choice to get out of their cars and travel quickly and efficiently.”
Caldwell also highlighted his administration’s commitment to reducing homelessness — a problem he also vowed to tackle head on.
“Homelessness — highly controversial. We’re criticized for things we do, either on the enforcement side or not doing enough on the compassionate side,” he said. “As mayor, I don’t run from the problem. I don’t say it’s someone else’s problem.”
Caldwell recently formed a Strategic Development Office that is overseeing the city’s efforts to develop housing for the homeless and manage the city’s affordable housing portfolio.
The mayor announced that he will seek to add three city positions in the 2016 fiscal year focused on reducing homelessness.
The administration is still working to expend about $42 million appropriated by the City Council last year to create housing for the homeless. The funding will expire at the end of the 2016 fiscal year.
“It’s not safe on our streets and roads at night. No one has been killed in any shelter.”
Caldwell said that since the funding was appropriated last June, 31 homeless people have been housed. His administration aims to have moved 115 people into housing by the end of this year, and 400 people by the end of 2016.
In recent months, the mayor and City Council have also passed a series of laws that ban sitting and lying on sidewalks in Waikiki and commercial districts throughout Oahu, as well as outdoor malls downtown and in Chinatown.
Critics argue the laws are cruel and just shuffle homeless from one place to another. But Caldwell said that the bans are helping push the homeless into shelters where they can get needed services.
“It’s not safe on our streets and roads at night,” he said, noting that since he took office seven homeless people have been murdered. “No one has been killed in any shelter.”
Caldwell also emphasized the “compassionate” side of his homelessness campaign. Recently, the administration opened a hygiene center at Pauahi Hale, a city public housing complex in Chinatown.
Businesses and residents have complained that the homeless, who have lined nearby streets and parks with tents, are urinating and defecating on the sidewalks.
The hygiene center, which is open 24 hours a day, provides toilets as well as showers. Homeless people are given shampoo, soap, a razor, shaving cream, a toothbrush and toothpaste.
“This is about compassion and helping those who need help the most,” he said.
Caldwell said that a 24-hour restroom opened in Waikiki as a pilot project, with the assistance of the Waikiki Business Improvement Association, has been a success. The mayor plans to put funding into the 2016 fiscal year budget to maintain the restroom.
As in Chinatown, Waikiki businesses and residents have complained about the homeless defecating and urinating in planters, in parks and on sidewalks.
“It’s working,” said Caldwell. “We found that yes, homeless folks use it. But visitors use it too when they come out of night clubs late at night and have to go shishi.”
Caldwell did not mention of one his more controversial homelessness proposals — a tent camp on Sand Island that would temporarily shelter homeless people while they await permanent housing or shelter space. Late last year, the administration suggested that the plan may be tabled amid growing costs to mitigate potential contamination at the site.
Jesse Broder Van Dyke, a spokesman for the mayor, told Civil Beat after the speech that there is “no update on this matter at this time.”
Caldwell’s speech also stuck to one of the themes that helped get him elected — improving the city’s infrastructure, including roads, sewers and parks.
“This land thrives on good infrastructure,” he said. “That’s why this administration is all about infrastructure, more infrastructure and more infrastructure.”
The mayor stressed the city’s progress in improving Oahu’s sewer system with a $4 billion plan mandated under a legal settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Since Caldwell took office, the city has rehabilitated 100 miles of sewer pipes and recently started construction on a 13-foot-wide, gravity flow sewer tunnel between Kaneohe and Kailua, he said. The gravity tunnel should reduce major sewage spills.
Caldwell also announced new efforts to improve city parks. He plans to insert $2 million into his 2016 fiscal year budget, which will go to the City Council next week for deliberation, to refurbish 24 restrooms and restore 16 park playgrounds around the island.
“I tell you, rail is controversial, homelessness is controversial, but something that’s more controversial than any of that is the protected bike lane on King Street.”
The funding would go to power washing the restrooms, laying new tiles and fixtures and adding a protective coating to make them easier to clean and to reduce odors.
Caldwell touted the administration’s success in restoring nine bus routes and creating more bike lanes, including a protected bike lane on King Street that has elicited debate.
“I tell you, rail is controversial, homelessness is controversial, but something that’s more controversial than any of that is the protected bike lane on King Street,” he joked. “I’ve never seen more letters to the editor for and against. I’ve never seen more TV stations down there covering people riding and not riding.”
Caldwell also cited the repaving of 700 lane-miles of roads since taking office, helping meet his goal of repaving 43 percent of the city’s roads in five years.
He announced two new appointments. Gary Nakata, the current deputy director for the Department of Community Services, will take over as director. Baird Fleming, the current assistant director at the Honolulu Zoo, will be promoted to director.
“We need a zoo director who is committed to staying for the long haul, who loves this place, who is not going to quit and then talk stink,” said Caldwell.