U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz wants Honolulu’s 20-mile commuter rail line to get built, but he says it will be up to local officials to find a way to pay for it.

The $6 billion project has a projected shortfall of up to $910 million, and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has been asking state lawmakers to increase taxes to bridge the gap. There’s worry that construction could come to a stop by this summer if new money isn’t found.

Schatz, who met with Civil Beat’s editorial board Tuesday, said he has talked with Caldwell and others at length about the project’s struggles.

While Caldwell wants the state to make permanent the half-percent general excise tax surcharge that has been funding the project since 2007, Schatz says his role is to protect the $1.5 billion in grant money the Federal Transit Administration awarded the city to build the project.

Senator Brian Schatz speaks to editorial board.  17 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz wants rail to succeed, but he says it’s up to local leaders to make that happen.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I don’t think there’s necessarily more money where that came from in terms of the FTA, but I’m trying to work very closely with the state and county officials to try to make sure that that portion of the revenue remains secure,” Schatz said. “It’s just important to be vigilant when you’re talking about that much money coming in that’s being relied upon. But all indications continue to be positive from the FTA and U.S. (Department of Transportation).”

He added that sequestration and other congressional budget cuts should not affect the FTA funding.

The federal government has already dedicated about $800 million of the $1.5 billion it promised, according to the latest monthly report from the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation. HART Executive Director and CEO Dan Grabauskas said last week that about $340 million of that money has been spent.

But now the city is danger of defaulting on its grant agreement with the federal government. Without new tax dollars, officials say construction will stop and the city won’t be able to deliver on its promise to the FTA to build a 20-mile system by 2020.

And on Wednesday the City Council adopted a resolution stating it wants $210 million in federal bus funds removed from the rail budget. Both Caldwell and the Council want to keep that money for bus and Handi-Van operations. If new money isn’t found to replace those funds — such as through the GET or property taxes — officials say the FTA could ask for a refund.

Schatz was reticent when asked if the Legislature should approve an extension of the GET to pay for rail’s shortfall as well as future extensions to Waikiki, the University of Hawaii at Manoa and downtown Kapolei. In 2011, those spurs were estimated to cost an additional $3.9 billion.

“My side of the shop is really protecting those federal revenue streams,” Schatz said. “I think it’s unhelpful if I start to weigh in on what the chair of the (state) Ways and Means or Finance Committee or the chair of the City Council is going to do. Generally, things go sideways when I weigh in on things that are not my kuleana.”

Schatz did say, however, that lawmakers are asking legitimate questions about timing and whether the city has exhausted all of its options before pushing the state to extend the GET surcharge beyond its 2022 sunset date.

Gov. David Ige voiced similar concerns, and said during his State of the State address that the city should look at cost containment before asking for more money. Some lawmakers also want the city to offer up some of its own money to help pay for the project.

Rail’s future is in the hands of these local leaders, Schatz said. Turning back now would be too costly, he said, especially since the project is seen as an economic driver.

“People who are for rail and people who are somewhere in the middle and people who are opposed to it are all wanting to see this thing be handled properly,” Schatz said. “We’re obviously at an inflection point, and we have to make some choices over the next couple of months to make sure that this project stays on track.”

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