- Special Projects
Ever been accosted by a pushy salesman demanding, “What would it take to get you into this car today?”
That image comes uncomfortably to mind too often these days in the dialogue concerning the troubled, $6 billion (and counting) Honolulu rail project.
In recent weeks and months, we’ve been treated to news of surprise cost overruns and revenue shortfalls totaling nearly $1 billion, troubling assertions by the agency managing the project that it’s not responsible for tracking costs of its hundreds of subcontractors and urgent calls from Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell for the Legislature to pass an extension of the tax providing the lion’s share of project funding. Delaying the extension, we are warned, will only make things more expensive and moving ahead on the project more difficult.
Time is running out! Act now to lock in at today’s rates!
Requests from Caldwell and Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Executive Director Dan Grabauskas to extend the General Excise Tax surcharge have earned widespread criticism from legislators and served as a catalyst for a recent flurry of proposed resolutions — to have the state audit the project, to seek cost-cutting measures, to look into the progress of the project’s completion and more.
Legislators have also publicly wondered why the Honolulu City Council has been relatively quiet in its support for the tax extension. In response, the Council has scheduled a special session for this Wednesday — April Fool’s Day — to take up a measure that would support extending the GET surcharge on Oahu. Council Chair Ernie Martin reportedly chose the date “as an indication that members will not be fooled again by misrepresentations or insufficient information” on the rail project.
All of this speaks to deepening mistrust among state and city officials of a hugely expensive project where “the numbers are confusing and don’t always seem to add up,” as Civil Beat’s Nick Grube and Bob Porterfield reported earlier this month in perhaps the most comprehensive media examination of the project’s finances to date.
Concerns over the GET surcharge have been around for more than four years, since an independent study commissioned by Gov. Linda Lingle’s administration concluded that revenue projections were overly rosy. The Federal Transportation Administration questioned city estimates years ago, as well.
Those concerns turned out to be well founded, when HART officials announced at the end of 2014 that GET revenue was already running $41 million short and is now part of an overall deficit of at least $910 million, with higher-than-expected construction bids and lawsuit delays accounting for the rest. HART says that GET revenue, which it initially projected to create a surplus by the time the project is completed, will instead fall short of projections by as much as $100 million by the time the surcharge sunsets in 2022.
Gov. David Ige shares legislators’ unease over the project’s escalating costs, particularly as the city and HART have been reluctant to share detailed information. State Budget Director Wes Machida told Civil Beat earlier this month that under current circumstances, it would be hard for the Ige administration to support a GET surcharge extension.
Machida said on Friday that while he’s received additional information, he still hasn’t gotten some material shared with the Senate Transportation Committee. Further, he hasn’t had sufficient time to verify the data he has received.
Meanwhile, competing bills to extend the surcharge by five years or 25 years seem to be dividing rather than uniting legislators, who were already loudly demanding details.
While we’re sensitive to assertions that upcoming rail construction contracts can’t be executed this fall without the certainty of revenue to fund them, high-pressure arguments to extract that funding from the Capitol while not being fully transparent concerning costs is no way to go about it. Not if public confidence in the project is something that city or state leaders value.
For legislators, trying to gather and absorb critical information about the project while running from committee hearing to floor session and dealing with the hundreds of other bills that also need attention is a recipe for a decision we might all regret later on. Action on any legislative proposal to extend the surcharge must be approved before April 16 — just 2 1/2 weeks away — in order for it to cross over to the opposite body in our bicameral Legislature for consideration over the session’s final three weeks.
Why not follow previous practice on matters as complex as this? Special sessions have been used multiple times in recent years when the Legislature has had difficult issues to deal with.
Then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie called the Legislature into special session in 2013 to focus on marriage equality. Former Govs. Lingle and Ben Cayetano called three special sessions over the previous 12 years for other pressing concerns, including dealing with issues in the aftermath of 9/11 and voting on the Hawaii Superferry project.
Gov. Ige ought to be guided by these examples from his three immediate predecessors, as should the Legislature, which has the ability to call itself into such a session with a two-thirds majority vote.
Action on the GET surcharge extension and consideration of related information should be deferred to early summer, following the conclusion of the current regular session slated for May 7. Doing so now would provide time for at least some of the most critical information to be gathered that legislators seek in their audit resolutions, as well as to fully consider the city’s actions on the surcharge extension and on a separate proposal to allow the rail project to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars against the city’s general fund.
It would also focus pressure on HART and the city to continue to disclose data that the administration and the Legislature continue to seek. And it would allow for presentation of all that material to taxpayers who are currently awash in conflicting detail and number soup.
Such presentation could be appropriately shared on cable and streaming television, if HART moves on a resolution introduced last week by new City Councilman Trevor Ozawa urging the agency to begin televising its meetings. We support that resolution and the council’s own special session this Wednesday to focus exclusively on rail.
With billions at stake and confusion at the Capitol and Honolulu Hale, this is simply too important a matter to rush into. Far better to get it right than do it fast. Call the special session.