Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and his top transit official took their licks from a decidedly anti-rail crowd during a boisterous town hall meeting at Washington Middle School on Wednesday.
While much of the frustration stemmed from the city’s desire to extend a half-percent surcharge on the General Excise Tax to pay for a nearly $1 billion project shortfall, many critics rehashed old concerns, including worry that rail is a financial boondoggle and won’t ease Honolulu’s worsening traffic congestion.
But there was also a very real sense of mistrust among attendees, with several challenging the assertions made by the mayor and Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Executive Director and CEO Dan Grabauskas.
In fact, one man who was videotaping the event on a cell phone stood up after the first written question from the audience was read aloud to Caldwell and Grabauskas. He doubted its authenticity.
“This ain’t a town hall meeting,” H. Doug Matsuoka said to a crowd of more than 100 people. “This is a public relations event.”
Only one man spoke out in favor of the project during the two-hour meeting, saying he didn’t understand all the “bellyaching.” He also wanted to know if more money could be spent to speed up construction and open the rail line sooner.
Rail has been a divisive topic in Honolulu for decades, although it reached its pinnacle in 2012 when Caldwell defeated former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano in a mayoral race that many observers believed was a referendum on the project.
Once construction began in earnest, many of the loudest critics faded into the background until last December when Caldwell and Grabauskas revealed that the $5.3 billion project faced an estimated shortfall of nearly $1 billion and that they would be seeking a GET extension to help for it.
This renewed rail critics’ vigor in the fight to stop the project, even though officials say it would cost hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars to cancel contracts and pay back grant money to the Federal Transit Administration.
Joey Brown, a freshman at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who opposes a tax hike to pay for rail, received raucous applause after he skewered the city’s lax financial management of the project.
He also directed his comments to state lawmakers who hosted the event, including House Majority Leader Scott Saiki and Reps. Della Au Belatti and Scott Nishimoto, asking them to hold off on passing a bill this session to extend the GET.
“There’s a strong opposition to this tax increase and I plead with you, our state lawmakers, to not extend this tax beyond 2022 when it is set to expire,” Brown said. “This has become an issue of fiscal irresponsibility.”
There are currently two bills in the Legislature to extend the GET surcharge for rail beyond its 2022 sunset date, with both awaiting hearings in the House and Senate finance committees.
What’s becoming clear is that any sort of tax deal will probably have to be hashed out in conference committee, in which lawmakers from both chambers massage a final proposal for the full Legislature to vote on.
But lawmakers have also made clear that they want more oversight of the project before committing more tax dollars.
A House committee last week passed a resolution calling for a state audit that would dig into HART’s financial plan as well as payments made to contractors and subcontractors.
Saiki noted Wednesday that Gov. David Ige still isn’t on board with a tax hike this session. Ige has publicly questioned why the city needs the money now, and has yet to announce he’s changed his mind.
“He’s still ambivalent,” Saiki told Civil Beat after Wednesday’s forum. “He needs to have specific reasons why the tax extension needs to occur now.”
The issue is definitely front and center at the Legislature, Saiki said. And that’s why he and the other lawmakers wanted to hold a town hall meeting to talk about rail.
He said the lawmakers, which also included Sen. Les Ihara and Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi on Wednesday, held a similar town hall event last month to discuss issues facing their respective districts. But he said there were so many questions about rail that they decided to host another public gathering.
“It’s clear that people have opinions on this issue and wanted a forum to voice them,” Saiki said.