Most Honolulu voters don’t want lawmakers to extend Oahu’s 0.5 percent general excise tax surcharge to help pay for the city’s cash-strapped 20-mile commuter rail line planned from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center, according to the latest Civil Beat poll results.

And half of those polled on Oahu still have negative feelings overall about the $6 billion project that’s struggling financially due to lower-than-expected tax collections, higher-than anticipated construction costs and legal expenses related to lawsuits.

The statewide picture is rosier for rail given strong neighbor island support and a general feeling that voters on Kauai, Maui and Big Island don’t mind as much that Honolulu residents might have to pay more taxes.

Workers stand near track on elevated rail during HART media event proclaiming over 1 mile of track has been made as of December 3, 2014. photograph Cory Lum

Rail construction is well underway, but most Honolulu voters still oppose the project.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“In some ways it’s one of the oldest stories in the book,” said Matt Fitch, executive director of the Merriman River Group, the company that conducted Civil Beat’s poll. “In general, people are somewhat favorable of rail, but they don’t want to pay for it. More to the point, there’s more support on the neighbor islands than there is on Oahu.”

Civil Beat surveyed 780 registered voters April 7-9. The poll included landlines and cell phones, and has a margin of error of 3.5 percent. The margin of error for Oahu-only respondents is 4.2 percent.

Statewide, 48 percent of voters oppose extending the GET surcharge for rail beyond its 2022 sunset to help pay for an estimated $1 billion project shortfall. Only 39 percent of voters support the extension, with 13 percent unsure.

On Oahu, 55 percent of voters oppose the GET extension for rail with 35 percent in support. Neighbor island voters, however, are much more likely to approve of the GET extension for rail, with 49 percent in support versus 34 percent opposed.

Fitch says the strong support on the neighbor islands could be classified as “an academic exercise,” since for the most part they would not be paying the tax unless they were on Oahu.

Honolulu Rail Bar graph

Civil Beat’s poll question did not take into account the fact that any legislation passed to increase the GET surcharge for rail will also give neighboring county officials the chance to implement their own tax increases to pay for transportation projects, including roads, highways, buses and other pedestrian improvements.

Fitch said it would not be surprising to see neighbor island support dip if voters were asked to approve a tax increase for themselves in addition to one on Oahu.

The survey also did not ask voters if they would support a short-term or long-term extension. House Bill 134 is the only current legislation that would extend the surcharge. The bill would push the 2022 sunset back five years and limit the tax to capital costs. Previous drafts extended the surcharge for 25 years.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and city transit officials have pushed for the longer extension, saying it would allow them to plan for additional spurs to the 20-mile line. They hope to one day extend rail to the University of Hawaii at Manoa and downtown Kapolei, although there are serious questions about how the city plans to operate the system.

History of Opposition

The poll shows rail is still divisive, particularly on Oahu. Fifty percent of Honolulu voters oppose the project, with only 43 percent in support. That’s a far cry from the neighbor islands, where 61 percent of voters support rail and only 25 percent are opposed. This is reflected in the statewide tally, which shows 49 percent in support and 42 percent in opposition.

The Oahu numbers aren’t surprising when looking at previous surveys. Since February 2012, Civil Beat has polled voters on the topic at least nine times.

Every poll showed a majority of voters — anywhere from 50 percent to 55 percent — did not like the project. Meanwhile, support for rail has been consistently lukewarm with fluctuations between 34 percent approval and 43 percent, which the most recent survey shows.

Honolulu Rail support trend line 2012-2015

Consistency can also be found in who supports rail versus who opposes it. Supporters tend to be younger, more liberal-minded voters

Those between 18 and 49 years old make up the bulk of Oahu’s rail support, with 60 percent approving of the project and 38 percent opposed. It also appears that practically everyone had an opinion on the matter, as only 2 percent in that age bracket were unsure.

Older voters, on the other hand, don’t support the project as much. The poll found that 56 percent of people between 50 and 64 opposed rail. Fifty-eight percent of those older than 65 also said they disliked the project.

Liberals and progressives were more likely to support rail, with 56 percent approving and 40 percent in opposition. The numbers dip the more conservative a voter becomes. Moderates were essentially split at 47 percent in support and 50 percent opposed while 56 percent of conservatives were opposed to rail versus 34 percent in favor.

Rail was also more favored among low- and high-income voters with household incomes either below $50,000 a year or more than $100,000 a year. Those surveyed in the $50,000 to $100,000 range have a less favorable view of the project, with 35 percent in support and 60 percent opposed.

It also appears that men were more supportive of rail and the tax increase to help pay for it than women. Only 37 percent of the women polled on Oahu said they supported rail compared to 52 percent of men. Twenty-eight percent of women supported a GET extension versus 44 percent of males.

Fitch said these curiosities warrant more exploration to really delve into voters’ feelings on rail. He also acknowledges that location likely plays a factor, much in the way it does for the neighbor islands.

“We really don’t know how people are impacted by the route,” Fitch said. “If people are against it, are they against it because it doesn’t go where they live or because it does go where they live?”

See the full results here:

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