Honolulu City Council members voted yes on two rail-related measures during a special meeting Wednesday, indicating their support for extending an island-wide tax hike to pay for estimated cost overruns on the $6 billion project.
One measure would allow the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation to issue bonds through the city to ensure there’s enough cashflow to pay for ongoing construction on the 20-mile rail line while other revenues lag. Officials have said that without this money construction could halt as soon as this summer.
The other measure is a placeholder bill that was proposed in anticipation of the state approving an extension of the 0.5 percent General Excise Tax for rail. Bill 23, which passed first reading Wednesday, would simply replace the Dec. 31, 2022 sunset on the GET surcharge with another date should the Legislature and governor decide to act this session.
But even with the pro-rail approvals, several council members expressed their angst over how the project has been managed over the years, from the politics of picking train stops to concerns about where the money has gone.
Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, a long-time rail critic, was one of the more vocal members Wednesday, slamming HART and the city for being misleading with her about the project. Like many others, she was surprised to learn about a nearly $1 billion shortfall that now has Mayor Kirk Caldwell and HART officials scrambling for more money.
“I’m getting really tired of this because over the years I’ve always trusted people and I always believe in the best of people,” Kobayashi said. “My friends keep saying that’s why I have all these stab wounds in my back. It comes from people who keep lying to me when I keep trusting them.”
Councilman Ikaika Anderson was equally as stern when the council directed questions to HART Executive Director and CEO Dan Grabauskas and HART Board Chairman Ivan Lui Kwan during Wednesday’s hearing.
“It would be unfortunate for this enabling legislation to be stalled in the Legislature because of a lack of action by, or ambiguous positions of, the Honolulu City Council on this matter.” — State Sen. Breene Harimoto
Anderson, who represents the Windward communities of Kailua and Kaneohe, said he supports completing the route that’s currently under construction from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center. It’s part of a $1.5 billion grant agreement with the Federal Transit Administration.
But he also warned against spending any new funds that might be approved for extending rail to the University of Hawaii at Manoa or downtown Kapolei until the initial portion of the project is finished. Caldwell, HART and others — particularly those with ties to unions — have called on the Legislature to pass a minimum GET extension of 25 years to complete both spurs.
“I want to make clear that I don’t expect one cent of any monies to be appropriated for designs or for plans of any future extensions,” Anderson said. “I think that would be disingenuous to all involved.”
Should he see any money in HART’s budget for those two extensions, he said he would push to have those removed during the budget process.
Council Chairman Ernie Martin echoed both Kobayashi and Anderson’s concerns. He also went after HART for setting up the council as an adversary of the project rather than as an ally.
Martin pointed to written testimony Grabauskas gave to the Legislature on March 24 in which he responded to a question from Sen. Sam Slom, who had asked about the logistics of raising property taxes should lawmakers decide not to extend the GET. Grabauskas told Slom that decision rested with the city.
“What that tells me is that there’s no other contingency planning being provided by HART in the event the GET surcharge is not granted by the Legislature,” Martin said. “That’s a very poor response to give and I can see why the Legislature is very critical of the city and county, in general, that we’re only looking at one last-ditch option.”
Lui-Kwan told Martin that wasn’t the case, and did his best to reiterate the importance of the city and HART working together to complete the rail project.
“We all have to be together, the mayor, the city council and we at HART,” he said. “I’ve tried mightely to make sure that we are acting as partners. Never in my wildest imagination did I envision the council or the mayor as being adversaries.”
Despite the tension, Kobayashi was the only council member to vote against the two measures Wednesday. But whether that’s enough to signal strong support for the project is another question.
State lawmakers have criticized the council for not taking a leadership position on rail despite city officials begging the Legislature for more tax revenue. A common refrain has been that they wanted to see “more skin in the game.”
Sen. Breene Harimoto, a former councilman, submitted written testimony addressing this very matter. He said the lack of a clear position has been “troubling” for him and his colleagues, especially as they consider two bills to extend the GET for anywhere from five years to 25 years.
“I support the construction of Honolulu’s rail system but some legislators, including myself, have deep concerns about rendering a decision to extend the GET surcharge without knowing the City Council’s position on this matter,” Harimoto said. “It would be unfortunate for this enabling legislation to be stalled in the Legislature because of a lack of action by, or ambiguous positions of, the Honolulu City Council on this matter.”