Don’t be fooled by Tuesday’s vote at the State Capitol on an extension of Honolulu’s rail tax. The issue is a long way from being settled.

Before the tax can be implemented it must get past Gov. David Ige’s veto pen and then be approved by the Honolulu City Council.

It’s the latter that might prove most difficult.

City Council Chairman Ernie Martin says he and his colleagues still have a lot of concerns about the lack of accountability and financial transparency surrounding the $6 billion project. Mayor Kirk Caldwell should not expect a rubber stamp of legislative approval.

Honolulu City Council Chair Ernie Martin.  1 apr 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin plans to look closely at the city’s $6 billion rail project before approving a tax extension to help pay for it.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“It would be disingenuous for the mayor to think the council will be an easy sell,” Martin told Civil Beat in a phone interview Monday. “I think it will be just as difficult, if not more difficult, than the process he encountered at the Legislature.”

Caldwell took his lumps over the last four months as he tried to convince state lawmakers to extend the 0.5 percent General Excise Tax surcharge for rail to help bridge a nearly $1 billion project shortfall.

Many legislators were upset at being thrust into the position of approving a tax increase for a city project that had long been touted as being “on time and on budget.”

Under House Bill 134, the City Council must adopt an ordinance by July 1, 2016, to extend the rail surcharge another five years beyond its Dec. 31, 2022 sunset.

Given the mayor’s frosty relationship with the council — and Martin in particular — it’s doubtful he has the political capital to pass such an ordinance unscathed.

Caldwell even admitted as much during a press conference last week, in which he acknowledged that the tax extension is “not out of the woods.”

But Martin made clear that he wants to leverage the council’s position to extract more information from the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation.

Martin said many council members were surprised when HART Executive Director and CEO Dan Grabauskas announced in December that the rail project was facing a nearly $1 billion shortfall.

Grabauskas had told them just a few months earlier that the project had a healthy cash balance to pay for possible construction snafus and cost overruns.

Council members, including Budget Committee Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi, have complained for years that they haven’t been getting the whole truth about rail.

Martin said he expects that to change during the debate over the GET extension, especially once the city auditor begins digging into the project.

Specifically, Martin wants HART to provide detailed spending data related to the hundreds of subcontractors working to build the 20-mile railroad from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center.

HART officials have been reluctant to share this information with the public, saying they weren’t legally required to track it and that it was up to the contractors to voluntarily release those details.

But a Civil Beat review of HART’s contracts found that public officials could get access to those spending details if they asked.

“We’re going to demand all that information,” Martin said. “And that will be public information.”

He added that the council will have the luxury of time when it comes to considering the GET extension, and that he wouldn’t be surprised if certain members seek amendments to the ordinance to improve oversight and accountability.

For example, Martin has earmarked $150,000 in the council budget to create a new position to help the council better monitor HART.

That person, according to the budget recommendation, would provide “expert advice” on project management, cost containment, procurement and budget oversight.

Martin said that type of expertise is needed when dealing with the largest public works undertaking in the state’s history. It could also ensure no one “pulls a fast one on the council,” he said.

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