The city does not have enough available funds to finish the rail project. It has convinced the state Legislature and the governor to give Oahu the authority to extend the rail GET surcharge for 5 more years.

Now the ball passes to the Oahu City Council. Only it has the authority to actually extend the rail tax. The City Council has until next summer to raise the tax.

A five-year rail tax extension will cost every person on Oahu approximately $200 per year, according to the Tax Foundation. So, this extension will not be taken lightly by the council.

Rail guideway columns along Farrington Highway as construction moves eastward. 21 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Honolulu’s rail project faces some steep financial challenges, especially as construction moves into the city’s urban core.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The choice exists for the council to do nothing. Then, the city will have to shorten the rail project. Having a shortened rail stop at the airport, Middle Street or Hilo Hattie’s should be discussed.

Since we started paying the rail GET surcharge, the mood surrounding the project has changed.  We are getting daily reports of problems associated with the project – contractor problems, ethics problems, business interruptions, financial concerns, worries about finishing on time, etc. And now the council must meet to consider extending the surcharge tax for five more years beyond the original 2022 end date.

The council has tremendous leverage over the city in this case. The city is desperate. In this situation, the council should use its leverage and force the city to tell the taxpayers the unvarnished facts about the project before considering any tax extension.

The taxpayers — car commuters, commercial commuters, bus riders, seniors, visitor industry representatives, and business owners along the rail route — deserve to be told all the details the city knows about this project. 

The question is who on the council is willing to be a champion and ask tough questions and demand clear answers about the rail project.

Here is a short list of five questions that the city should answer truthfully before the council considers any rail tax extension. 

• Provide the council with an accounting of every penny spent on the rail project since 2007.  Who got paid, how much, and what services were provided for the money? Was every penny well spent? Were any of our tax dollars wasted?

• Tell the council exactly how the city plans to pay for the annual operating and maintenance of rail (a number that we now know is an additional $100 million above what we now pay for the bus and hand-van)? Property tax increase or some new fee increase?

• Tell the council how rail will affect current bus riders — which bus routes will be eliminated to force bus riders to become rail riders and how much will bus fares increase because of rail? There are 20 bus routes named in the rail FEIS that will be eliminated or shortened to force bus riders to become rail riders.  Which council districts have the bus route changes? The rail financial statements outline the anticipated bus fare increases.

• Tell the council how West Oahu car commuters will be affected by rail.  Will their daily commute, measured in minutes to their destination, be less than it is now, be the same, or be more than it is today once rail is up and running? The FEIS for rail clearly details how the H-1 corridor will have thousands more cars per hour with rail.

• Tell the council who will ride rail. The topic of ridership has never been addressed. How many riders are estimated to come from the bus, how many are in the category “walk to rail,” how many are in the category “kiss and ride,” and finally, “park and ride”? What are the city’s plans if their ridership estimates are not met and the rail cars are mostly empty all day long? Low ridership is the biggest risk for the project. Are we building a white elephant?

The city will need to appear in front of the council, with the TV cameras rolling, to make its case for the rail tax extension. It will not be able to dodge any questions.

The answers to the above questions will expose an expensive, poorly managed, very risky project that has no positive benefit for our traffic problems on Oahu.

Who will be our champion at the City Council? Who will demand answers to these and other tough rail project questions on behalf of the taxpayers?

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author