When Kirk Caldwell first ran for mayor, in 2010, the top issue was rail.

When he ran again in 2012, the top issue was rail.

Now, as he segues into re-election mode, the top issue in the City and County of Honolulu is rail.

“And you know, rail is going to remain the issue for the remainder of the building of this system,” he said. “I want another four years, and then I’m pau. The system isn’t going to be completed by then. And whoever runs (in 2020), it will be the issue.”

Caldwell sums it up: “It’s probably natural that it should be the issue. It’s the largest construction project in the history of the whole state of Hawaii, bar none.”

Caldwell told me this Saturday, the day he officially opened his campaign headquarters. I had a couple of questions, especially this one: Was he worried that the $6.6 billion project would overshadow the election, pushing aside what he asserts is a good first term as head of one of the largest cities in the country?

Mayor Kirk Caldwell signs at the Mayors’ campaign headquarters kickoff. 16 april 2016.
The Caldwell campaign officially opened its headquarters Saturday at the Nimitz Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

After all, he has talked at length about all the roads that have been paved under his watch, the sewer lines maintained, the repairs done to bathrooms in parks, the bike lanes built to share space with drivers, the Housing First plan underway to help the homeless. His first campaign advertisement, a radio spot, emphasizes infrastructure, and Caldwell said televisions ads are in the works.

The mayor replied by saying that there are “obviously important issues that this state and this city and county face. But there is no doubt — I talk about it all the time — rail is a game changer.”

How Will Voters React?

In Caldwell’s view, rail will change things for the better. But he also has no illusions that the public isn’t concerned about how it is going, and that voters might be looking to hold someone responsible in the Aug. 13 primary election.

Those concerns reached a boiling point last week when the chair of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation resigned under pressure, a city audit affirmed previous news reports that the project was being managed poorly and HART’s executive director and CEO lambasted the audit as deeply flawed.

Some rail critics are saying that Don Horner, by quitting the top HART post, serves as a convenient fall guy for all that is wrong with rail, while Dan Grabauskas’ subsequent blistering rebuke of the audit puts the onus squarely on his leadership.

HART Rail supports along Kamehameha Hwy as Kiewit workers assemble concrete forms for rail guideway supports. 14 april 2016.
As the rail project enters the urban core, new issues could arise to add to costs and delays. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The audit may help deflect blame from Caldwell, at least until the next cost overrun or delay or financing hitch. The mayor had written to HART in March that he was worried that contract delays and underground utility problems could lead to more problems.

But the audit could also help potential opponents like City Council Chairman Ernie Martin, who called for a change in HART leadership just days before it actually happened. And it was Caldwell who was the chief salesman convincing the Legislature to extend the General Excise Tax surcharge to pay for rail.

Regardless of who sits on HART, Caldwell said, “We still live with the facts that we have. And those facts are the … hottest construction market in the United States. Those facts are building a system through one of the most dense urban cores in the United States. I mean, our city may not be Chicago or L.A. or New York, but our city in terms of buildings over 10 stories ranks in the top five.”

His point is that Honolulu is “squished,” and that building a rail line through dense neighborhoods is going to create a whole new set of issues to deal with.

Audit Process ‘Flawed’

Caldwell said his goal now is to “take the emotion out of this that we’ve seen in the last week.” He said he planned to read through the audit, which includes HART’s response, and to then sit down with HART Board members to address what was raised.

But he did say that he thinks the audit process “was flawed” because it was leaked before HART had a chance to weigh in.

Having read the report’s summary, he also observed that there was nothing in the audit that hasn’t already been written about in the media.

“But now it’s in black and white,” he said, adding the audit would help HART become “more activated, to help them ask harder questions, help them make sure the executive director and everyone is really making absolutely certain that whatever number they’re using is a realistic number. Not the best number but the real number. And if it’s high, we need to talk about it.”

Mayor Kirk Caldwell hugs a supporter during kickoff of his campaign headquarters. 16 april 2016.
Caldwell says he loves people and therefore loves campaigning. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Caldwell is not sure why no serious mayoral challenger has emerged yet.

“I thought there would be someone who would pull papers and file by now, a legitimate candidate,” he said. “You know, I am not urging that someone run against me. Obviously, I want the job another four years. But I do believe that people deserve a choice. I believe in the process. … And choice is part of that, arguing ideas.”

The mayor said he is not taking re-election for granted and plans to campaign “in every area of the island, like I did last time. … I need to earn every vote. Local-style, you’ve got to earn the vote. And people believe that you got to show you want it.”

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