A federal agency may have given Honolulu an April 30 deadline to pull a rail financing plan together, but a key state lawmaker said this week she isn’t feeling any pressure to approve enabling legislation by that date.

The Federal Transit Administration wants to know how the city will make up a huge project shortfall. Otherwise, $1.55 billion in federal support for rail could be at risk.

Construction is currently expected to cost $8.2 billion. But that figure does not account for interest and financing costs, which could tack on upwards of $2 billion more.

Earlier this month, one estimate by the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation said the cost could go as high as $9.5 billion.

That leaves a shortfall of as much as $2.7 billion to finish the project as originally planned.

A contingency plan to reduce costs would cut the rail line short at downtown and eliminate rail stops.

Senate Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda speaks to media regarding Gov Ige's budget announcement. 19 dec 2016
Senate Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda speaks to reporters at the Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

City and HART officials have called for an extension of a tax surcharge already being used to pay for rail. Their desire is to complete the 20-mile, 21-station rail line as originally planned, from East Kapolei to the Ala Moana Center.

The current 0.5 percent surcharge on the general excise tax expires in 2027.

But Sen. Jill Tokuda on Monday dismissed suggestions that the Hawaii Legislature fast-track a GET bill in the 2017 session, which begins Jan. 16.

“Rail obviously is top of mind for many individuals, and that being said, an important issue like rail — like any other issue — means that we really have to dedicate the time to discussing it and to making sure that we focus in on every part of those details,” said Tokuda, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “So in terms of fast-tracking it, I don’t think we want to say, ‘Yes, we’re going to fast-track any part of those discussions.’ We want to make sure that meaningful public discussion takes place on weighing the options before us.”

Workers at the base of the HART railway guideway in Waipahu.
Workers at the base of the HART railway guideway in Waipahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Tokuda’s position is similar to that of her counterpart in the House of Representatives, Rep. Sylvia Luke. The House Finance Committee chair has said she wants to see a financial plan from the city and HART that makes sense.

Tokuda said, “I think it would not be fair to the issue or to the public to say we’re going to fast-track it because, again, it’s such an important issue to the public. I think it’s one that begs answers to many questions that have been ongoing and that have been lingering for so long that I don’t think even myself or anyone that I’ve spoken to on any side of the issue says we should fast-track it at this particular point.”

On Dec. 1 the Honolulu City Council unanimously approved a resolution reiterating its support for completion of the full rail line from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center.

The Council called for extending Honolulu’s 0.5 percent surcharge on the GET and said it would also explore public-private partnership options and seek an adjustment to the state’s administrative fee of 10 percent to administer the surcharge.

The “skim,” as it’s called, is expected to total at least $440 million and perhaps more over the course of the current tax timeline. That figure would grow should the tax be further extended.

But state legislators have not indicated whether a transfer of the skim to the city is something they would accept.

The Legislature, which will conclude its 2017 session in early May, could still elect to fast-track a GET bill. Gov. David Ige could also sign it into law soon after.

The Council and Mayor Kirk Caldwell would then likely quickly approve the extension at the city level.

But Tokuda is resisting any such pressure.

“I  know that the FTA has set this date in time,” she said. “I don’t think they were thinking necessarily, ‘Well, the Legislature is in session, they’ve got conference in April, so why don’t we give them until April 30?’”

Tokuda was referring to the two-week conference committee period that comes just before the last days of the session, when key measures either survive the process and go on to final votes or die for the year.

Tokuda said the public wants the opportunity to provide input on the GET surcharge.

“They want to make sure we go through the process of deliberating,” she explained. “I think first and foremost our responsibility is not to the FTA deadline. Our responsibility is to the people and the process. And that’s what I’m committed to.”

Andrew Pereira, a spokesperson for Caldwell, who is on vacation, said he “looks forward to working with the state Legislature” on the issue.

Council Chair Ernie Martin, meanwhile, said this:

I agree with Senator Tokuda that the people and the process should take priority over any deadline imposed by the FTA. We participated in a deliberate, open process when the City requested the previous extension and repeating those steps is the only way to maximize public participation and comment.

That said, the City Council, the administration and HART will work hard this session to work on a compromise funding agreement that respects the legislative process while considering the deadline set by our federal partners. This is not a city or state issue, and the project is much more than a train. It is the economic engine of the near future and a badly needed alternative to sitting in traffic. We made a commitment to build this 20-mile, 21-station system, approved by the voters and we have to work together to follow through on that promise.

Despite the rising costs, a majority of voters surveyed in a Civil Beat Poll in October said the want the entire rail line completed.

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