Although they spoke two hours apart and in separate locations, the mayor of Honolulu and the new chairman of the City Council seemed at times to be reading from similar scripts.
Kirk Caldwell, freshly sworn in for a second term Tuesday morning at McCoy Pavilion in Ala Moana Regional Park, said there is no greater goal than completing the entire Honolulu rail project.
“Rail is worth fighting for every single day,” said the mayor, tying its success to the economic viability of Honolulu.
Oahu, he stressed, is home to three-fourths of the state’s population. Honolulu is the state’s capital and the economic “powerhouse.” If rail “thrives” — a word Caldwell used several times — the entire state thrives along with it.
Sitting in the McCoy audience was Councilman Ron Menor, wearing sunglasses against the glare. Not long after, Caldwell was in attendance at Honolulu Hale when Menor was sworn in as the new Council chairman.
Menor, too, identified financing rail as the city’s top priority and said he would strongly advocate that the state Legislature extend a tax surcharge to provide the necessary revenue stream. Affordable housing and homelessness are also top priorities, the leaders agreed.
What is uniting Menor and Caldwell — and, for now at least, the eight other Council members, who voted unanimously Tuesday to replace Ernie Martin as chairman — is the need to show unity before the Legislature.
The Federal Transit Administration has given the city and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation until the end of April to come up with a financing scheme. If not, the FTA may yank $1.55 billion in funding for the project.
The end of April is also when the Legislature will be in the final deliberations of its 2017 session, which concludes in early May.
In short, time is running out.
To complete the 20-mile, 21-station rail line as originally planned, from East Kapolei to the Ala Moana Center, officials are going to have to come up with a way to make up for a deficit currently pegged at almost $2 billion. Under one scenario, total project costs could reach $9.5 billion.
Like the mayor, Menor said HART and city officials need to explain to legislators the benefits of rail and to make clear how central it is to Oahu’s transportation matrix.
To accomplish that, he said, HART must provide reliable, credible cost projections, something that hasn’t happened often since ground was broken in 2011.
Also like the mayor, Menor linked Oahu’s transportation needs with the need to take care of transportation infrastructure across the state and said a revenue stream for those projects is desired.
And he said he wanted to see real-time updates on rail posted online.
It will be a tall order to convince the Legislature to extend Oahu’s general excise tax surcharge of 0.5 percent beyond its 2027 sunset date.
Leaders of the House and Senate money committees have already voiced skepticism, based on all the cost overruns and delays to date. The rail line was originally slated to cost $5.2 billion.
They are also reluctant to grant the city’s wish to provide it with the 10 percent of the surcharge revenue that the state has been keeping for its own needs.
Even beyond rail, Tuesday’s events represent a change in the political landscape at Honolulu Hale.
In November, Caldwell defeated challenger Charles Djou, who continually harped on what he described as the mayor’s failure of leadership, especially when it came to rail. With four more years in office, the mayor’s hand has likely been strengthened.
The change in Council leadership also bodes well for Caldwell. Council members Martin, Ann Kobayashi and Trevor Ozawa had supported Djou, while Kymberly Pine, Brandon Elefante, Joey Manahan and Ikaika Anderson backed Caldwell.
Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga remained officially neutral during the campaign, and it appeared to be the same for Menor. But in late October, his name and photo appeared in a full-page newspaper advertisement endorsing the mayor’s re-election bid.
Under Martin’s leadership, relations between the executive and legislative branches had been deemed by some as nearly dysfunctional.
The political history of the the city revolves around the relationship between the mayor and the Council, and no power-sharing arrangement lasts forever. Martin also toyed with the notion of challenging the mayor in his re-election bid before opting not to.
In the days ahead, the Council will also have to decide who will chair key committees such as those focused on budgeting and zoning. Anderson will remain vice chair while Pine will be majority floor leader.
Martin, in his farewell remarks as chair, struck a conciliatory and optimistic tone. He described 2017 as “an open book full of blank pages,” one that he expressed confidence city officials would be able to fill together.
(Martin also joked that any complaints about rail should go to HART executives K.N. Murthy and Brennon Morioka, who attended both swearing-in ceremonies. That got a lot of laughs.)
Caldwell said he will soon introduce rail revenue-enhancing measures and seek Council approval. He noted that roughly one-third of Oahu’s general excise tax revenue comes from tourists and that 5 million of the state’s 8 million annual tourists visit and spend money on Oahu.
The mayor also noted that sufficient rail ridership will be key to its success once it is in operation. Should the rail line be stopped near Aloha Tower downtown, as has been considered, Caldwell said it could lose half of its 120,000 projected passengers, since a shortened line would not run along the dense urban corridor that stretches from downtown to Ala Moana Center.
The mayor warned that a shorter route could lead to legal challenges, the need for a supplemental environmental impact statement, greater delays and more costs.
Now is no time to “retreat and think small,” he argued, but rather the time to “dream big.”
Will the comity between the mayor and the chair last?
Kobayashi, who has been a Council member off and on since 2003 and has seen her share of leadership changes, expressed confidence in Menor, whom she has worked with both on the Council and in the Legislature.
“Ron is a good guy who likes to bring people together,” she said. “He’s good to work with and he can be trusted.”
But Kobayashi said City Council relations with a mayor are always in flux and that it’s normal “not to agree on things.” She cast doubt on Caldwell’s projection of sufficient rail ridership numbers, for example.
She also said she was pleased that Menor insisted the Council will not be “a rubber stamp” and added the future of the rail project may depend on whether the FTA will consider a shorter route.