The Honolulu City Council approved a measure Wednesday to eliminate the $4.8 billion cap on how much general excise tax money can be used to build the city’s 20-mile rail project.

The project was originally supposed to cost $5.2 billion, but is now estimated to cost as much as $9.5 billion.

The bill passed at Wednesday’s full council meeting also limits the use of GET surcharge funds for rail construction and accessibility improvements in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

That’s a change from the 2015 measure that established the cap. The original measure allowed the funds to be used for planning and design costs for route extensions and supporting affordable housing in addition to accessibility improvements and construction.

“The cap was bad policy,” Councilman Ikaika Anderson said in an interview with Civil Beat. “The council has authority over (Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s) budget. If we are to restrict their spending, we do it via their budget process. We do not do it via their revenue stream.”

HART Rail Salt Lake Boulevard Aloha Stadium2. Near Kamehameha Hwy. 23 feb 2017
The Honolulu rail project’s ballooning costs has council members worried. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Anderson co-introduced Bill 3 along with Councilman Joey Manahan. Both have opposed the cap since it was introduced in 2015.

Anderson visited Washington, D.C., last month with Council Chair Ron Menor to attend the National Association of Counties’ legislative conference.

While in Washington, Anderson said he and Menor met with the officials from the Federal Transit Administration. According to Anderson, the federal officials said they found the cap to be “problematic” and “unequivocally” opposed it.

The bill passed 6-3 with council members Carol Fukunaga, Ann Kobayashi and Ernie Martin voting against it.

Councilman Trevor Ozawa introduced an amendment at Wednesday’s meeting that was ultimately rejected. But it shook things up at the meeting and highlighted concerns among council members about HART’s transparency and accountability.

Honolulu City Council Vice Chair Ikaika Anderson1. 1 june 2016.
Councilman Ikaika Anderson represents Windward Oahu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ozawa’s amendment would have required HART to submit quarterly reports detailing its revenues and expenditures, as well as a capital improvement program status report. HART currently submits these reports annually.

In testimony, the city’s Corporation Counsel cited concerns about the legality of the amendments.  

After a lengthy executive session, five council members opposed the amendment, including Kymberly Pine, Brandon Elefante, Menor, Anderson and Manahan.

The council members said they would support a separate bill with Ozawa’s proposals for quarterly reports. However, they were concerned adding it to Bill 3 might cause legal problems.

“I do not want to have any legal risk to Bill 3 whatsoever,” Anderson said at the meeting.

Council members supporting the bill wanted to see it passed before FTA’s April 30 deadline for the city’s recovery plan for the rail project.

“The recovery plan needs to provide assurances to the FTA that any and all laws and measures that are in place on the city level will ensure that there will be adequate funding to complete rail as originally planned,” Menor said.

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