For the mayor of Honolulu, a state legislative hearing this week on a bill to pay for rail was a bit of déjà vu.
It was just over a month ago that the House Transportation Committee approved legislation extending Oahu’s general excise tax surcharge beyond a 2027 sunset date.
Caldwell believes that’s the only way to pay for the entire route of the problematic rail project.
On Wednesday, the very same committee advanced a measure calling for extending the 0.5 percent surcharge on the GET, although it left unanswered the question of how long it would be in place.
But, to quote Yogi Berra, it may be “déjà vu all over again” for Caldwell should the House Finance Committee later reject the tax extension.
After all, the earlier House bill went nowhere. Meanwhile, the Senate Ways and Means killed the extension just a few weeks ago in a Senate version of the rail tax bill.
The political ping-pong can be dizzying, but Caldwell was clearly elated with the passage of an amended Senate Bill 1183, the only rail bill that remains.
After the vote, he smiled broadly and shook the hands of committee members as well as members of groups supporting rail such as unions and trade associations.
“I’m happy whenever you see a bill move forward that gives us a revenue stream sufficient to complete the 20 miles and 21 stations all the way to Ala Moana Center,” he told reporters. “But we had this resolved about a month ago. I am glad we have a vehicle moving in the right direction, and I hope House Finance will hear the bill.”
Even if Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke does hold a hearing for SB 1183, there’s a good chance the bill will be amended further.
Luke and WAM Chairwoman Jill Tokuda have been Caldwell’s biggest critics, believing the mayor and officials with the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation keep moving the goalpost when it comes to rail’s true cost and ultimate completion date.
Caldwell is well aware that anything can happen to SB 1183 — including the possibility that it could die.
If that happens, “we have some real problems,” the mayor said. “And of course we will be grilled before Finance on all the financial aspects, and HART and I and everyone else needs to be ready to answer tough questions. And then it moves into conference committee, where the real negotiation begins.”
House Transportation changed SB 1183 in several ways.
The sunset date for the surcharge extension has been left blank for now, and Chairman Henry Aquino said he would explain in the bill’s committee report that the plan is to not make the extension permanent. Any extension, he explained, would be up to Finance.
The bill will also leave blank for now the amount the state is allowed to skim from the Oahu surcharge, which is currently 10 percent. Tokuda’s committee had called for ending the skim and giving it all to the city, which city and HART officials say is welcomed but would force Honolulu to scramble for $1.7 billion to pay for the full rail line.
Caldwell said that was simply not realistic, noting that property taxes for some 250,000 homeowners would have to be increased by about 12 percent.
Aquino also said he would reinsert language into SB 1183 so that the state’s four counties can “discuss and determine” if they should adopt the surcharge (as Oahu has) to help pay for both county and state projects. An unspecified percentage of the surcharge would also go to state highway work.
The mayor was asked if he believes a compromise is in store for SB 1183.
He said he is by nature a hopeful person, but recognizes that “a huge challenge” with the rail tax is restoring trust with lawmakers who feel burned.
But the mayor also said he believed few want to see a future without rail. He rejected an idea by the Ulupono Initiative this week to include private financing for the last segment of rail, suggesting it was an interesting idea but comes too late.
Caldwell and HART’s interim CEO and executive director, Krishniah Murthy, warned that, under the Trump administration, “new start” funding projects are not likely to be launched with federal support.
The best plan, Caldwell and Murthy agree, is to present the Federal Transit Administration with a solid funding plan — i.e., a GET extension — by the end of April. That way, the $1.55 billion in federal funding for the $8.2 billion rail project won’t be jeopardized.
April 30 falls on a Sunday this year.
That’s two days after the Legislature concludes its conference committee period to finalize all the bills that remain alive at that time.