Some $800 million in funds is still to be paid from a $1.55 billion grant from the Federal Transit Administration.
The open letter from the former governor to the president portrays the partially built elevated train as a $10 billion boondoggle: a pork-barrel project driven by a multi-million-dollar public relations campaign and Hawaii’s powerful late U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye. The ad notes Inouye once said it “would take World War III to stop the rail project!”
“The rail project exists today mainly because the FTA buckled under pressure from U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye who was then chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee,” the ad states.
“Honolulu’s rail project does not deserve a dollar more from the federal government,” the ad states. “It has become a poster boy for how politics, incompetence, disinformation and outright lies are at the root of wasteful rail projects which do little for the public except raise taxes.”
In an interview Friday, Cayetano said his team emailed the advertisement to Elaine Chao, Trump’s transportation secretary, through an intermediary who knows Chao. He said he has not heard back from Chao.
The FTA could not be reached for comment Friday, and a spokesman for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which is managing rail construction, did not return calls for comment.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell issued a statement noting that there have been three election cycles in which rail was a central issue, and each time voters supported a rail line with 20 miles of guideway and 21 stations, despite critical newspaper ads like Friday’s from Cayetano. Caldwell said he will continue to push to extend for 10 years a half-percent general excise tax dedicated to rail.
“This will allow the country’s first driverless train to reach all the way to Ala Moana Center and ensure a viable project,” he said. “That’s what the people of O‘ahu expect, and that’s what I’m concentrating on.”
Cayetano’s open letter is correct in stating that the 20-mile, 21-station rail project, which is supposed to run from East Kapolei to the Ala Moana Center, is far over budget and behind schedule. In 2012, when the city signed a funding agreement with the FTA, the cost was pegged at about $5.2 billion. Even that figure was substantially higher than the figure put to voters in a 2008 referendum.
The current sources of funding – $1.55 billion from the FTA and the proceeds of an Oahu-only 0.5 percent surcharge on the state general excise tax – would generate only $6.8 billion. That’s more than $3 billion short of the project’s estimated cost of $10 billion.
Cayetano said cutting $800 million from the FTA money would not necessarily kill the rail project, but instead force the city to scale back the line and consider cheaper alternatives. The project could stop at Middle Street, for example, and use a bus rapid transit system to transport passengers into town, Cayetano said. Emerging technology such as self-driving cars soon will make light train lines obsolete, he argued.
Meanwhile, he said, the project is sucking up enormous amounts of tax money that could be used to help solve problems that are far more pressing for Honolulu residents, such education and housing.
“Community college could be free,” he said, citing the opportunity costs associated with funneling $10 billion toward the train. “With a billion dollars, you could have a five-year plan to build affordable rentals.”
Cayetano has been one of the rail project’s highest-profile critics. Governor from 1994 to 2002, he came out of retirement to launch an unsuccessful bid to be Honolulu mayor in the 2012 election. He based his campaign on an anti-rail platform, but was defeated by Caldwell, a former Honolulu managing director and rail champion.
The race between Cayetano and Caldwell was defined by negative campaigning and attack ads, primarily by the pro-rail Pacific Resource Partnership, a carpenters union group, which conducted a major campaign to keep Cayetano out of office.
Caldwell won the race, buoyed by support from Inouye and pro-rail supporters. Not only did PRP spend millions of dollars on its campaign, but another union-supported political committee, Workers for a Better Hawaii, also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Caldwell’s behalf.
Friday’s ad includes a small, stylized map of the Hawaiian islands and renderings, courtesy of the architecture organization AIA Honolulu of photographs showing before-and-after pictures the Honolulu cityscape, with a photo of the city as it is now and a photo illustration what it would look like with the elevated train. The ad says it is paid for by the Abigail K. Kawananakoa Foundation.
Cayetano signs off with a personal appeal, noting that he and Trump met when the president’s Miss Universe Pageant was held in Honolulu. At the time, Cayetano says, Trump commented on Honolulu’s beauty.
“The rail project plans include seven massive elevated rail stations 50-60 feet high and the 35 foot high elevated rail line through the heart of downtown Honolulu,” the ad states. “If built, this will change the beauty and ambience of the city forever.”
Here’s the ad as it appears in the Washington Post: