It is perhaps fitting that on Mother’s Day, as I reflect on my life as a mother, I feel compelled to write once again about the Honolulu rail fiasco. I wonder what kind of tax burden my boys (and others) are going to face in the years to come.

For several years I’ve been pointing out errors and asking about inconsistencies related to the numbers used by the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, but the problem persists.

HART recently submitted its recovery plan to the Federal Transit Administration. Figure 6-2 of that plan includes a cash flow projection that includes additional debt in 2025 that generates an excess cash balance (based on the prior eight years’ ending balances) of about $180 million. The excess decreases over the next few years, but in the meantime is estimated to cost about 3 percent annually.

Elaine Kam holds her sign ’Financial accountability before additional Taxes’ during WAM meeting after testifying in 211 Capitol. Chair Tokuda listened to testimony from the public, dept heads and Mayor Caldwell and HART. 27 feb 2017
Elaine Kam holds a sign calling for “Financial accountability before additional taxes” during a legislative hearing in February. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

When I asked HART about it, I was told that the figure was merely “a placeholder.” This “placeholder” was also in HART’s Update of the Final Financial Plan for the Full Funding Grant Agreement dated Dec. 1, 2016.

When do we get to see the real numbers?

The cash flow projection in the recovery plan is significantly different than the one included in the budget submittal for fiscal year 2018 that was provided to the Honolulu City Council.

Shouldn’t cash projections include clear assumptions and reconciliations when more than one set is out there?

During legislative hearings, after it was clear legislators did not support extending the surcharge in perpetuity, the mayor indicated he wanted it to be extended for 20 years.

Does the mayor already estimate rail will cost $12 billion? Is that why the projections to 2047 were not available to the public?

During legislative hearings there was discussion about the importance of transit oriented development, transparency, the financial burden of rail on residents and why no changes should be made to the current plan. It’s important to note the following:

  • Rail is not needed for TOD. Development may occur around bus stations as well;
  • Real property taxes, as noted by Rep. Sylvia Luke, are paid by nonresidents as well as residents;
  • HART still does not post testimonies online, and its monthly report to the board no longer includes a cash balance summary (a simple chart that showed beginning cash, surcharge and federal grant monies received, costs paid and ending cash);
  • Costs to deviate from the current plan have never included cost savings that would result from not having to follow federal requirements; and
  • Driverless buses are going through pilot projects on the mainland, and signal lights can be programmed to give priority to buses.

The Honolulu City Council has so far made zero cuts to HART’s budgets for next year. Cuts to rent last year are being made up by “savings in other line items,” according to HART’s CFO last November.

HART plans on hiring two additional employees for community outreach next fiscal year. Outreach includes elementary schools, Boy Scout troops and open houses in libraries around the island. These seemingly minor costs make me wonder what I would find if I dug into HART’s construction contracts.

When I think about all of this, I realize it’s going to take a whole lot more than new management and the City Council to bring some accountability to the rail project. I do not support additional funding for rail, but if our political leaders decide that more money should be given, then perhaps forcing the city to pay for rail construction with city funds would create more accountability.

Perhaps if taxpayers saw a line on their real property tax bills that said “rail tax,” they would stage protests against additional funding, costs might be controlled, and a reasonable alternative to steel wheel on steel rail might seriously be considered.

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