In Hawaii, an island oasis for Democrats, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is about as popular as Republican President Donald Trump.

And it looks like Caldwell might have the rail project to blame for it.

Trump has historically low approval ratings both here and across the U.S. But Caldwell is right there with him, according to the The Civil Beat Poll.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell looks on as HART Director Krishniah Murthy gets grilled by WAM chair Jill Tokuda. 27 feb 2017
Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s approval rating has plummeted as the city’s rail project has grown in cost. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The survey found that only 32 percent of the state’s registered voters polled had a positive view of Caldwell, a lifelong Democrat who once served in the Hawaii Legislature.

The mayor’s statewide approval rating is identical to Trump’s at 32 percent.

And Caldwell’s favorability dips even farther among his constituents living on Oahu.

How We Did It

Only 31 percent of respondents on Oahu have a positive opinion of Caldwell. More than half — about 51 percent — have a negative view. Voters living in areas that won’t directly benefit from the rail project have a more negative view of Caldwell than those who do.

The rail project, which was estimated to cost about $5.2 billion in 2012, has ballooned to nearly $10 billion during his time as mayor.

“He’s having to do a lot of things that are tough right now, especially with rail,” said Matthew Fitch, executive director of Merriman River Group, which conducted The Civil Beat Poll. “It’s just a super hard period for him at the moment. Maybe once rail is up and running people will feel differently, but right now all they see is the pain and the cost.”

Nearly 87 percent of Oahu respondents don’t like the current state of the rail project.

Fitch said that doesn’t mean they don’t support the concept, it’s just that the execution has people worried.

“Right now rail is a troubled enterprise,” Fitch said. “Nobody likes rail. Nobody.”

Caldwell’s approval rating was 54 percent in 2015. The precipitous drop might not bode well for future political aspirations he might have.

About 48 percent percent of those polled on Oahu said Caldwell is doing a “bad job” at managing the rail project. Forty percent say he’s done his “best in a bad situation.”

Few, however, said the mayor has done a good job of managing what is considered the largest infrastructure project in Hawaii’s history. Only 10 percent of Oahu voters said they like how he’s handled the adversity.

Dennis Callan, of Makiki, participated in The Civil Beat Poll and is the co-founder of Stop Rail Now. He’s also served on the Manoa Neighborhood Board and on an advisory committee to the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Callan describes himself as a “left-wing Democrat” who supports public rail transit. He just doesn’t think it’s the right solution for Honolulu and also blames Caldwell for the project’s problems.

“Rail is a disaster,” Callan said. “I’ve been opposed to rail for 30 years. It’s just not the appropriate solution for this island. I’m a big fan of rail for big, dense cities.”

HART rail guideway car photo op Farrington Hwy Waipahu Sugar Mill1. 30 may 2017
Honolulu’s rail project has divided voters for years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Caldwell failed to convince legislators this year to once again extend a general excise tax surcharge to help pay for the anticipated cost overruns. He now faces the possibility of having to use city property taxes and other revenue sources — such as increased parking fees — to help bridge the funding gap, including operating costs.

He’s also holding out hope that legislators will hold a special session to reconsider extending the GET surcharge or develop other funding sources. Officials have said the project, which is short about $3 billion, will run out of money in January if new funds aren’t secured.

The Civil Beat Poll gauged voter preferences for how they’d prefer to deal with the shortfall, including the options of extending the GET surcharge, raising residential property taxes, raising hotel taxes or some combination of the three.

Most people polled on Oahu, about 30 percent, said they’d like the tourism industry to help foot the bill through increased hotel taxes. The next best option, according to those polled, would be a balance of the various tax proposals.

The least desirable option, by far, is to increase property taxes for rail. Only 1 percent of Oahu voters thought that would be a good idea.

Eighteen percent of Oahu voters who were polled said they did not want any sort of tax increase, even if it meant that the rail project would not be finished.

Marilyn Requena is a 70-year-old retiree who lives in Aiea and describes herself as “the last Republican liberal in captivity.” The poll respondent voted for Barack Obama twice, and has negative views of both Trump and Caldwell.

Requena’s displeasure with Caldwell, however, isn’t necessarily tied to rail. Rather, it’s her perception that he has a pro-development stance, and she’s particularly concerned about projects on Oahu’s North Shore.

Requena has mixed feelings about the rail project, which she feels has been managed poorly.

She doesn’t like the impact that construction has had on businesses in her community. But she also understands that when she’s no longer able to drive, the rail line will connect her to other parts of the island.

Requena would like to see the project completed, but she doesn’t want her property taxes increased to do it. She’d prefer a mix of other taxes increased, such as the transient accommodations tax paid at hotels or the GET surcharge.

“Nobody should have an unfair burden,” she said. “I’m a retiree on a fixed income. I really can’t afford to have the taxes go up much more.”

Not everyone has a beef with Caldwell. Poll respondent Robert Dusendschon also lives in Aiea, and is an ardent supporter of the rail project, although he admits that the traffic congestion caused by construction has tried his patience.

“It’s been absolute hell on Kam Highway trying to get anywhere in Aiea and Pearl City,” Dusendschon said. “It’s just something we have to live with. But, man, when you’re sitting in traffic sweating and you’re not moving you want to yell at somebody.”

Caldwell could be an easy target for Dusendschon’s anger, but he doesn’t blame the mayor.

Dusendschon thinks Caldwell has been doing a good job regarding rail. He said it’s similar to the H3 interstate project, which also had a lot of detractors when it was being built.

“He seems to be a real level-headed, cool politician,” Dusendschon said. “He’s in a tough spot because of the cost overruns, but at least he’s not wishy-washy about it. He’s a supporter. He’s doing what needs to be done to get the project pushed through. I give him a lot of credit for just being consistent.”

But don’t compare Caldwell to Trump, he added. “That guy’s a nut job.”

Coming Friday: Voters weigh in on President Donald Trump and several of his recent policy decisions. 

About the Author