The Honolulu rail’s operating budget will increase 11.5 percent to $34.9 million from $31.3 million for the next year, according to a budget approved Thursday by the board that oversees the troubled development.
The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation also okayed another $440.9 million for capital improvements.
The budget increase comes as city officials attempt to find a revenue source to pay for completed a project that is expected to cost $10 billion.
The Honolulu City Council earlier this month authorized the city to issue up to $350 million in bonds to ensure that HART can keep building the rail project through June 2018.
But there is still no long-term revenue source to finish the 20-mile line from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and HART had asked the Legislature to extend an 0.5 percent portion of the state’s general excise tax beyond a 2027 sunset date to pay for the rail project, but the Legislature balked.
Nor did lawmakers adopt an alternative measure that would have increased the hotel room tax by approximately 30 percent, from 9.25 percent to 12 percent for 10 years. As a result, the legislative session ended with no plan to pay for completion of the project.
Legislative leaders have announced plans to call their colleagues back from summer break for a special session to resolve the issue.
In the meantime, the budget approved Thursday lets HART keep working on the rail project.
Increased costs for staff and equipment are driving an overall increase in operating expenses for the 2018 fiscal year.
The budget calls for a $2.1 million increase to pay 137 full-time HART employees, including 33 design and construction workers, a dozen budget and finance staff, and 23.5 full-time equivalents handling planning, permitting and right-of-way issues.
Although the numbers of executive staff declined to eight from nine, executive office salaries increased 56 percent to $1.2 million from $790,000. the average budgeted salary for HART executive office personnel increased 76 percent to $155,025 from $87,811.
Although the budget raised few concerns during the meeting before the board passed it unanimously, board member Ember Shinn questioned an item to increase HART’s public information staff from five to seven.
A recent Civil Beat survey suggested that a large majority of Oahu residents are unhappy with the rail project, with nearly 87 percent of respondents saying they don’t like the current state of the project. Approximately 44 percent said the project was a good idea but the current state of execution was troubling, and 43 percent said it was a bad idea altogether.
Shinn said during the meeting that public confidence in the rail was “at an all time low.”
Responding to questions about HART’s public relations efforts, HART spokesman Bill Brennan painted a rosier picture. During a recent outreach at the Honolulu Night Market in Kakaako, for instance, Brennan said more than 90 percent of the people who visited HART’s booth favored the rail.
“What we hear out in public is overwhelming support of the project,” he said.
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