What began as an effort to help businesses negatively impacted by rail ended up being merely a hollow gesture from the Honolulu City Council.

And that serves as a cautionary tale as the costly project stumbles toward the final stage of construction through the city’s dense urban core.

In 2015, the council created a fund to help businesses hurt by rail construction — but never provided any money.

A year later, the council granted property tax breaks to help those businesses and allocated $2 million in the city’s current budget to pay for them. But this time it failed to devise a way to administer the tax breaks.

A closed storefront across the street from construction at the Waipahu Transit Center on Dec. 27. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Councilman Ernie Martin told Civil Beat on Tuesday he plans to recommend that $2 million be included in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget.

Martin is the author of what’s known as the Transit Mitigation Fund, and he had recommended that it be included in the past two fiscal years to assist businesses adversely affected by the rail project.

Our hope is that the Council Budget Committee will accept this help for business owners, which Martin said would come in the form of grants and loans.

Meanwhile, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s plans to hire a business relations specialist to serve as an agency liaison with contractors and businesses may end up helping some business owners along the rail route.

Civil Beat’s report on the council’s failed attempts to help points toward other possible solutions. As is often the case, they involve looking to other municipalities with mass transit systems. And they often involve more than just providing financial assistance to struggling businesses. 

Look To The West Coast

Seattle’s Sound Transit, for example, advertises on Youtube, Facebook and in local movie theaters. It offers special promotions. Customers at participating businesses who spend $5 or more get a chance to win a private tour of a station or be on an inaugural ride. 

Sound Transit also has a community outreach program to help businesses understand construction, get advance notice of work plans and connect with a business liaison. HART has a similar program in place.

The Metro Rail in Los Angeles holds public information meetings with translators. HART also requires contractors to have community meetings, but does not require them to provide translators. That would he helpful, given that there are a lot of non-English speakers who work for businesses in ethnically diverse Honolulu.

Business owners along the Crenshaw/LAX line, also a diverse area, can also use Metro’s business solutions center to receive training on social media, websites and where to get other funding sources.

Seattle and Los Angeles share with Honolulu the unfortunate distinction of having lousy traffic. And it is by no means certain that Honolulu’s train will actually take drivers off the roads and highways.

But that’s the idea.

It would be best if we can also find a way to allow many existing businesses, especially longtime mom-and-pops, to stay open along the rail line, even as promises of transit-oriented development envision multimodal, livable communities around the stations.

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