This was supposed to be a low-drama year for Honolulu rail.

But six months after state leaders passed a $2.4 billion bailout package for the project and moved on to other pressing matters, such as Hawaii’s affordable housing and homelessness crises, political intrigue sweeping through Honolulu Hale has suddenly renewed questions about rail’s future.

Ernie Martin, who was ousted as the Honolulu City Council’s longtime chairman in January 2017, is poised to reclaim that post Monday. He’s promised he won’t make life easy for his longtime rival, Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

Specifically, Martin opposes Caldwell’s recent proposal to borrow $44 million next year to help cover rail costs. It’s part of a new city rail burden that could total as much as $214 million during construction, as required under the Legislature’s package.

“It’s a non-starter for me,” Martin said of the proposed rail-borrowing during an interview Tuesday. “But I’m just one vote,” he added with a wry smile.

HART rail guideway car photo op Farrington Hwy Waipahu Sugar Mill1. 30 may 2017
Honolulu’s rail project faces an uncertain path forward with City Council reorganization looming. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The latest upheaval comes as the Federal Transit Administration reviews whether the city’s recovery plan to build all 20 miles and 21 stations to Ala Moana Center is realistic. If it’s rejected, the city could lose an additional $744 million in federal money for rail, and be forced to pay back some or all of the more than $800 million it already received.

It also sets the stage for yet another contentious local debate over the best way to pay for Hawaii’s largest-ever public works project.

Martin’s likely seizure of the council’s top post from the current chairman, Ron Menor, is largely thanks to their council colleague, Kymberly Pine, who officially defected last week from the Menor-lead bloc to serve as Martin’s vice-chair instead.

Honolulu City Councilwoman Kymberly Pine, left, likely will align with Councilwomen Carol Fukunaga, center, and Ann Kobayashi under a looming leadership shakeup. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

Pine, who represents a generally pro-rail Leeward Coast district, reaffirmed her support for the project Tuesday and took issue with the suggestion that the council shakeup could jeopardize its completion to Ala Moana Center.

“It is insulting for the mayor, or any member of the council, to say that I would be part of any reorganization that would not ensure that we complete rail as the taxpayers are hoping,” she said, referring to comments in recent media reports. “New members of this reorganization will not do anything to stop rail from being successful.”

On Tuesday, Pine pointed to two key reasons for switching camps: First, she said she wants to avoid the “mismanagement and wasteful spending” that’s historically plagued rail by asking tougher questions of the Caldwell administration and its latest borrowing plan.

Secondly, Pine said she believed the council’s female members haven’t gotten credit for their work on recent legislative matters such as the bill to reform fire-sprinkler requirements following the devastating Marco Polo blaze and a moratorium on so-called “monster homes” proliferating in town.

“It was how I was treated, and how I saw other women treated on council,” she said Tuesday.

The shakeup could also leave Pine better positioned for a mayoral run in 2020, but she denied that had anything to do with her decision. “In political life, that’s like 10 years,” she said, suggesting that a lot can happen before 2020.

Both Pine and Martin said they were vexed when Menor and the current Budget Committee chair, Joey Manahan, signed on to a recent Caldwell letter to the FTA committing to the $44 million in rail spending without consulting other council members. Menor was not available for comment Tuesday.

Pine declined to say who first suggested the council shakeup.

Feds Want A Local Commitment

For the council to even authorize using city dollars for rail construction, it first must approve Bill 42. Menor introduced that measure last year to reverse the existing policy that blocks city spending on rail. Council members held off approving it last year, however, while they waited to see how the Legislature would respond to the project’s latest budget problems.

The bill was recently deferred and it currently sits in the Council’s Budget Committee. That group’s membership is likely to be overhauled if Martin takes over, however.

Martin said he doesn’t plan to vote for Bill 42 in “its present state,” and noted that it would have to clear his revamped Budget Committee before it comes to a full floor vote.

Councilman Ikaika Anderson, a staunch rail supporter, said Tuesday that he’s not committed to the bill.

“It’s not going to be easy” to pass a rail-borrowing plan, added Councilwoman Ann Kobayahsi, a Martin ally who led the Budget committee when he was last chairman.

Caldwell said he thinks Bill 42’s chances of passing are “questionable” with the looming council shakeup.

“The FTA’s totally onto all of this,” the mayor said. “They’re paying attention very closely.”

In a statement Tuesday, the FTA said it has “no role in local decisions regarding city council leadership positions.” The federal agency added, however that it won’t release any more dollars until “all local funds have been sufficiently committed.”

Another Spending Debate Looms

A Menor-led council likely would approve Caldwell’s rail-borrowing proposal with ease. Now, Honolulu leaders will likely spend the weeks and months ahead debating the best way for the city to cover as much as $215 million of the cost of rail during construction.

The city enjoys a AA+ credit rating from the investor service Moody’s, which helps keep borrowing costs low. Still, Caldwell, Menor and other leaders have previously fretted the city might lose that rating if rail costs grow any more burdensome, making the overall cost to borrow more expensive.

“Should the funding not be adequate … there could be a negative impact on the City’s bond rating which would increase financing costs,” Menor wrote in his testimony for last year’s state bailout package.

WAM committee questions Honolulu City Council Chair Ron Menor and Mayor Caldwell.
City Council Chairman Ron Menor and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell have worked closely together on rail issues. Councilman Ernie Martin, a longtime Caldwell rival, is poised to take Menor’s place. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In its August outlook on the city’s financial health, Moody’s said that “greater certainty regarding rail costs” could upgrade its credit, while “inability to manage (the) escalating fixed cost burden” could lead to a downgrade.

On Tuesday, Caldwell said he’s confident the city’s debt load can handle $215 million for rail during construction without hurting its credit, but he “wouldn’t want to speculate how much more.”

There are limits on how much the city can bond without hurting its credit rating, Martin said Tuesday. In recent budget cycles the city has neared the limit of 20 percent of the operating budget.

Honolulu City Councilman Ernie Martin says rail-borrowing could come at the expense of other needed capital improvements across the island. Cory Lum/CIvil Beat

Martin said he’s already seen the Caldwell administration disregard projects in his district — new lights in Waialua and Kahuku district parks, renovating Haleiwa Beach Park’s recreation center, and new canoe halaus across the North Shore and Windward side — to make room for higher priorities such as renovating Ala Moana Beach Park and Thomas Square in town.

Add rail bonds to the mix, and Martin fears his district, which doesn’t directly benefit from the project, will have an even lower priority — especially because he will leave the council after this year. Caldwell budget officials have said the city’s budget is stretched to capacity, but Martin asserts there’s still fat to trim that could absorb some rail spending if necessary without hurting city services.

Specifically, Martin pointed to an annual $100 million “carry-over” that might partially be used. “There is some fat there,” he said. “Anything is possible.”

Taking The Credit?

Martin is expected to officially replace Menor during a special meeting Monday.

On Tuesday, Pine joined Caldwell and Anderson — who’s also expressed interest in running for mayor — during a signing ceremony on Bill 110, the city’s new moratorium on so-called “monster homes.”

Mayor Kirk Caldwell, center, was between two council members who might want to replace him, Ikaika Anderson and Kymberly Pine, at Tuesday’s press conference. 

Pine veered off script at the event. Early in her comments she noted that International Women’s Day took place last week.

“Centuries ago, a woman author would have to put a male’s name, or give a male the credit for all their hard work.  I’m really proud today of the hard work of the women of the council,” Pine said.

As Caldwell and Anderson stood nearby, Pine said that “Bill 110 was not the original version of the monster-home solution.”  Instead, she said, it was Bill 94, which Kobayashi and Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga drafted, following numerous community meetings.

“It was almost exactly copied into Bill 110,” Pine said, as she prepares to join Martin’s faction next week.  “I hope we all recognize from this day forward … especially when the woman is an author of a piece of legislation or especially when they’re working really hard … that their success and their talent is never forgotten.”

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.

About the Author