In the spring of 2016, former Republican lawmaker John Carroll wrote to the Honolulu rail board’s chairwoman — Colleen Hanabusa.
He raised concerns that the agency she helped oversee had not taken the proper steps to protect Oahu’s future transit project against the risk of storm surges, tsunamis and eventual sea-level rise.
“These failures … are shocking,” Carroll, then an attorney representing a group of Oahu residents calling itself “Do Rail Right,” told Hanabusa.
The hui had “researched the history, failures, and partial compliances of the project” and believed it lacked key federal approvals on flood risks, Carroll wrote.
Do Rail Right sought to challenge rail officials in court over the issue. But the effort fizzled when it fell short on funds, and Carroll had doubts about the group’s legal standing. The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, meanwhile, maintained that it had complied with federal law.
Fast-forward two years and Carroll is now one of Hawaii’s top Republican candidates for governor.
(He has also since surrendered his law license to avoid potential disbarment in a separate case.)
If he wins his primary race, Carroll could face Hanabusa, who’s now a congresswoman and a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, in the general election.
At a time when Hawaii’s governor could impose more oversight over Honolulu rail, this year’s slate of top Republican candidates could potentially disrupt the project’s construction. That’s based on interviews, their campaign platforms, previous comments and legislative votes.
They’ve expressed strong misgivings about how the project has been handled and called for radical change, even if they haven’t offered specific, alternative paths forward.
Carroll, for example, has made rail and its estimated $3 billion or so in construction-cost overruns a large focus of his campaign.
The frequent Republican political candidate said that if elected in November he’ll push for a 90-day moratorium on rail construction to determine the best approach forward. That could involve overhauling the project to use magnetic-levitation technology featured in other nations’ railways, or scrapping rail entirely — “complete destruction,” he said.
Carroll said he’d also commission a forensic audit of the project going back to 2005 — when the state’s then-Republican governor, Linda Lingle, “signed this stupid thing off,” as he put it.
Such audits are typically used in court proceedings and when criminal wrongdoing is suspected.
Mainland auditors with no ties to the islands would do the review — and “if people have to go to jail so be it,” Carroll told Civil Beat.
Another top Republican candidate for governor, Rep. Andria Tupola, has repeatedly stated over the years that she’s not against Honolulu rail.
Well, not entirely against it, at least.
“I’m against rail that is ineffective, or rail that’s going to be insolvent,” Tupola told her colleagues on the House floor in 2015.
Moments later, she joined the minority in voting against a five-year extension of rail’s general excise tax surcharge on Oahu to keep the over-budget project afloat.
Rail represents a tricky balancing act for Tupola, who’s leaving a House seat that covers Ewa Villages, Nanakuli and Maili as she vies for the governor’s office.
The transit project is touted to benefit many of her constituents in particular, giving them an option to avoid the H-1 freeway’s crippling traffic. Tupola’s former Leeward colleague in the House, Jo Jordan, said at the time that she couldn’t vote against the tax extension because so many of those she represented support rail.
Indeed, “rail will provide an option” to get into town, Tupola acknowledged during that 2015 House debate, adding that “you don’t need my vote to get the rail. It’ll still go.”
But Tupola also expressed concerns that rail was inherently a package deal with development — specifically the 11,750-home Hoopili project that, she said, would create even more traffic congestion to stifle West Oahu commuters trying to get into town.
In 2017, she further opposed rail’s second bailout package, valued at $2.4 billion.
Before a majority of House members voted to approve that additional funding, Tupola and two of her Republican colleagues, Reps. Gene Ward and Cynthia Thielen, pushed unsuccessfully to add several amendments that would have capped rail’s public spending, required a forensic audit (which Carroll has since called for), and encouraged private investment in rail.
It’s not clear that Tupola would have voted to approve the funding bill even if those amendments were included. When casting her “no” vote, she declared: “I’ve always had the promise that I gave to my district not to vote or to raise or extend taxes, and I’m going to stand by that.”
“There’s so many ways forward for us to keep pushing the project while not expending more taxpayer dollars,” Tupola added.
She’s called for public-private partnerships — something that HART is now pursuing to complete rail’s final, trickiest four miles. But that option would still require the added tax dollars. Tupola hasn’t specified how rail’s budget might work without those public funds.
She did not respond to requests for comment on this story. At a campaign stop last week in Manoa she reiterated her support for rail but added that she was “allergic to taxes.”
Another Republican candidate to watch in the race, Ray L’Heureux, has listed the state’s infrastructure needs as one of his top priorities.
The retired Marine and former Hawaii Department of Education assistant superintendent launched his campaign outside the Waikiki Natatorium, a long-languishing World War I memorial. L’Heureux said he considers it a “perfect metaphor” of the state’s crumbling infrastructure.
As for rail, L’Heureux described the endeavor as a “fool’s errand” during an interview Monday.
He worries about the magnitude of community disruption once station and guideway construction finally enters town. He’s also concerned that the transit project will be obsolete not long after its completion, and he’s skeptical of the city’s ridership numbers.
“If you and I were sitting at a bar having a beer, I’d just say detonate it, you know, and just knock it down,” L’Heureux said.
However, he quickly added that such a move “would make no sense” because the project has progressed too far and the city would have to pay back hundreds of millions of dollars to the FTA.
Instead, L’Heureux said that as governor he would support stopping construction at Middle Street and then extending the route west to Ko Olina, where the island’s tourism base is growing.
It’s a novel proposal, which no other candidate in the race has suggested.
Still, it was evident Monday that L’Heureux could be more familiar with the project. He criticized rail’s airport station for being “a mile away” from the airport — but that station will be centrally located between the overseas and international parking lots, near the lei stands.
With rail critic Clayton Hee’s early exit from the governor’s race, the top two Democratic candidates who remain — Hanabusa and incumbent Gov. David Ige — would likely support getting the 20-mile, 21-station project to Ala Moana Center as designed, based on their records with rail.
Construction is about 40 percent done, based on the most recently available federal report, with the elevated guideway and stations currently being built to Middle Street. Hee had proposed stopping there.
Ultimately, rail is a city project, but its completion now relies on billions of dollars in state general excise tax revenues from Oahu, plus $1.32 billion in transient accommodations taxes (hotel “bed taxes”) collected across the state.
Still, it’s not clear how Carroll would force a 90-day moratorium as governor. Carroll said he would aim to compel city leaders to go along with the plan because it’s the right thing to do, but if that falls short he could file a lawsuit.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, the project’s strongest public advocate, declined to comment on Carroll’s plan.
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