Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is asking leaders of the Hawaii Legislature to provide millions of dollars to mitigate flooding of the Ala Wai canal.

It’s something that Gov. David Ige first asked for back in December, when he requested $125 million for Ala Wai flood control, but the bill to do it has hit a roadblock. The money represents the local match for Congress’ appropriation of $345 million for the project last year, received with the help of U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

Caldwell, a former state legislator, sent a letter April 11 to Senate President Ron Kouchi, House Speaker Scott Saiki, the state’s congressional delegation and other government officials.

“I urge the Legislature to provide the funding that is the local match required by the Army Corps of Engineers,” Caldwell wrote Thursday. “At stake is the public safety of the communities this flood control project is designed to protect, the economic impact to Waikiki and local business, and the lives of local residents who will be exposed to potentially dangerous flooding in the future due to a warming climate.”

Ala Wai Canal brown water after Darby. 25 july 2016
The Ala Wai Canal after a rain in 2016. The canal is at risk of massive flooding that could cause major damage to the tourist mecca of Waikiki. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A House spokeswoman said House leaders were not available to respond to media inquiries as of late Monday. Inquiries to the Senate communications office went unanswered.

Caldwell used his letter to reaffirm the city’s position on the Ala Wai Flood Risk Management project. The mayor said the city will sign an agreement with the federal government — one that is still being negotiated — and that it is committed to “take on” future operations and maintenance responsibilities for the project.

“The city requests that the state sign on as a partner, too,” Caldwell wrote, adding that the city and state “verbally agreed” that the state would provide local matching funds.

Without the funding match, the mayor said the feds won’t fund the project, either.

At the time of Ige’s initial request, state Rep. Sylvia Luke, chair of the House Finance Committee, expressed concern about the $125 million allocation.

The amount would satisfy the federal requirement for about 35 percent in matching funds. But the request amounts to about 10 percent of the state’s $1.3 billion capital improvements budget request.

Luke said at the time that even if the state did provide the funding, Honolulu residents would be stuck with ongoing repair and maintenance.

Senate Bill 77, which proposed spending the $125 million, moved through the Legislature with little opposition. Supporters included Rod Becker, Ige’s director of Budget and Finance, and Robert Kroning, Caldwell’s head of Design and Construction.

But SB 77 never received a hearing in Luke’s Finance Committee and is dead for the session.

Language in the bill illustrated how serious a major flooding of the Ala Wai might be:

According to the United States Army Corps of Engineers, a major flood could damage three thousand structures, require more than $1,000,000,000 in repairs, and severely impact Hawaii’s economy.

The 2003 Economic Contribution of Waikiki Report indicated that in 2002, Waikiki-based visitor activity accounted for $3,600,000,000, or forty-six per cent, of the tourism industry’s total contribution to the gross state product.

The Legislature could find other ways to appropriate the money, but Luke told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last week, “Now that the city has reversed its position and is refusing to sign, the state is not in a position to even be looking at any kind of funding.”

“The city needs to sign first before we even entertain any kind of funding.”

Caldwell disputes that notion.

“The city did not waver or change its position, and any statement to the contrary is false,” he said in his letter, which is dated the day after the Star-Advertiser article was published.

Read Civil Beat’s series Ala Wai Canal: Hawaii’s Biggest Mistake?

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