WASHINGTON — While it’s too early to know how much money might be headed Hawaii’s way should President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan become law, business leaders are already lining up for those federal dollars.

On Wednesday, Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele hosted a video roundtable with U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, who is the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on which Kahele sits, to discuss Biden’s proposal and what it might mean for the Aloha State.

Kahele specifically noted that Hawaii’s infrastructure ranks below much of the country, at least according to metrics from the American Society of Civil Engineers, and that a large part of the problem has been a lack of consistent federal funding.

Honolulu Harbor with left, Pier 38 and on bottom of photograph, Matson container shipping company cranes. january 2021.
Honolulu Harbor could benefit from Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

DeFazio’s committee will be at the forefront of deciding how much of the $2 trillion is doled out as a Democrat-controlled Congress tries to implement Biden’s vision to rebuild the nation’s roads, bridges and railways while investing in green energy, climate resilience and racial equity.

“You have some very unique problems and unique needs as an island state and we need to be more attentive to those,” DeFazio said. “As Kai said, the federal government has not been a good partner for quite some time now.”

Kahele invited a handful of business, labor and environmental leaders to address DeFazio specifically about what they hoped for from Biden’s infrastructure plan.

Kyle Chock of the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters, which is the state’s largest construction union, noted that Hawaii’s unemployment rate was among the best in the country before the COVID-19 pandemic decimated the islands’ tourism-driven economy. Now Hawaii has the highest unemployment rate in the United States.

Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio during a roundtable discussion with U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele. Screenshot

Chock called Honolulu’s $12.4 billion rail project — which is over budget, behind schedule and the subject of a criminal investigation — a “transformative opportunity” for redevelopment in the city.

He also pitched it as a way to reduce traffic congestion and build more affordable housing through transit-oriented development.

“While much work on the project has been completed, the project is at a critical point and crossroads,” Chock said. “The system deserves its necessary funding and federal support to be carried out to completion.”

Greg Asner of the Hawaii Marine Education and Resource Center explained to DeFazio the importance of securing Hawaii’s water systems and addressing the 88,000 cesspools that dump wastewater into the oceans, which suffocates the coral reefs. He said treatment facilities, particularly on the neighboring islands, are “too few and too far in between.”

The American Jobs Plan includes $111 billion to address the country’s drinking and wastewater systems.

DeFazio also heard from Scott Seu, who is the president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric.

Biden’s plan seeks to invest at least $100 billion to help transition the country away from fossil fuels and build a more affordable and resilient electrical grid. Another $174 billion is dedicated to increasing the market share of electric vehicles, including a goal to build 500,000 new charging stations by 2030.

Clean Energy

Seu told DeFazio that Hawaiian Electric is all in when it comes to meeting those goals, despite the fact that Hawaii is still the most petroleum-dependent state in the country.

“We’re 2,500 miles away from the nearest mutual aid. For purposes of self reliance and energy security, we really have to modernize our electric system to be more sustainable, cleaner and stronger to withstand the natural and manmade threats that come our way,” Seu said.

Hawaii has already committed to converting to 100% renewable electric energy by 2045, replacing all cesspools by 2050 and establishing a zero emissions clean economy by 2045.

In an interview with Civil Beat, Hawaii Congressman Ed Case said there are still too few details to know exactly how Hawaii will benefit from the American Jobs Plan.

For him, one of the top priorities is broadband and providing more access to reliable, high-speed internet. The Biden proposal calls for at least $100 million to help reach that goal.

A lot of money is at stake, Case said, so it’s reasonable to expect that state and local officials will be able to pursue major projects that have languished on their wish lists for years due to lack of funding.

He predicted difficult conversations about what to do about coastal roads, bridges and highways that need to be moved to respond to rising sea levels.

Kyle Chock of the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters pitched rail as a worthy project to be funded through Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Screenshot

“We can sit here and do the normal course of repairing eroding roads and bridges, but that only buys you a few more years,” Case said. “It doesn’t solve the big picture problem.”

As for rail, Case noted that the American Jobs Plan includes $621 billion for transportation infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and transit, which could provide some opportunity to help the city pay for its cash-strapped, scandal-ridden project.

The challenge, he said, is convincing his colleagues and the Federal Transit Administration, which is overseeing the project, that Honolulu rail is worthy of more money despite the challenges.

“It’s not as if Honolulu is just completely out in left field,” Case said. “There have been plenty of mass transit projects that have gone over budget, been overly optimistic in terms of time and cost, and encountered unexpected obstacles and delays in terms of design and construction, so we’re not that unusual.”

“But, you know, patience wears thin,” he added, “and that’s what we’ve been worried about.”

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