West Oahu lawmakers are looking to make progress on some of their district’s long-standing issues with proposals to mitigate traffic, lower the cost of living and address the technological challenges revealed by the pandemic.

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The 2022 legislative session opened Wednesday and runs through early May. And with the new year comes new initiatives to better the quality of life for Hawaii residents.

Waianae representatives are hoping to open new routes for commuters. While some Leeward legislators are focusing on housing to lower the cost of living, others are looking at the minimum wage. West Oahu lawmakers are also looking toward broadband equity as virtual doctor appointments and schooling became normal.

Across the Waianae Coast, locals are battling traffic along Farrington Highway. With only one way in and out, many community members wonder why the outdated infrastructure hasn’t been upgraded to accommodate an increasing population.

This session, Sen. Maile Shimabukuro wants to secure $25 million for a capital improvement project that would extend a fifth lane from Helelua Street to Mohihi Street in Waianae. The current contraflow system would also be lengthened if it passes.

“It’s really difficult, even for me, to have to fight eastbound traffic when I take my son to school and then westbound traffic on my way home,” Shimabukuro said.

As one of “the biggest issues to quality of life,” she’s also supporting initiatives to open Paakea Road, which is currently only available for emergency access. With $4 million already allocated, she believes this opening will help to create an alternative parallel route for drivers from Nanakuli to Waianae.

One of her West Oahu colleagues in the House, Rep. Cedric Gates, knows how detrimental traffic can be to his constituents’ livelihoods. Along with supporting the possibility of a secondary access road, he also thinks more funds need to go to infrastructure improvements.

“Our community has been begging for some of these things,” Gates said. “We’ll have to work with the Department of Transportation and the chairs of the Finance and Ways and Means committees to secure funding.”

New Representative Cedric Asuega Gates during FIN mtg. Capitol. 10 jan 2017
Cedric Gates represents District 44 in the House. Serving his third term, he’d like to support legislation that will lower the cost of living for residents. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

An Ewa representative is looking at initiatives to make his community safer. Rep. Matt LoPresti said he will try again to secure funds for sidewalks along Fort Weaver Road.

He plans to turn to the community for support, particularly the students who have to travel up and down Fort Weaver to get to Oahu’s highest enrollment school, James Campbell High School.

“It’s the center of our community, where hundreds of students walk to get to school every day,” LoPresti said. “It’s obscene that there’s no sidewalk for the children.”

Boosting Broadband

One issue that the pandemic has revealed to most West Oahu legislators is the lack of reliable, high speed internet for their communities.

In an email, Sen. Mike Gabbard, who represents District 20, said he will “champion any bills related to improving broadband on the Westside.” As federal monies become available to improve fiber optics, Gabbard wants to make sure the Westside is not forgotten.

Shimabukuro noticed how the inaccessibility of WiFi and mobile devices during the times of telehealth impacted kupuna in her district. She said she hopes to reintroduce a bill to make phone-only doctor’s appointments an acceptable form of service.

Hawaiian Affairs Committee Chair Maile Shimabukuro.
Maile Shimabukuro, center, has served as Waianae’s senator for over a decade. She chairs the Hawaiian Affairs Committee and is a member of the Ways and Means Committee, Transportation Committee and the Women’s Caucus and Native Hawaiian Caucus. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Gates said there should be more pathways to careers in technology for Waianae students. Creating opportunities in app development and blockchain will provide them with new opportunities, outside of traditional education, he said.

Gates also emphasized the need for trade workers and working with unions to provide jobs with livable wages.

“What is actually going to pay our residents’ bills?” Gates said. “How do we create a community that’s not just surviving, but thriving?”

Reducing The Cost Of Living

Addressing cost of living and the disparity between communities has been a challenge for West Oahu. As groceries and gas get more expensive, lawmakers offer different ways of addressing these issues.

One of Gates’ biggest goals is to lower the cost of living statewide. He says he will be working with his colleagues to draft legislation backed by the Democratic majority that could include a refundable earned income tax credit.

Will White of Hawaii Appleseed’s Hawaii Budget & Policy Center said that although taxes may cause people’s eyes to glaze over, it’s a chance to give a bigger tax refund to lower income families.

Hawaii doesn’t have a refundable state earned income tax credit and with tax collections projected to be in the billions this fiscal year, which ends June 30, White says this type of legislation could improve tax equity.

“For folks who are living paycheck to paycheck, those extra couple hundred dollars could make a huge difference for working families,” White said.

Addressing the cost of living, LoPresti said one of his biggest focuses this session will be raising the minimum wage. He noticed that many people in his district work multiple jobs in the hospitality and service industries and that a wage increase will be a long standing policy. Hawaii’s current minimum wage is $10.10 per hour.

Chair Matt LoPresti conference committee hearing in room 329 at 130pm today.
Matt LoPresti, who represents parts of Ewa, is one of the founding members of the Progressive Caucus and plans to introduce legislation in 2022 to help residents with the high cost of living. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

As chair of the Progressive Caucus, he said the group plans to introduce a package of bills with one for increasing the minimum wage at the top of their list.

“It’s an economic justice issue that I am very passionate about,” LoPresti said.

Living Wage Hawaii’s Nate Hix said that their goal is to have an $18 an hour minimum wage by 2026.

“Hawaii residents are squeezed left and right,” Hix said. “They don’t earn the money needed to keep up with the cost” of living.

One of the biggest costs is housing. Gates said an idea they’ve been floating is increasing the inventory of public housing. There are currently three public housing projects on the Waianae Coast, but Gates said he would like to see more.

“I think that’s also one way that the government can have a direct impact on our housing market,” Gates said.

Shimabukuro is considering supporting a bill that would allow affordable housing developers to apply for bonds at least twice a year.

LoPresti would like to deal with another side of housing for his constituents. He says many of his constituents complain about the power of their homeowners associations. The Ewa representative hopes to introduce bills that would make HOAs more transparent.

Economy And Environment

Gabbard says he will support initiatives for economic resurgence and growth, especially for small businesses. The Kapolei Chamber of Commerce launched a Business Revitalization Task Force that he supports.

As more people and businesses come to Kapolei, the senator sees Westside revitalization impacting the whole state. One bill he plans to reintroduce is the visitor green fee that would establish a $20 green fee surcharge on transient accommodations to fund local workforce programs.

As another hotel opens in Kapolei, Gabbard said “tourism is on the rise” and can boost the economy of his district.

Chair Mike Gabbard in conference committee on pesticide measure reconvening tomorrow.
Sen. Mike Gabbard chairs the Senate Committee on Agriculture & Environment and hopes to revive a bill from last year that would establish a 5 year food hub pilot program. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

One interesting initiative that Shimabukuro sees as an economic opportunity for the Westside is carbon capture. She’s hoping to pitch a bill for a special purpose revenue bond allocated to Dibshawaii LLC in Waianae. The senator says that a coalition of similar businesses can convert carbon dioxide waste into liquified carbon dioxide needed for renewable energy projects.

“I think this could definitely create all kinds of jobs and improve our economy because we’d have this marketable product,” Shimabukuro said.

She’s also looking at initiatives to increase recycling in her community. As the Waianae Coast continues to host both municipal and construction landfills, she said a required percentage of recyclables may help how much waste is being put into the landfills.

Act 73, which requires a buffer zone around schools and hospitals against landfills, was a Westside community-led initiative that passed in 2020. Getting the public involved in this way is something that each representative spoke about for this new year.

Public Input Sought

Shimabukuro wants her constituents to know that their voices matter. And while many Westside residents feel they are not heard in the major decision-making process, she says it’s their support she needs the most.

“If nobody comes out to support a great idea, then nothing happens,” Shimabukuro said.

Contact Key Lawmakers

Getting people involved in the legislative process is tricky when time and resources are constrained. When Westside residents are dealing with traffic, working multiple jobs and raising their families, the issues that affect them most are the same factors that keep them disillusioned by the process.

LoPresti feels that since the Capitol has closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a growing disconnect between people and government. He’s looking forward to when the public can come back in force on the issues they care about.

“If you’re not making your legislator uncomfortable about something you’re passionate about, do more,” LoPresti said.

Each representative stressed looking to the Capitol’s Public Access Room website for information and educational resources. Residents can submit online testimony, attend legislative workshops and get their legislator’s contact information all on the site.

Gates would like his constituents to know that lawmakers don’t control everything. As much power as the legislative branch has, so too does the executive branch and he encourages his community to rally around the things they care about.

“We don’t want your voices to fall on deaf ears, so if we target our energy to the right people and the right direction, we can see better results,” Gates said.

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