Posted tagged ‘Rail transit’

State skim = rail scam

February 28, 2011

One factor that greatly erodes confidence in the $5.5 billion O’ahu rail project is the annual attempt of the Legislature to raid funds from the half-cent excise tax enacted by the city to pay for the train.

This year, senators are proposing to “borrow” $200 million from the rail fund to enable them to balance the state’s budget while ducking the tough decisions to get their own financial house in order.

The state is already skimming 10 percent off the top of the transit tax — potentially $400 million over the life of the tax — to pay for nonexistent “administrative costs.” This unnecessarily runs up the cost to O’ahu taxpayers for Hawai‘i’s most expensive public works project by 10 percent right off the bat.

In Mayor Peter Carlisle’s first appearance before the Legislature, he wimpishly let Maui Sen. J. Kalani English extract a promise from him not to try to get the 10 percent back.

It’s no wonder English is so protective of the state’s share of the transit levy; it essentially forces O’ahu taxpayers to subsidize his Maui constituents by paying a 4.5 percent excise tax for some state services while neighbor islanders pay only 4 percent.

The concern is that instead of tightly watching expenses on this enormously costly project to keep it from growing out of control, it’s being treated by lawmakers like a giant slush fund that could turn into the biggest orgy of profiteering Hawai‘i has ever seen.

There is no longer any reasonable doubt that the combination of the city’s excise tax plus whatever federal share emerges from a cost-cutting Congress won’t be enough to build the 20-mile commuter line, much less cover the operating costs.

That city leaders refuse to say how they’ll make up the difference — and that the Legislature and Abercrombie administration shamelessly skim instead of holding the city’s feet to the fire — should make us all very nervous.


New challenge, old arguments, on rail

January 31, 2011

A coalition of community groups led by former Gov. Ben Cayetano has scheduled a news conference today (12:30 p.m. On the city hall steps) to try to convince people that the fight to stop the $5.5 billion O‘ahu rail project isn’t over.

It’ll be interesting to see if it’s just the same old talk or if they have something new up their sleeves, such as a credible legal challenge to the rail environmental impact statement or a plan to shift some City Council votes.

If they’re not ready to move beyond the talk, rail is getting awfully close to being a done deal, with federal and state approval of the EIS, an apparent resolution on how to deal with burial sites found along the route, the city moving forward on creating a transit authority and the feds granting approval to begin transit-related construction such as moving utilities.

There are legitimate concerns about whether federal funds will come through with Republicans gaining power in Congress and whether the city’s half-cent excise tax for transit will raise enough to pay for the project, but the city has deflected questions about finances and gotten away with it because opponents have failed to mount political pressure to force answers.

A pro-rail referendum was passed by voters in 2008, a charter amendment to create the transit authority won easy approval in 2010, the anti-rail candidate finished a distant third in the last two mayoral elections and opponents have failed to make rail a pivotal issue in any council race.

Hardly a political mandate for Mayor Peter Carlisle and the council to change course.

The Cayetano group, which includes architects, Hawaii’s 1000 Friends, the League of Women Voters, Life of the Land and the Outdoor Circle, is focused on an old issue — the visual blight of the all-elevated commuter train — that has already been widely discussed without shifting public opinion. From their statement:

We believe the City’s proposed elevated heavy rail project will destroy mauka-makai view planes, create a physical barrier between the city and our famed waterfront and disturb Native Hawaiian burial grounds along its right-of-way.

Also, we believe that the proposed system will be an intrusion on the landscape, will forever alter the character of the communities through which it is built and will negatively impact the lives of people who live and work in Honolulu’s urban core.

“The City seems to have convinced the media that rail transit has permission to start construction, that ‘it’s over,’ ” the opponents said in their statement. “It’s far from over.”

That likely depends on whether they can either change the politics or bring a court challenge that convinces a judge that ugly is illegal.

All trains not created equal

January 19, 2011

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa used her freshman essay in Politico to praise Washington’s Metro system and compare it to the $5.5 billion O‘ahu rail project, which yesterday received the green light from the Federal Transit Administration to begin construction — possibly as soon as March.

Hanabusa wrote:

Anyone who argues against the virtues of public rail should come to D.C. and experience a well-planned mass transit system. It makes my commute to Capitol Hill easy — as I reflect on the thousands of Oahu drivers stuck in daily gridlock. Honolulu has its own rail project planned, and we are about to break ground in partnership with the Federal Transit Administration. It is a system sorely needed — and long overdue.

After riding the Washington Metro for eight years, I totally agree with her assessment of its merit. But it’s an apples and oranges comparison; the D.C. Metro is a far different system from what is proposed for Honolulu.

The Metro serves nearly all of the major suburbs in the district, Maryland and Virginia and delivers you to within a couple of blocks of anywhere you might work in the city’s business and government districts. The subway is also convenient for most trips around the city during the work day.

When I lived in Arlington, VA, for instance, I caught a city bus across the street from my townhouse that took me to the Pentagon in 10 minutes via an HOV lane. From there, it was a 10 minute Metro ride that dropped me a block from my office near the White House. Day trips to the Capitol were a snap. I wouldn’t have thought of driving.

But after our family moved out near Dulles Airport and my office moved further from the subway line, it became a different story. I had to either take the bus on a circuitous ride to the nearest Metro station or drive there and look for parking. Either way, it could take a half hour if traffic was bad. The train ride to the city took another half hour.

When my company offered parking in our building for $80 a month, I was back in the car in a flash.

The 20-mile O‘ahu line from Kapolei to Ala Moana Center will be more like my second experience for most commuters, who won’t live within walking distance of a train station and will have to either take the bus, drive or catch a ride to the train.

Once they arrive in town, if they work in Waikiki, at UH or somewhere else outside the downtown-Ala Moana corridor, they’ll have to find transportation from the train station to their final destination, making for a total of three separate car, bus or train rides that will take well over an hour. The system won’t be nearly as convenient as the D.C. Metro for day trips around the city.

It remains to be seen how many commuters will find this to be less of a hassle-factor than simply braving the traffic and driving.

City and state clam up on rail

January 14, 2011

It seems that the city and state administrations are hunkering down to push the $5.5 billion O‘ahu rail project to construction without the inconvenience of further public discussion.

Councilman Breene Harimoto thought the five new council members, including himself, should do their own due diligence on rail financing, so he scheduled a hearing to give a fair listen to a study commissioned by former Gov. Linda Lingle suggesting that funding might be $1.7 billion short.

Infrastructure Management Group Inc., which did the study, was willing to brief the council, but didn’t get permission from the new state administration to do so, leaving the council to listen to the old city spin for the umpteenth time.

Harimoto expressed frustration with the state’s decision to blow off his hearing, saying, “I believe it’s not only common courtesy, but professionalism.”

Mayor Peter Carlisle’s administration, meantime, is declining to participate in a panel discussion on rail financing being sponsored by the League of Women Voters on Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon in the Washington Middle School auditorium.

The league said the city administration was invited to send a representative, but declined the invitation citing a time factor.

“We are sorry that the city administration has declined our invitation,” said Pearl Johnson, the league’s planning chair who organized this event.

She said the public still has many questions about the project, and the league doesn’t feel the media has adequately informed the public about the content of the IMG study.

In a meeting with reporters yesterday, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye predicted resistance in Washington to providing the full $1.5 billion federal share and said he could only try his best to secure the money.

Given these credible concerns about funding, it would seem imprudent for the city to start construction without a viable and publicly vetted Plan B for paying for rail if the money supporting the current plan doesn’t come through.

It’s worrisome that the state and city don’t even want to talk about it.

A new spotlight on rail funding

December 3, 2010

Gov. Linda Lingle threw a wrinkle into the O‘ahu rail transit debate by releasing a study critical of rail finances on her way out the door.

The $350,000 analysis by Infrastructure Management Group Inc. concluded that transit tax revenues could be 30 percent below city projections, costs could be $1.7 billion higher than estimated and ridership assumptions may be overly optimistic.

If the study is even partly right, it would mean the $5.5 billion project would need additional local taxes beyond the half-cent excise tax for transit already being paid by Oahuans. There are also concerns about federal support for its $1.5 billion share holding steady after the dramatic Republican gains in Congress.

Mayor Peter Carlisle has said construction could start as early as March if the state approves the project’s environmental impact statement soon, and Gov.-elect Neil Abercrombie has indicated he’ll approve it without regard for the financial issues.

The new financial analysis isn’t necessarily a show-stopper; Carlisle, Abercrombie and the City Council deserve a chance to review the numbers and weigh their credibility.

But they owe it to O‘ahu taxpayers to put politics aside and make an honest assessment. It would be foolhardy to plunge ahead without being able to answer up front and with some certainty how much it’ll cost and how we’ll pay for it.

Crossing our fingers and hoping for the best just doesn’t cut it on a project of this magnitude.

Public support for O‘ahu rail is still there; is the money?

November 17, 2010

One seemingly clear message from the recent election is that majority public support for the $5.5 billion O‘ahu rail transit system remains intact two years after voters passed an initiative approving a steel-on-steel commuter line.

Opponents claim rail played a part in former Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s lopsided loss to Neil Abercrombie in the Democratic primary for governor, but there were many other issues in that campaign and Abercrombie was equally pro-rail.

City races were a better measure of public sentiment on rail. In the special election for mayor, in which rail was a major issue, anti-rail candidate Panos Prevedouros won only a fifth of the vote and finished third against the unequivocally pro-rail Peter Carlisle and Kirk Caldwell.

Anti-rail sentiment didn’t materialize in the four City Council races and a City Charter amendment creating a transit authority, which gave voters an opportunity to express displeasure with rail, passed with a comfortable 63.6 percent of the vote.

The question now is whether the money to pay for the 20-mile line from Kapolei to Ala Moana is still there — a concern not to be taken lightly after the emphatic Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Public support could wane fast if local taxpayers end up having to pick up the $1.5 billion federal share in addition to the $4 billion local share. I look more closely at the new rail equation in my column in today’s Star-Advertiser, “GOP shift means isle leaders need to discuss rail funding.”

Carlisle makes the train his own

October 12, 2010

O‘ahu rail opponents won’t be happy with new Mayor Peter Carlisle’s strong endorsement of the $5.5 billion project on his first day in office, but they shouldn’t be surprised after his consistent support of the commuter train during the campaign.

To show the high priority he gives rail, Carlisle will travel to Washington, D.C. with City Council members in his critical first few days to assure the Federal Transit Administration and Congress that Honolulu’s commitment to building the 20-mile line from Kapolei to Honolulu is fully intact.

The new administration faces major challenges in moving the project forward. The state hasn’t completed its review of the environmental impact statement, and oppenents threaten to sue over the way the EIS was conducted as soon as it is filed.

Gov. Linda Lingle continues to insist on a financial review, which she says won’t likely be finished before a new governor takes over. Sen. Daniel Inouye has said the delay could threaten federal funding. And the political dynamics are in flux with five of the nine council seats soon changing hands.

Those who generally favor rail but have been worried about the execution will be interested to see if Carlisle changes the management of the project by tightening contracting, making it more transparent and cutting back the number of high-paid PR people hired for rail.

A less hostile city attitude toward citizens with contrary ideas would be welcome, as would an effort to forge a more collaborative working relationship with the state.

Has the train to nowhere reached its destination?

September 21, 2010

Nothing has been thrown more up in the air in the wake of Mufi Hannemann’s resignation as mayor and failed run for governor than his $5.5 billion O‘ahu rail project.

Hannemann got the 20-mile commuter line from Kapolei to Ala Moana approved on the force of his will and showed immense political skill in advancing it further in his first term than his predecessors managed in 30 years.

Now it’s a big question mark.

Mayor-elect Peter Carlisle says he supports rail, but there’s no clear sign if he’ll stay with the same plan and the same team or make changes that could result in big delays. He’ll be working with five new City Council members out of nine, and who knows what they’ll think.

Gov. Linda Lingle has held the up the environmental impact statement for a new financial review that won’t be finished until after she leaves office Dec. 6.

The two candidates to succeed her both say they support rail, but to different degrees. Republican James “Duke” Aiona says he’d finish Lingle’s financial review, while Democrat Neil Abercrombie has said he’s prepared to sign the EIS on his first day.

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, Abercrombie’s friend and longtime political ally, has said he’ll sue if the EIS if it is approved in its current form. Carlisle says he’ll tap Cayetano’s expertise on transportation.

Some legislators are eager to raid the $500 million already collected from the half-cent O‘ahu excise tax for rail if there is any sign the project is stalled. Throwing the money into the state general fund would be a gross injustice to O‘ahu residents, who would effectively be paying a tax of 4.5 percent for the same state services neighbor islanders get for 4 percent.

When U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye recently made a big show of “begging” Lingle to sign the EIS, it was seen by some as a sign that he saw rail collapsing under its own weight and was setting up the Republican governor for the blame.

But it’s not that easy. If Hannemann had finished his term instead of throwing rail to the wind by quitting to run for governor with Inouye’s encouragement, the EIS delay would be a temporary bump in the road and Hannemann very likely could have had had construction well under way by time his term ended in 2012.

Hannemann still dogged by Pittsburgh

August 13, 2010

Now that the Campaign Spending Commission has ruled on the infractions involved in Mufi Hannemann’s Pittsburgh fundraiser, fining the campaign $225 and a campaign worker $100, I’m still having trouble getting too bothered by what the commission said were relatively minor paperwork violations.

While traveling to Washington on city business, the former mayor took a side trip to Pittsburgh for a campaign fundraiser sponsored by a rail consultant, with donations of $500 to $5,000 suggested.

His public schedule was unclear, campaign officials seemed confused and required notifications weren’t filed with the Campaign Spending Commission. Hannemann tried to end the controversy by saying he wouldn’t take the money raised.

It’s of some concern that the Hannemann signature on the notice of intent to hold the event wasn’t actually Hannemann’s and that the campaign worker involved was Hannemann’s former Police Commission chair, Christine Camp, but filing paperwork incorrectly or late is hardly a major transgression; the rival Neil Abercrombie campaign was recently fined $50 for reporting a fundraiser incorrectly.

Suggestions that Hannemann had no real city business in Washington seemed answered when he brought home federal approval of the city’s rail environmental impact statement.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it corrupts our democracy when those who have or seek government contracts provide major funding for political campaigns. But as long as the law apparently allows it, I don’t see the difference if the cash changes hands in Honolulu or Pittsburgh. The other candidates have held their own mainland fundraisers.

In one potentially interesting aside, Honolulu attorney John McLaren, who has targeted Hannemann with other complaints, is asking U.S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni, state Attorney General Mark Bennett and acting City Prosecutor Douglas Chin to investigate the legality of Hannemann’s Pittsburgh fundraiser hosted by Paul Overby, a former executive of Bombardier, a potential bidder for the $230 million contract to provide the rail cars for the city’s transit system.

If any of the the law enforcers take up the investigation my interest level will rise considerably, but the complaint appears scattershot and speculative at this point.

The governor’s race moves to Pittsburgh (Can we keep it there?)

June 16, 2010

I’m finding it hard to get too bothered by the flap over Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s side trip to Pittsburgh for a campaign event while in Washington on city business.

The Piitsburgh event, first reported by KHON-TV, was sponsored by a rail consultant and billed as a fundraiser for Hannemann’s campaign for governor, with donations of $500 to $5,000 suggested. Several Pittsburgh Steelers attended.

Both the mayor’s office and his campaign office initially said they weren’t aware of the side trip and his public schedule was unclear on what he was doing and when. Questions were raised about whether required notifications were filed with the Campaign Spending Commission.

Hannemann tried to put the controversy to rest by saying he viewed the event as a “meet and greet” and wouldn’t accept any of the donations. He told KHON:

“With respect to event in Pittsburgh, in my view although it was a fundraiser, I saw it more of a meet-and-greet, to be able to touch base with folks who have known me since college, and with the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of my favorite teams. No donations collected that evening, and I’m not coming back to Honolulu with contributions, nor will I accept any contributions from that fundraiser.”

But the rival campaigns of Neil Abercrombie and Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona weren’t going to let him off that easy.


“The people deserve answers to many questions including: Was the trip to D.C. necessary or was it designed just to get to Pittsburgh while piggybacking on official city business? Why was there no proper notice to the Campaign Spending Commission? Why was the wrong date listed in the fundraiser’s filing? Why did an official city release say the mayor was meeting in D.C. when he was actually campaigning in Pittsburgh?”

GOP Chairman Jonah Ka’auwai:

“The Honolulu Mayor has used taxpayer dollars to advocate for the reckless rail transit project, he raked in more than $200,000 from donors linked to government contractors in the last six months of 2009, and now he’s raising big money from consultants seeking rail contracts. While he’s whacking the rail transit piñata for all the goodies he can get, he’s raising property taxes and increasing fees on just about every other service the city provides.”

It bothers me that transit donations are figuring so big not only in Hannemann’s campaign, but also in that of his preferred successor as mayor, city Managing Director Kirk Caldwell, and City Council members.

It makes you wonder if the $5.3 billion project is being carried out for the benefit of the taxpaying public or for private interests who stand to make big money off of rail.

But plenty of rail donations are being collected right here in Honolulu, and I don’t see it as a major special concern that the mayor went to Pittsburgh to get some. All of the major candidates have held Mainland fundraisers.

The suggestion that Hannemann used a city trip to Washington mainly to get to a campaign event in Pittsburgh appears rendered moot by the fact that he brought home his long-delayed federal approval of the rail EIS; obviously, the mayor had legitimate city business in Washington.

The Campaign Spending Commission can sort out any questions about event postings and notifications, which seem relatively minor as far as potential violations go.


I have more thoughts on rail and politics in my column in today’s Star-Advertiser, “Mayor uses rail failings as boost to governor bid.”

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