TRAFFIC: CITY PLANS HAVE LAWMAKER ENTHUSED
Rail transit gets $900M promise
A visiting, influential congressman vows to fight for federal funding of Honolulu light rail
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A key congressman who oversees federal transit funding vowed yesterday to fight for $900 million to help build Honolulu's elevated mass transit system.
To get $900 million in for Oahu's mass transit, Hawaii's congressional delegation must request the federal money in the annual budget process this summer. If approved by Congress and after negotiations with the Federal Transit Administration, the city would receive the money by 2011 at the soonest.
U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said in a news conference in Honolulu yesterday that the city's planned $3.7 billion mass transit system is "one of the most exciting projects in the whole country." He said he gives the project a higher priority than other cities' proposals looking for federal transit funding.
"This would be the most efficient light-rail project in the country," said Oberstar, who went on a helicopter tour Monday of the proposed 20-mile route from Kapolei to Ala Moana. "It is essential to undertake this project."
Oberstar has been in Hawaii since Monday to visit projects in need of federal funding at the urging of Hawaii's U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono.
Oberstar said Honolulu is in a strong position to receive federal funding, regardless of the pending City Council decision for the technology, primarily because local leaders have shown a strong financial commitment by collecting a state tax to finance the project.
City officials say this is promising for securing needed funds for what would be the state's largest public works project.
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City officials applauded the news that a top congressman is pledging to fight for significant federal funding for a $3.7 billion elevated mass-transit system.
At a news conference outside the Prince Kuhio Federal Building yesterday, U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, promised to call for about $900 million for Honolulu's mass-transit system.
"By damn, I'm going to make it happen because it's got to happen," said Oberstar, who has been in Hawaii since Monday to visit projects in need of federal funding.
Oberstar took a helicopter tour Monday of the proposed 20-mile route from Kapolei to Ala Moana during rush-hour traffic. Honolulu, much like other large U.S. cities, has no room to build additional highways to alleviate traffic congestion.
"There is simply no more space to build an additional 'lane highway,'" Oberstar said. "You've got less than one mile of space from the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other."
Oberstar is one of the key figures in Congress in deciding which transportation projects should receive federal funding. His counterpart in the Senate, Hawaii's Sen. Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Senate Committee on Science, Commerce and Transportation, helped secure $15.2 million in federal funding last year for engineering on the project.
City transportation officials had anticipated receiving $700 million to $1 billion in federal funds in its financial plan for the mass-transit system, said Deputy Transportation Director Toru Hamayasu.
"That's reassuring," said City Councilman Donovan Dela Cruz, who was skeptical the city would receive its goal for federal funding. "We're going to need as much federal support as possible so that we don't ever need to dip into our general funds that would impact other city services."
The city is using a dedicated transit fund, made of a 0.5 percent surcharge collected on the state's general excise tax, for work on this project. Oberstar said collecting a local tax is a "cornerstone factor" in the federal government's decision to support this project.
"I think, overall, you can count on a roughly 30 to 35 percent contribution from the Federal Transit Administration and federal transit funds," Oberstar said.
Oberstar said he believes this project would be one of the "most efficient" in the country because it would be elevated and not interfere with traffic on the road.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who attended yesterday's news conference, said he was surprised and pleased to hear that Oberstar placed Honolulu's project as a higher priority over a proposed extension of the Washington, D.C., metro line to Dulles International Airport.
Hannemann hopes to break ground on construction of the first segment of the system in late 2009, which Oberstar said was "doable."
Though a top congressional member pledged yesterday to fight for federal funding for the city's $3.7 billion mass transit system, it will be years before the city receives the money.
Summer 2008: Draft environmental impact statement and preliminary engineering report due.
Summer 2009: Final environmental impact statement due.
Fall 2009: Record of decision due. Construction to begin using local funds from general excise tax.
2011: After negotiations with the Federal Transit Administration, the city expects to receive an anticipated $700 million to $1 billion.