Transit trips add up
Honolulu City Council members spend taxpayers' money to visit faraway lands
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Members of the Honolulu City Council have spent more than $41,000 of taxpayer money over the past four years on travel to the mainland as well as other countries to look at what other cities do with trains and buses.
Most Council members defend the trips as a necessary expense to research the multibillion-dollar decision they will make on a new mass transit system for Oahu.
But transit critic and Councilman Charles Djou calls the trips "nothing more than junkets."
The $41,000 doesn't include the cost of trips for council aides, nor does it include trips taken by Council members that were paid for by companies seeking to bid on the transit project.
By contrast, Mayor Mufi Hannemann has spent $19,860 on transit trips, not including the cost of travel for administration officials.
"We're making a huge decision," said Councilman Todd Apo. "If people have not made the effort to get themselves fully educated, then I'd be concerned."
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STAR-BULLETIN / OCTOBER 2005
Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, with senior adviser Paul Yonamine, rode Japan's Yurikamome rail in October 2005. The mayor has spent $19,860 over the last two years on trips primarily for transit.
Over the past four years, the City Council has spent more than $41,000 of taxpayer money on trips across the United States and abroad to inspect mass transit systems.
With the City Council expected to make its final vote Wednesday on the critical selection of the technology for the $3.7 billion elevated mass transit system in Honolulu, many Council members said they rely on their firsthand experience riding on different systems.
According to travel expenses paid by the City Council for transit trips since 2004, eight of the nine Council members have spent a total of $41,305.44. This amount, however, doesn't include trips for transit that the Council members' aides have taken or costs that the city administration might have paid for Council members to travel.
Other trips that Council members might have taken were considered gifts to the city from transit providers, including the world's largest rail transit manufacturer, Bombardier Transportation, which is interested in building Honolulu's system.
Most of the Council members have traveled to the West Coast, particularly to see the SkyTrain, Vancouver's rail project, and Portland, Ore.,'s rail system. A few also have gone to Asia to see Japan's magnetic levitation system and to Tampa, Fla., to see its dedicated lanes, or HOT lanes, which some vocal community members have pushed.
Some Council members say these trips are necessary when making decisions that affect billions of taxpayer dollars for the 20-mile elevated system running from Kapolei to Ala Moana. Others say that the city is spending too much on elected officials' travels.
"We're making a huge decision," said Councilman Todd Apo, who has spent at least $6,361 as well as taken gifts from manufacturers of trips to Asia and across the United States. "If people have not made the effort to get themselves fully educated, then I'd be concerned. I can very comfortably say that how any of my trips are funded have no influence on my decision making."
Councilman Charles Djou, a vocal critic of increased government spending and fierce opponent of the mass transit system, paid for his expenses for a trip to Washington, D.C., and Tampa to see rail systems and dedicated lanes. He did, though, get reimbursed $26 for a shuttle ride in Washington, D.C.
"It's a very expensive project and I'm trying to be careful with taxpayer dollars," Djou said. "These transit trips paid for by the taxpayer and by the transit manufacturers are nothing more than junkets."
THE $41,305 MIGHT NOT seem like much money spent over four years. As a comparison, it costs $95 a ton for the city to purchase asphalt to repair potholes in its roads. Each ton can repair about 20 typical potholes, varying on the size and depth of the potholes, said Tyler Sugihara, assistant chief of the city Road Division.
That means with $41,305, the city could pay for the material to patch up about 8,700 potholes.
Pothole repair funds and Council member travel money come from different funds. Each Council member is now allotted $18,000 each annually for business expenses, including trips, office supplies, cell phone bills and postage.
COUNCILMAN DONOVAN DELA CRUZ has spent the most on transit trips out of all the Council members at $9,920.98 on four trips. On the other hand, Council Chairwoman Barbara Marshall, a consistent opponent of the mass transit system, has spent none of her council funds.
In 2005 and 2006 -- when the state Legislature approved a half-percent of the general excise tax to be dedicated for the mass transit fund and when the City Council decided on the tentative route -- several transit providers began peppering city officials with offers for free trips to visit their transit systems.
In January 2006, the City Council accepted a $2,900 gift for Council members Gary Okino and Apo from Bombardier Transportation to see Las Vegas' monorail system and Vancouver's SkyTrain.
Advanced Public Transport Systems invited four Council members to see their Phileas system, a rubber-tire system guided by magnets on concrete, in the Netherlands. Amid strong criticism from the public of this $7,500 gift, the council members opted out.
Most recently, in November 2007, Council members Apo, Nestor Garcia and Romy Cachola went to Miami for a conference and up to Pittsburgh to meet with Bombardier representatives.
Bombardier offered to pay for the Pittsburgh portion of the trip, but when the Council members went to the City Council for approval after the trip, several of their colleagues criticized them for accepting the gift from a prospective buyer. After a debate the Council members agreed to reimburse Bombardier $2,175.76.
When it comes to going on transit trips paid by taxpayers or by vendors, Council members say there is no right answer.
"It's almost a no-win situation there," said Garcia, who has spent nearly $3,600 on trips. "We go in knowing that there's no obligation on our part to anybody. It's always best to go out into the field when making a decision.
"When you go in there, you're always impressed with whatever they present to you because they always put on the best show," Garcia said. "You can't base your decision on one visit. You have to come back, listen to public testimony and do more information gathering."
Apo agreed, adding that Council members won't choose the vendors that ultimately do business with the city. A panel will pick the provider after soliciting bids.
"We don't get involved in the contract," Apo said. "There's less of a concern if it is the Council (accepting gifts). It's more viewed as a savings to the taxpayer. That's the distinction compared to the administration who are the ones controlling the contract."
MAYOR MUFI HANNEMANN, who has been pushing for a rail system, has spent $19,800 over the last two years on trips primarily for transit. On all his trips, regardless of their main purpose, he said, he makes it a point to ride mass transit or to meet with transportation officials, especially when he is in Washington, D.C.
Hannemann said he refuses to takes trips using money from transit providers and would rather spend his personal money or taxpayer dollars. Hannemann said that over the years, he has ridden all the four technologies the city is considering: rail, a rubber-tire bus system, monorail and magnetic levitation.
When asked about Council members who chose not to take these trips before making decisions, Hannemann said, "If for whatever reason that there's a feeling that they don't need to experience it, that's their call."