Thursday, December 17, 1998

Trans 2K

Putting a dollar
figure on a
rail line

After letting millions go
in 1992, some wonder if the
money will ever come again

By Gordon Y.K. Pang


Mayor Jeremy Harris can talk all he wants about forming "a vision," said Cliff Slater, a rail opponent who recently attended an Oahu Trans 2K traffic forum -- and who went away unimpressed.

"When you talk vision but not cost," Slater said, "then you're talking about delusion."

Harris is striving to make real what predecessor Frank Fasi could not, despite four decades of trying: bringing a rail line to Honolulu.

At upwards of a half-billion dollars for light rail, it will be a daunting task to win the hearts of -- and financing from -- the community, the City Council, the governor and state Legislature, and Congress.

And it comes while the city faces a projected $130 million operating budget shortfall in the next fiscal year.

The federal view

By most accounts, federal funds are crucial. The last time around, in 1992, Hawaii's congressional delegation helped secure more than $700 million for the $2 billion project.

But after the City Council killed the proposed half-percent general excise-tax increase as a funding source, some transportation experts predicted that kind of hand-out would never come again.

Said Rex Johnson, then state transportation director: "I doubt if Honolulu will ever again be able to afford a rail transit system. We'll look back 20 years from now and kick ourselves for letting this project get away from us."

Some congressional experts say the failure's sting will make it tough to get federal money for a new project. Making it harder still is the fact that Congress this spring approved the $415 billion Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, a.k.a. "TEA 21." It includes every major federally funded project nationwide for the next six years -- including $41.4 billion for transit.

But it does not include a penny for a Honolulu rail line.

"I think if we had started three years earlier, we would have gotten earmarked," acknowledged Cheryl Soon, the city's transportation services director.

Congressional aides to some of Hawaii's delegation privately say funding for a Honolulu project would be difficult without TEA 21 authorization. Publicly, their bosses put on brave faces.

"It's always difficult," U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye said of funding for a Honolulu rail project. "The kind of money that they're talking about, this is big money. It's not a $50 million deal."

Nonetheless, he said, "we will have another crack at it."

U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, representing urban Oahu, also is optimistic. "We'll have a good chance because I think all of those factors which produced a favorable reaction previously are still operating."

But Slater, founder of the Committee on Sensible Transit, which helped defeat the last rail project, doubts federal money for a light rail or trolley line will come after the 1992 rejection. "I don't think they have one iota of a chance of getting money for it," he said, blasting the Harris administration for even suggesting light rail without providing cost estimates.

Though the city has not yet done the cost-outs, Soon said, it will be ready for the third round of Trans 2K meetings that begin next month -- assuming light rail is part of the draft study being prepared by Parsons Brickerhoff.

Soon also believes the city can fight for as much as $20 million in federal transit formula money that will be coming into the state during the next six years. "And then there's federal highway money, including what's called flexible money," she said. "That's somewhere between $30 million to $35 million."

City Council Budget Chairman John Henry Felix said he didn't support the 1992 rail project because the federal outlay was only one-third. He won't support any new rail plan, he added, unless the federal government pays for at least two-thirds of it.

The Federal Transit Administration has little to say about Oahu's plans.

"We understand that the City and County of Honolulu selected a consultant (in August) to conduct a major investment study for the primary urban corridor," wrote FTA spokeswoman Velvet Snow in response to a Star-Bulletin inquiry.

"Our Region IX office (in San Francisco) expects to work with the city in developing the scope of work for this effort."

The community and the Council

Harris said that he wants no missteps this time and that the three-round series of Oahu Trans 2K meetings are part of that assurance.

"We're going to be going out to everybody and his uncle," he said. "Every community group will be getting input, kicking around ideas. We want to hear everybody and we'll have a grass-roots, bottoms-up (proposal)."

A key factor in coalescing support for light rail will be its route.

Six years ago, Fasi couldn't sell a half-percentage-point excise tax increase to Council members Felix, Rene Mansho, John DeSoto, Arnold Morgado and Steve Holmes. They represented, respectively, Windward/East Honolulu, Central/North Shore, Ewa/Waianae, Pearl City/Aiea and Windward, all regions the rail wouldn't travel.

All but Morgado remain on the Council.

Harris needs to convince at least five of the Council's nine members that a shorter, cheaper route is the way to go.

Whereas the 1992 proposal reached to Waiau near the H-1/H-2 interchange, Harris tried scaling back to Aloha Stadium. By confining future growth to Honolulu and Kapolei, he said, rural traffic needs would be met by non-rail alternatives such as express buses, zip lanes, car pools and synchronized traffic signals.

A bus experiment, designed to mimic a light-rail line and see if ridership warrants the investment, is scheduled for next year.

And at the urging of Pearl City Councilman Mufi Hannemann, Morgado's successor, the experiment's route will likely extend past Aloha Stadium, and run from Middle Street to Pearlridge Center.

"If it really is cost prohibitive for (a rail line) to go to Pearlridge and I can be convinced of that, I can go along," Hannemann said.

DeSoto, whose district includes Waipahu, Waianae and Kapolei, likely will go against the proposal that keeps rail within the downtown corridor. "I told them I would support rail if it went from Honolulu to Kapolei," he said of the 1992 plan.

"Most of the people who live out here are not going to drive 30 minutes to the Pearl City area, get out of their cars, jump on a train and go to Honolulu," he said. "Once they're in their cars, they're committed."

Holmes also is unswayed. "If you live near a rail line, it works for you," said the Windward councilman. "If you don't, you have to ride a bus to get there. In my mind, we don't have enough density to make it work."

Councilwoman Donna Mercado Kim, who voted for the 1992 proposal and Mansho, who voted against, also say the line needs to go farther. "I'm inclined to make sure it goes out at least to Waiawa and the Ewa area," Kim said. "Mililani would have to be another leg."

Said Mililani Councilwoman Mansho: "It has to help the people who need it and the people who need it are the ones in Kapolei, Mililani and Wahiawa."

At Oahu Trans 2K meetings, some discussion has centered around smaller "trolley" lines. For instance, Kalihi, Waikiki and other regions want circular trolley lines. Harris has indicated some support for such lines at some spots.

Is state support there?

The Fasi administration went as far as it did with rail thanks in large part to support from then-Gov. John Waihee, who lobbied the Legislature to give the counties the authority to impose a half-percent excise tax increase for transit funding.

Now Harris must work with Gov. Ben Cayetano, who historically has opposed rail for Honolulu.

Cayetano, to the surprise of some, endorses Harris' plan, saying he was against previous plans for heavy rail. "A light rail proposal is another matter," he said. "I've never opposed that because I think that makes a little more sense economically."

Cayetano said it's too early to decide what kind of money support the state would give. Kazu Hayashida, his transportation director, has been a key player in co-sponsoring the city's Oahu Trans 2K effort.

Hayashida, a former Fasi aide, also has been instrumental in pushing for ferry service to Sand Island. His agency also has pushed forward the fledgling Van Pool program and the recently instituted "zipper lane" on the H-1 Freeway.

Looking back at the
transit system that
never was

By Gordon Y.K. Pang


It's been six years since a City Council committee voted 5-4 to kill a half-percentage-point excise-tax increase to help finance a $1.6 billion heavy-rail transit line.

Along with the vote went $700 million in federal transit funds.

Proponents of that project, including Mayor Jeremy Harris, who was then city managing director, claim Honolulu would have had a rail line today.

They also argue that the project would have created 20,000 to 30,000 construction jobs that would have lessened the blows of, if not entirely erased, today's statewide recession.

Not true, says Rene Mansho, the council member whom many say was the swing vote that September 1992 day.

The City and County of Honolulu would be broke today if the excise tax increase had passed, Mansho said.

The economic downturn means the excise taxes that could have been collected would have been far less than originally projected, she said. Citing numbers from the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, the city would have fallen $351 million short of projections.

"The city would have been in worse financial shape," Mansho noted.

Harris and his administration object loudly to the Tax Foundation's numbers. Harris claims the number of construction jobs, coupled with a $700 million infusion of federal transit dollars, would have helped stimulate the economy and possibly would have negated the economy's downturn.

Not so, countered Lowell Kalapa, the foundation's executive director.

The $700 million in federal dollars would have gone largely toward the purchase of train cars and rail equipment, he said. Those dollars would have stayed on the mainland, not come into the community.

The money that would have been circulating in Hawaii from the rail project would have been the $1.2 billion or so generated from the half-percent excise tax hike borne by taxpayers statewide.

"That's not bringing in real capital," Kalapa said. "That doesn't grow the economy."

"That's a ridiculous assumption," Harris said. "The cost of the system didn't go up, how much money the excise tax brought in was all a function of what the total cost of the system was. And (Kalapa's numbers) show an economy that didn't have those 20,000 to 30,000 jobs."

Bus commuters at Ala Moana Center on a recent afternoon gave general support for the concept of a rail line. But start talking route or taxes and the enthusiasm fades.



bullet Diane Cencicola, 47, of Waikiki: "Anything that facilitates public transportation and can be done affordably has to be built. It can't hurt to have it." Cencicola does not support an excise tax increase for it, however.

bullet Noel Buendia, 42, of Hawaii Kai: "I'm all for it. I think it will cut down a lot of the traffic."

bullet Clifford Yuen, 40s, of Waipio Gentry: "Why just to the (Aloha) Stadium? That doesn't make sense. Maybe to Pearl City ..." Yuen said he doesn't think people would support a tax increase for rail transit in a bad economy.

bullet Gavin Gonzado, 31, of Pearl City: "Why should it only help a central area when you can help communities like the Waianae Coast?" He said he wouldn't mind paying extra taxes if the line will go farther than now planned.


Dec. 16: Will rail fly?
Dec. 17: The Portland model: Could it work here?
Dec. 18: Harris lights up at light rail

E-mail to City Desk

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
[Stylebook] [Feedback]

© 1998 Honolulu Star-Bulletin