Saturday, December 4, 1999
to Panamas controlThe issue: The United States is relinquishing control of the Panama Canal at the end of the year.THE last two remaining U.S. bases in the Panama Canal Zone were turned over to Panama this week, bringing a 96-year armed presence by the United States in Panama to an end. Under the terms of the Panama Canal treaties, signed by former President Jimmy Carter and dictator Omar Torrijos in 1977 after 13 years of negotiations and many protest demonstrations, all American troops must be withdrawn and the canal transferred to Panamanian control by noon on Dec. 31.
Our view: It's time to let the Panamanians take over.
The agreements guarantee the permanent neutrality of the canal and give the United States the right to intervene militarily should the canal be closed or ship traffic hindered. U.S. naval forces are granted unconditional access to the canal.
The canal is not the vital strategic and economic link between the Atlantic and Pacific that it was when it was built, although it still carries 5 percent of the world's shipping.
The canal serves 144 shipping routes but can only handle 39 ships a day. Last year's traffic of 14,000 ships was near capacity. Estimates of what it would cost to widen the canal enough for supertankers or aircraft carriers range as high as $6 billion, far beyond the canal's earning capacity.
The 51-mile waterway made a $30 million profit last year, despite $100 million in annual maintenance costs. The Panamanian government will receive $160 million in extra shipping tolls when it takes over at the end of the year.
Protection of the canal is given high priority in Panama's new national defense plan -- higher than security on the border with Colombia, despite repeated incursions by armed groups involved in the Colombian civil war.
"We have lived with the frontier problem for more than 20 years, but how long could Panama live with the canal closed?" Interior Minister Winston Spadafora explained. Indeed, Panama owes its origin to the canal. After Colombia rejected a proposal by the United States to build a canal across the isthmus, Panama, encouraged by Washington, revolted and became an independent nation in 1903.
Panama's security problems are related. Panama's armed forces may not be strong enough to take on the Colombian guerrillas, who are financed by drug trafficking. Increased border crossings by the guerrillas could pose a threat to the nation and to the canal.
However, withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Canal Zone doesn't remove the canal from American military protection. U.S. forces could be landed in a matter of hours if the canal was threatened.
But there is no immediate threat, and no need to hang on to the Canal Zone. It's time to pull back and let the Panamanians run the show.
City Councils OK
for mass transit planThe issue: The Harris administration's mass transit proposals have won preliminary approval from the City Council.MAYOR Harris' new transit proposals have received a crucial although preliminary vote of approval from the City Council. An 8-0 OK is certainly emphatic. It was quite a contrast to the Council's 1992 rejection of the then-Fasi administration's elevated light-rail plan when it refused to approve a tax increase to finance it.
Our view: Although the real decisions still lie in the future, this action is a welcome endorsement.
Wednesday's vote was by no means comparable. It merely gave the Harris administration a green light to proceed with study of the proposal. Still, the approved resolution "strongly supported the concept," which had to be encouraging.
Making financing decisions is still in the distant future. However, as Councilman Steve Holmes observed, "There has to be a starting point. We all know there are financial choices much further down the road."
There are several parts to the proposal, and city Transportation Director Cheryl Soon emphasized that the project can be done in phases to ease the financial burden. In all, the program is estimated to cost $1 billion -- far less than the system that was rejected in 1992.
One of the questions that will have to be answered eventually is who will pay for the proposed tunnels under Honolulu Harbor, which are intended to divert traffic that currently uses Nimitz Highway through downtown.The question has been raised by state Rep. Kenneth Hiraki, chairman of the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization, and by state Transportation Director Kazu Hayashida.
But this isn't the time to deal with funding issues. The city has said it doesn't expect to raise taxes, which means much of the cost will have to be borne by the state and federal governments.
In addition to the tunnels, the plan calls for electric-powered trams running through the urban core of Honolulu, increased express bus service and transit-oriented improvements to the freeway system, including bus-only ramps and an afternoon zipper lane.
Since the 1992 defeat of rail transit, Oahu has experienced the widening of Kalanianaole Highway, the completion of the H-3 freeway, and the introduction of the zipper lane on H-1. But improvements to mass transit have been stalled.
As the Harris administration has recognized, it's time to start over with a new plan. The City Council, without a dissenting vote, says it agrees. Now let's get on with it.
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