Key senator to push
tax hike for transit

Kawamoto says his plan will pay
half the cost of a rail system

State Sen. Cal Kawamoto will push an increase in the state general excise tax to 4.5 percent to help fund the planning and construction of light-rail transit on Oahu.

Congressional leaders say the state must decide in the coming legislative session how it is going to pay for its share of the cost of the $2.6 billion rail project.

"What I think needs to be done is for the state to make a commitment," said U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie. "If the Legislature can vote and pass the funding mechanism and get it to the governor's desk and get it signed ASAP, then that monkey is off your back."

Abercrombie and Kawamoto attended a meeting yesterday during which U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., shared what Portland went through to get its 17-year-old rail system in place.

Kawamoto, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said his proposal for an increase in the general excise tax would bring in $130 million a year. Within 10 years the tax would generate $1.3 billion, or half the cost of the rail system.

"We need to show (the congressional delegation) that we mean business this time, we're willing to put in $1.3 billion," Kawamoto said.

Kawamoto also said his proposal would take the heat off the City Council for now. The Council was unable to approve a 1992 rail transit proposal when it rejected a tax increase.

"We take it out of the Council's hands, then we get together to see where we want to go. That's faster," Kawamoto said.

But in an election year in which Republicans are trying to take over the majority in the state House, a tax increase could be difficult to sell. Kawamoto said he is already meeting with opposition from neighbor island senators. This is why his proposal will not be part of the Senate's majority package.

But Kawamoto said he is planning speaking engagements to neighborhood boards, business organizations and Rotary Clubs to get the word about his plan.

"Everybody wants to talk about transit, but nobody wants to talk about funding it," he said.

Kawamoto said federal officials told him not to bother asking for money without a mechanism in place to fund the local government's portion.

If Hawaii does not meet upcoming federal deadlines, the state may have to wait until 2010.

"I was three weeks ago in Washington, and they told us, 'If you don't have enabling legislation, don't come in,'" Kawamoto said.

When Gov. Linda Lingle first proposed the fixed-rail line from Kapolei to Iwilei and a $200 million "flyover" elevated highway above Nimitz Highway, she said taxes would have to be raised to pay for the projects.

But she later backed off a proposal to give the counties permission to raise taxes next year because planning for a transit system is at least four years away.

But Abercrombie disagreed on the plan of attack.

He said even before the state dusts off any plan, the state has to make a decision on the funding mechanism.

Blumenauer said rail transit is becoming more popular with cities and that if Hawaii misses the window of opportunity now, the state will be in stiff competition later on.


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