All government levels
need to support rail system


State legislative leaders said they will consider authorizing the city to raise taxes to build a rapid rail transit system.

HAWAII'S economic recovery can only make traffic more congested, creating an opportunity for state legislators to grant authority for Honolulu to build a rapid rail transit system. Legislators, Gov. Lingle, Mayor Hannemann and the City Council all need to get on board to assure the success of such an effort, following more than two decades of failed attempts.

Fixed-rail mass transit was rejected in 1982 and again in 1992, when the City Council voted 5-4 against a tax increase to finance its construction. Former Mayor Jeremy Harris' Bus Rapid Transit project was halted last year when the federal government withheld money because the city had tried to go forward without federal approval. Hannemann has said he will not attempt to revive BRT.

Both Lingle and Hannemann have supported the concept of rapid rail transit, and the City Council's Transportation Committee unanimously supported a resolution in 2003 backing a "work plan" for a rail line from Kapolei to downtown. Senate President Robert Bunda and Rep. Joe Souki, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, say the Legislature is poised to address the issue this year.

In a telephone survey taken in September by the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization, Honolulu residents expressed strong support for improving Oahu's transportation system, even if it were to mean increasing taxes. Ninety percent of the respondents said they would support a tax hike to pay for one or more of five alternative strategies cited in the survey. Fifty-five percent said they would support rapid rail transit even if raising taxes were the only way to do it.

Most of the respondents favored raising the sales tax rather than property taxes, which means the Legislature would need to grant authority to the city. Souki predicts that legislators will give the city that authority, the main question being whether "the community and the policy-makers have the will and courage to come up with negative incentives for owning cars." That could mean increasing vehicle assessment fees or perhaps taxes on parking rentals, targeting commuters.

The issue arises in the Legislature as Congress considers a six-year extension of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, which provides federal funding for transportation projects. Under the law, states and regions are given an opportunity to ask Congress to earmark funds for specific needs. Congressional action is expected early this year.

Lingle's proposed light-rail system is estimated to cost $2.6 billion, and city and state cooperation is needed to assure the necessary federal funding. As Henry Ford once said, "If everyone is moving forward together, then the success takes care of itself."

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