On Politics
Richard Borreca

Honolulu’s desire
for mass transit system
faces a test in Congress

Congressman Neil Abercrombie jokes that his beard was still red and he was just a University of Hawaii graduate student when he started lobbying with the old "3M Council" of Manoa, McCully and Moiliili for a rapid transit system.

Now the 66-year-old First Congressional District Democrat is making one last attempt to get a major rapid transit system for Honolulu.

The usually outspoken Abercrombie has started a round of quiet talks to build support with political leaders to allow the counties to raise the excise tax to fund a mass transit system. Neighbor island councils could dedicate the money for their own transportation needs, but the idea is to get federal dough for Honolulu's long-stalled transit plans.

"He's putting the fear of the Lord in everybody. If the public wants transit, this is the time to do it," veteran Maui Democrat and House Transportation chairman Joe Souki says.

Honolulu will not build it without federal help. But federal transit money is appropriated only once every six years, according to Abercrombie. The bill to fund the next six years is about to move. But Abercrombie says there is a chance to open the bill for amendments within the next month or so.

Even then, other cities are also competing for the money. But no federal funds will be coming to the islands unless Congress knows that Honolulu, which has twice rejected rail, will jump on board.

That means Hawaii must say it will put up the needed money, meaning the state's House, Senate, governor, county councils and mayors must raise taxes.

"Congress is not going to authorize a rail transit system absent local funding already in place," Abercrombie explains.

"If there is the will to do something, to do more than just pay lip service to the gridlock and frustration of Honolulu's drivers, then this must be one of the first issues for the Legislature," Abercrombie adds.

Dismissing opponents as "members of the Flat Earth Society," Abercrombie says he has lost his patience with those who claim support for transit but don't have the political will to call for a tax increase to pay for it. Although Gov. Linda Lingle said much the same thing when she tried to get consensus on it two years ago, Abercrombie scorned her own political fortitude.

"When it got tough, she ran away like a scolded dog," Abercrombie says of Lingle's diminished efforts after failing to get support from her own party.

Now Abercrombie say he even has the support of his former political opponent, Mayor Mufi Hannemann.

"The mayor assured me that we would be shoulder to shoulder and eyeball to eyeball on this," Abercrombie said, ignoring the one-foot height difference between Hannemann and himself.

Still unanswered is whether Hawaii's leaders are confident they can look the voters in the eye and say transit will reinvent Honolulu and make it a great city.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Richard Borreca writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin. He can be reached at 525-8630 or by e-mail at rborreca@starbulletin.com.

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