Legislators, Council should
act promptly on rail


Two state Senate committees have approved a bill to authorize a general excise tax increase to pay for a rail transit system on Oahu.

REP. Neil Abercrombie is blunt in his ultimatum to state legislators and the City Council. He is prepared to work for federal funding of a rail transit system in Hawaii, but only if local funds are committed to the project, which is vital to Oahu's transportation network. The response should be positive and swift.

"If we don't do it now, we're never going to get it done," Abercrombie told Dan Boylan on PBS Hawaii's Island Insights program on Monday. "So my position is pretty clear: Come up with the local match for the money and we can move forward. Don't come up with it, then don't come and see me."

The congressman conveyed the message earlier in the day to two state Senate committees, which then approved a bill that would authorize the city to increase the 4 percent general excise tax by 1 percent to pay for the rail system. Other counties would be allowed to impose the tax increase to fund their transportation projects, but they are not pressed to do so.

The U.S. House approved a highway and transit bill last week that includes authorization of unspecified federal funding for a rail system on Oahu. Abercrombie said he expects the federal government would contribute more than half of the total cost, estimated at $2.6 billion. The excise tax increase is expected to generate about $300 million a year.

Rail transit was rejected in 1982 and again in 1992, when the City Council voted 5-4 to back away from an opportunity to use matching federal funds. Meanwhile, housing development has mushroomed in central and leeward Oahu, causing increased rush-hour traffic problems.

The City Council voted 8-1 last week for a resolution asking the Legislature to grant it authority to raise taxes to pay for the rail system from Kapolei to downtown. (Abercrombie envisages the system to extend an additional two miles from Kapolei to Ko Olina.)

Councilman Nestor Garcia, chairman of the Council's Transportation Committee, says some of his colleagues "need to have a little bit more information" before they will vote for the tax hike. They should waste no time in gathering that information so they can join Governor Lingle, Mayor Hannemann, the congressional delegation and, according to a recent poll, a majority of Oahu residents in supporting the project, including the 1 percent tax increase.

Opposition is based mostly on the tax hike, but Abercrombie says the "flat-earthers" fail to appreciate the need for the transit system and the benefits that will accrue -- "a brand new economy, a brand new skyline, a brand new way of living on the leeward side of the island."

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