Council sweats
tax vote

Councilmembers find some
voters unsure that rail transit
merits an excise tax increase

When surf's up on the North Shore, traffic creeps along on Kamehameha Highway as tourists and other onlookers gawk at monster waves.

City & County of Honolulu

Taxes and transit

Who: City Council committees on budget, planning and transportation
What: Joint meeting on Bill 40 to establish a general excise tax surcharge. The revenue would be used to fund rail transit
When: About 2 p.m. Tuesday, immediately following the Planning and Transportation Committee meeting.
Where: Council Committee Room, Honolulu Hale

Area resident Carol Phillips doesn't see how a 12.5 percent general excise tax hike for rail transit will ease that traffic problem, especially for those North Shore residents who rarely venture to Honolulu during morning or afternoon rush hour but who still have to pay the extra tax.

"I think that before they actually raise taxes I think they should have a realistic plan in place. I think there should be a realistic timeline," Phillips said. "My fear is they raise the tax and they're not really able to implement it."

Selling a tax hike to constituents won't be an easy task for City Council members as they ponder raising the excise by one-half of 1 percentage point to 4.5 percent to finance a rail transit system.

"There's no way to stay politically safe with a tax increase," says political scientist Larry Sabato.

With the next City Council election a little more than a year away, the job to sell the tax increase will be even tougher for Council members whose constituents probably won't ride a proposed rail line that doesn't run through their districts. The line is projected to run between Kapolei and the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Windward Councilwoman Barbara Marshall, one of two members who voted against the tax hike when the Council took up the matter for the first time Wednesday, said she's not convinced the rail idea has been well thought out.

"While I'm not unalterably and unequivocally and forever opposed to this increase in the excise tax for rail transit, I think it's too soon," Marshall said at the meeting. "We need to figure out who's going to use the rail system and we need to be a little cautious as we proceed to levy one of the greatest tax increases in Hawaii's history."

Marshall isn't up for re-election next year, but her Council colleagues Charles Djou and Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz are.

It's no surprise that Djou, well known for his no-tax-hike stance, voted against the tax increase. He represents East Honolulu and Waikiki.

Dela Cruz, however, signed on as one of the sponsors of the bill to raise the excise tax and voted for it last Wednesday. He represents the district that includes Mililani Mauka and the North Shore to Kahaluu. The bill has two more appearances before the Council.

Rail critic Cliff Slater, on the Alliance for Traffic Improvement Web site, predicts the Council's majority in favor of hiking the tax will crumble as it did more than 12 years ago. He said, "Who is going to get the 'Rene Mansho Memorial Award'?" named for the former Councilwoman who was the deciding vote in 1992 against a tax increase for a planned rail system.

Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said that politicians can reduce the risks attached to voting for a tax increase.

"Generally, tax increases can often result in the defeat of incumbent politicians, but there are exceptions," Sabato said during a telephone interview from his home.

He said people support a tax increase when elected officials make a direct connection between the tax hike and what it's going to be used for.

"The best tax increases are targeted tax increases ... when there's a real problem that people recognize," Sabato said. "Most people recognize a terrible problem in transportation."

Politicians are already engaging in that strategy.

"We need to address traffic -- no ifs, ands or buts," said Councilman Romy Cachola, who voted for the bill.

Dela Cruz also knows that the tax hike will be a tough sell to his voters and he too is making the case that what's good for urban Oahu will be good for Oahu as a whole, including the North Shore, which strives to keep the country country.

"There's a ripple effect. If we want to keep the country, we have to take steps to protect and ensure that. If we want to solve our transportation and traffic problem, then we have to take steps to ensure that," Dela Cruz said.

Dela Cruz explains that development will follow the rail line, which will wind its way through areas already designated for urban growth.

"That's less pressure to build in the country," Dela Cruz said. "It's a big planning issue."

Dela Cruz said a feeder bus system would allow his constituents to ride the rail line. "We want to get access to the line so that my constituents can come into town."

Traffic during the morning and afternoon commutes between rural and urban Honolulu could be lessened as well because the rail line takes people off the freeways, he said.

Councilman Todd Apo, whose Leeward Coast Distract includes areas where rail won't go, agrees. "Whether it's the Leeward Coast or outside of my district, if you take cars off of the highway, you are going to benefit those areas. Yeah, they're not the ones riding the rail, but they will have the benefit of having the rail there."

Apo also acknowledges that his district is split over whether the excise tax hike is the right thing to do.

Ewa resident Tesha Malama said she doesn't believe officials have done enough to implement other traffic solutions, including reversing the traffic flow, and doesn't think that citizens should be burdened by a tax increase until it's done. "The (University of Hawaii) West Oahu is something that they should've done sooner," she said. "Efforts have not been made in bringing more state offices and city offices to West Oahu, to bring jobs yet they're willing to tax the people."

Apo said it's sort of a chicken-and-egg scenario on whether to ask for the tax increase first or iron out all the wrinkles first.

Apo said he believes that to secure federal funding now -- which may not be available for another six years -- the local funding must be approved.

Sabato said that touting the "bumper crop of federal money coming with the local money" is another approach.

"You have to take a chance and you show courage and someone may suffer for it. If we had not taken this action there will not be a placeholder (for Hawaii in federal funds)," he said. "Whether the average citizen will buy that is anybody's guess."

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