We must take bold step
toward rail transit

Traffic congestion is killing our quality of life. We have nearly 700,000 vehicles on Oahu, a figure that's getting alarmingly close to one for every person on the island. And it seems all are on the road during rush hour.

I've lost count of the people who have shared with me their tales about waking up before the birds to commute to town. Who among us has not had to postpone a meeting because someone was caught in traffic? For many of us, traffic jams are a seven-day-a-week proposition. And it's getting worse.

An Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization traffic study released this past April projected that our morning rush hour would double to 80 minutes or more by 2030, with commuters from the Leeward Coast suffering up to four hours a day in traffic.

It's clear that we need to tackle the problem now by developing a multimodal transportation system that will efficiently carry large numbers of commuters, slow the growth of traffic and allow for sensible development of Oahu in the years to come. In addition to better use of our roads and buses and the creation of a commuter ferry, rail transit offers the most promising solution.

Every mayor since Neal Blaisdell and at least two governors have advocated some sort of rail system for Oahu.

Gov. John Waihee, in 1990, called for a half-percent hike in the general excise tax to allow the counties to pay for transit projects, including the city's proposed rail line. Governor Lingle and her task force, which explored transportation solutions for Oahu commuters, announced in October 2003 that a fixed-rail system was the only project capable of having a significant impact on congestion, and it was to be funded by a state tax.

While Oahuans continue to dicker over the right path to relieve traffic congestion, other municipalities are making the bold move to construct new light rail systems, among them Phoenix, Minneapolis, Seattle and Charlotte, while others, like Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Dallas, St. Louis, Portland, Houston, Sacramento, Denver and Houston, are successfully operating and even expanding their rail networks. These cities realize that rail is the only way to move large numbers of people, the only form of urban transportation that can get people to their destinations on time and the only way to slow the growth of traffic.

Commuters here, meanwhile, continue to face the frustration of traffic congestion, choke on exhaust fumes and pay almost $3 a gallon for gasoline.

Lingle has before her a measure, House Bill 1309, which would allow each county to assess an additional half-percent general excise tax to underwrite transportation improvements.

Some opponents of the measure argue that this would represent the largest tax hike in Hawaii's history. Not so. That distinction belongs to the 1963 increase, which raised the GET from 3 percent to 4 percent. Yes, it still represents a tax increase, but one that I believe Oahu residents are willing to pay because it will result in a direct, tangible impact on traffic and our very quality of life.

Opponents say a GET surcharge would cost the average family of four $450 a year. That figure is being bandied about by the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, an organization admittedly opposed to taxes. The House Finance Committee said its research shows the tax hit would be $245.

There are those who suggest that instead of the general excise tax, the city should look at raising other taxes. But to generate the roughly $148 million that would be produced by the half-percent excise tax surcharge, we would have to raise the fuel tax 284 percent; raise real property taxes 25 percent across the board or increase the automobile weight tax by 278 percent.

Each of these alternate sources would place the burden primarily on residents. But visitors would bear a larger portion of a general excise tax increase or surcharge.

Some argue that a rail system is unrealistic in a time of declining transit ridership. This is simply not true. The national transit data compiled by the federal government shows that transit ridership increased from 1996, and the rate of increase in transit use outpaced the rate of increase of car users.

The commuting methods that have declined the most are walking and carpooling, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. High-occupancy vehicle lanes, which have been touted by some as the best alternative to rail, don't make sense given the lack of public willingness to participate in a major way.

Then there are high-occupancy toll lanes. A 12-mile, two-lane system from, say, Waikele to Iwilei could cost $2 billion to $3 billion just for construction. The New York Times says driving in a HOT lane can cost anywhere from $1 to $8 each way, depending on the level of congestion. It's a luxury lane reserved for those who can afford it.

Some say we don't have a plan. The fact is, dozens of plans have been prepared for rail transit on Oahu. What we're missing is the will and courage to get one built.

From the outset, my administration -- in the spirit of compromise -- has tried to accommodate the different viewpoints on this issue. When we sought a 1-percent increase in the GET and the Legislature countered with a half-percent, we acceded. When the Legislature took 10 percent of any added revenue, we agreed. We have worked with the City Council to move ahead with Bill 40.

And then the governor insisted that the counties collect the tax and that the Legislature give her written assurances that certain provisions she found unacceptable be amended. We had misgivings about duplicating the state's collection system, the expense of creating a separate system and the added burden on businesses. In our effort to compromise, we set those misgivings aside.

When I met with the governor just days ago, I informed her that, by working with the state director of taxation, there was a possibility that we could have found a mutually satisfactory plan. It was a positive and promising meeting. Meanwhile, Senate President Robert Bunda and Speaker of the House Calvin Say both pledged the cooperation of their respective houses to amend language in the law.

Now the governor has added yet another condition, insisting that the Legislature amend the bill to her liking when it meets in special session on July 12. This is highly unlikely, and so, apparently, are the chances for mass transit for Oahu.

As I have said on numerous occasions, a mass transit system is at the heart of our quality of life. Imagine an Oahu where people will live, work, shop and play near transit stations. Imagine a future where a rail system stimulates job growth in construction, business and tourism. A rail system could even improve the city and state's credit worthiness by bringing long-term diversity and stability to our economy. The lengthy commutes, the congestion, the wasted time in traffic should not be how we define our future. A transit system is the best legacy we can leave for our children.

This is the last chance we have to build a rail system in our lifetime. If we fail this time, unlike 1992, it will not be because of lack of effort on the part of the city.

Mufi Hannemann is the mayor of Honolulu.

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