Dan Boylan: The Politics of Rail

Mar 22, 2017

The Honolulu Rail Transit Project is facing an April 30th deadline to come up with a funding source to complete the downtown segment of the 20-mile system.   As HPR’s Wayne Yoshioka reports, the political stakes seem high but the decision appears to be relatively simple.

Credit Wayne Yoshioka

“If rail is not completed it will constitute a real embarrassment to an entire generation of Hawai’i politicians and leaders.”

Political Columnist Dan Boylan says the latest polls support completion of the Honolulu rail transit project to Ala Moana Center.   But, Senate Ways and Means Committee chair, Jill Tokuda, did not extend rail’s point-five percent General Excise Tax surcharge beyond the 2027 expiration date.   Instead, she offered the state’s 10 percent G-E-T administration fee to the City, about 300 million dollars over the next decade.  Tokuda says she is not politicizing rail to run for higher office.

“I think there will always be individuals who feel that people are using the issue of rail to try to get ahead, whether it’s myself or whether it’s the mayor or anyone.  But for myself, it is about trying to do the right thing for the taxpayer and try to look long term.”

The House Transportation Committee amended the Senate Bill last week leaving the GET surcharge extension period blank and providing partial use of the money for state highway projects.

“I am staying put as Mayor to get rail completed.”

Mayor Kirk Caldwell says the rail project needs 1.7 billion dollars from the state.  He admits rail is a political liability today but that should change over time.

“It’s like H-3, highly controversial; no one even talks about it today.  And I believe rail will be much the same thing because people don’t believe it’s gonna work, no one’s gonna ride it and those kinds of things.  But there isn’t a rail system built, as far as I know, anywhere in the country or the world that isn’t heavily used once it’s built and everyone says we should take it to more places.”

Political Columnist Boylan says rail is an issue in O’ahu elections but it won’t be enough to challenge Governor David Ige in 2018, as long as the chief executive successfully negotiates labor union contracts this summer.

“Jill Tokuda’s a very able and sensitive and smart politician but she is a senator from the Windward side and I’m not sure she’s gauged the entire opinion.   And I think that Caldwell, you know, leaving in the middle, that didn’t work for Frank Fasi or Mufi Hannemann.  And running for governor against the incumbent – that is always a very, very uphill battle.”

So, while lawmakers work on funding for the Honolulu rail transit project, due April 30th, Tokuda and Caldwell leave options open.

(Tokuda)  “It’s not about us.  It’s about our kids.  It’s a long term issue.  This is gonna far outlive us and I’m a supporter of rail and people may not even think that.”

(Caldwell)  “I think Jill Tokuda’s children along with our daughter and her children someday will be beneficiaries of all the hard work we’re doing and the controversy that we need to address.”

For HPR News, I’m Wayne Yoshioka.