Cover Story

Tom Berg
Ewa makai school town hall meeting.
Image: courtesy of the office of tom berg

Q & A with Honolulu City Councilman Tom Berg, District #1: Ewa Beach, Kapolei, Wai‘anae


Government’s role is to make something a success, and if this rail’s going be a success, we can’t bump along and ignore basically half of the island population. Tom Berg


Cover image for Jul 6, 2011

Tom Berg / It’s news (or should be) when West Oahu’s new city councilman comes out unequivocally against the city’s $5.4 billion rail plan. After all, the primary beneficiaries of the embattled commuter train were meant to be Oahu’s westsiders, victims of one of the worst commutes on the planet. What gives?

In late 2010, Councilman Todd Apo (District 1: Ewa, Kapolei, Waianae) resigned from the Honolulu City Council to take a job with the Disney Company at its Aulani resort, now nearing completion in Ko ‘Olina. The special election to replace him attracted 14 candidates, including videographer, legislative staffer and self-professed Tea Partier Tom Berg, 47, who won the seat with 2,308 votes or 18 percent of the 12,534 votes cast. He took office in mid-January. In the past few months, he has made a name for himself as an energetic critic of many smelly aspects of the city’s rail project. He recently held a civilized and informative town hall meeting in Ewa Beach to air some of the community’s deeply conflicted confusion about the state of the rail. Berg’s next town hall meeting will be held this Tuesday, July 12, at Makaha Elementary School. In a phone interview with the Weekly, Berg shared something of himself and his views on the rail. The converstion has been edited for clarity and space.

Where are you from, what was your career before politics, do you have family and how did you get into politics?

I was hired by Will Espero back in 2000 to work on his staff at the Capitol. He knew me when I was resident manager at the building I still live in in Ewa Beach. I spent six years with Espero, then three years as a staffer with Rep. Rita Cabanilla, and then the past two years I was with Rep. Kymberly Pine. It was good training that gave me the capability to have and express opinions and get things done. I’m from Chicago. I’m here in Ewa Beach still, I’ve got a girlfriend–we’ve been together for about 13 years.

When did you first begin to feel that the city’s rail plan was “headed off the track” as you have said?

A long time ago, in 2005, when the state legislature passed Act 247 and took a 10 percent cut of the 0.5 percent GET [General Excise Tax] surcharge on Oahu. The state only needed about $700,000 to process and administer it. Now the state is taking $16 million a year, withholding that money, putting it into the General Fund. It’s money siphoned out of rail and out of Oahu. It’s called profiteering. It’s graft. It started in 2007, and ever since then, the state’s been playing dirty. So the first thing brokered from the entire rail deal was cash for the state of Hawaii, for our state legislature, and they’re ripping us off. That’s when I said, ‘Hey, wait a minute!’ Now we’re going on year five collecting the tax, with some $71 million siphoned off by the state. People on the neighbor islands aren’t paying the tax, but they’re getting the windfall from our taxes for our transportation relief, and it’s unfortunate it’s gotten to this point without being debated.

You ran for the City Council from the First District after Councilman Apo resigned to take a job with Disney’s Aulani Resort. Did you campaign on an anti-rail platform?

I campaigned on doing rail right. I’ve always been a fighter for the Alternatives Analysis in the Environmental Impact Statement [AA/EIS], for the document itself, for its requirement for an all-encompassing study of transit alternatives, but it wasn’t done by the city. No Maglev study, no monorail, no HOV lanes. I mean, what damage would it have done to look at all the possibilities? Why didn’t we go out to make sure that tunnels and bridges and reversible expressways weren’t, in fact, viable alternatives? All those things were omitted from the city’s Alternatives Analysis studies.

How do your views on rail differ from your predecessor, Councilman Apo?

Well, Apo was driving that train! Yeah, he had the keys! He got this thing all fired up, ready to roll, and he did his job. He did his due diligence, and good for him. Kudos to former Councilman Todd Apo. He succeeded in his mission, which was to provide for a transportation mechanism, which is called rail, steel on steel.

What is your constituents’ thinking on rail and traffic?

I think they’re savvy. They want any form of traffic relief, and the only thing dangling–the carrot on the stick–is rail. There was no other opportunity, but these akamai constituents knew, and they had an opinion, and they’ve been debating this. They want to stagger UH hours; they want to get uninsured motorists off the road; they want the UH-West Oahu campus built… I think we do have solutions in mind that are very inexpensive, much easier to maintain and manage, and we’ve been asking for them for 30 years, but none of them have come to fruition for some reason. The state legislature refused to get tough on uninsured motorists. You can get four out of 10 cars off the road. That’s overnight relief without spending a penny in construction. No headache there… It sounds a little draconian, but my plan was to maybe give them a free 90-day bus pass. So they can get on their feet. But we can’t condone this and look the other way when we’re in a transportation crisis.

Yes or no, are you opposed to rail transit for south Oahu?

Me personally, I’m opposed, but the voters said they want it, so I’m fighting for it to be done right.

There was recently a leadership shake-up at the City Council. What has changed at Honolulu Hale, and what does it mean for rail?

At this time, I can’t come up with any kind of sound answer on this, because it’s jelly. It’s not tangible yet. I think we’re already at the point where we can’t turn back. My goal is to get these lawsuits to go away. [Note: Berg is talking about the two lawsuits underway so far, one involving former Gov. Ben Cayetano who is among the plaintiffs in a suit that challenges the completeness of the city’s EIS process vis-à-vis its Alternatives Analysis; the other suit, brought by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, challenges the phased implementation of the rail project’s archeological surveys.]

How do you propose getting rid of the lawsuits?

I’m just trying to say that these lawsuits are going to weigh everybody down, no one’s going to win, you’re not gonna get any traffic relief, no jobs, no nothing, so let’s do it right. We can do the Alternatives Analysis and the archeological studies up front. That’s our duty as citizens. Let’s not let these lawyers feed at the trough and fatten up on us. Let’s stop this. The lawyers are just going to get rich off this thing.

Newly elected Council Chair Ernie Martin recently said, “This thing isn’t over yet,” regarding the rail issue. What do you think he meant by that?

I think he was referencing oversight of the budget by HART [the newly appointed, 10-member Honolulu Authority For Rapid Transportation]. When the majority of Oahu voters approved an independent authority to oversee the rail project last year, there was no reference to it costing anything. I think there was even language that said ‘at no cost.’ So, the proposition was to get these community leaders to sit on the HART board, and it’s not going to cost anything, and we’re going to do it all in house. Well, it turns out the board has no transit expert on it, the budget had to be tweaked by $21 million in order to feed some 138 employees, and we don’t even have this thing started yet. If you let HART have full control of the purse…that debate isn’t over, that’s what [Martin] was talking about. [Note: On June 27, the City Council unanimously overrode Mayor Peter Carlisle’s veto of legislation requiring City Council oversight of HART finances.]

It appears that your three big concerns with the rail project are the 10 percent cut that the state is collecting from the Oahu-only GET rail surcharge, the makeup of the HART board and the city’s contract with Italian car manufacturer Ansaldo, which, you claim, overcharged the city by $250 million. Is that correct?

Yup, that’s the trifecta.

What was your reason for calling the Ewa and Makaha town hall meetings?

We have to allow the people to vent. This thing’s not a slam-dunk, it’s not all that overwhelmingly popular. Support was what, 53 percent in the rail vote in 2008? What we have is a schism, a rift on the island that cannot be ignored. That’s bad government. Government’s role is to make something a success, and if this rail’s going be a success, we can’t bump along and ignore basically half of the island population that begs to differ about the idea of investing $5 to $10 billion on a problematic train that relies on old and expensive technology.

You have said the public is misinformed about rail. How did that happen?

There was a shutdown of information. There was the newspapers’ refusal to showcase other experts on rail, sources other than the city’s own transit experts, other writings that could refute the notions of smart growth, that could highlight the failures of transit-oriented development. The city argued that the reason rail is better is because you won’t need to hire [more bus drivers], it’s a driverless system. But now, in a complete flip-flop, it’s hey, the more jobs you can create the better. Rail means jobs. The bigger you can bloat government, the better. Let’s pad this thing to the best of our abilities. It was unfortunate that the old Bus Rapid Transit [BRT] plan got beat up that way. Experts were saying, ‘Look, it moves more people! It moves people in emergencies! It pays for itself! It’s more efficient! You can build it faster! You’re going to get instantaneous traffic relief! The end-user pays! That whole philosophy of BRT. That to me is worthy of fighting for, so we can put this to rest after a fair fight. And that’s why Governor Cayetano and the others are suing, because they think–they know–that if they can get a judge or any type of a court to determine that fair play wasn’t duly exercised in the alternatives analysis process, then we have to go back, where we’re gonna find out what’s under the rug–all these things that the previous council and mayor did, how they took even light rail out of the scenario and off the table. That’s what the architects’ beef is.

Would you be in favor of light rail?

Absolutely. For $2 billion savings, you could build it quicker, and it’s doable, the blight’s gone, you betcha.

Some people dismiss you as a Tea Party member. Is it true? Are you a Tea Partier?

Oh, absolutely.

What does that mean?

It means I’m not a Republican or a Democrat. I just try to keep a hawk’s eye on what I see and call my shots for the benefit of the taxpayer, because it’s not my money, it’s their money. So, I never lose sight of that, and that’s what the Tea Party is all about.

Editor’s note: After the interview, Councilman Berg called to express concern about his statement that he opposed rail for Oahu and stressed that he was, in fact, in favor of a fixed rail line between the airport and Waikiki.