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Rendering of elevated rail at Bishop Street.
Image: Courtesy of AIA Honolulu

Rail: Not A Done Deal

Our kūpuna taught us to never throw good money after bad. Now our city leaders are hot to spend down all our money on rail, gutting our environment and our keikis’ future. But guess what? We can just say no.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Just as destiny is not manifest, the Honolulu rail is not a done deal. We are suspended in a moment, and the rail is, as one person said, “everything.”

Rail is the hinge on which all the other raging environmental issues turn: the bid to subdivide the Hoopili farmlands, the prospective developer giveaways in the guise of “Transit Oriented Development,” the backdoor campaign to gut Hawaii’s environmental protection laws and the cry for “jobs now” at the uncalculated expense of our children’s future.

This is not only about the island’s environment, but the taxes you pay now, and will pay in the future. When Mayor Peter Carlisle took his case for the rail to the Honolulu Rotary Club, a skeptic asked, “In the event of cost overruns, will the federal government help cover the cost?” This is one of those typically unasked questions when there are hundreds of millions at stake.

The mayor didn’t know the answer. He asked the interim manager of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART), Toru Hamayasu, who was sitting in the audience.

“No, Mr. Mayor, the federal government will not help defray cost overruns,” Hamayasu replied.

“Gosh,” the mayor went on, “Honolulu should have built this rail sooner–back when the feds paid nine-tenths of the cost.”

Hamayasu gently corrected him. “That was not 90 percent [and it was actually only for interstate highways] but 30 percent, Mr. Mayor.”

These days, rash statements about enormous sums seem to pass almost without remark. Carlisle recently said that if Honolulu doesn’t get the often-promised $1.55 billion in federal aid, he will nonetheless “plow ahead.” Sitting in City Council and HART meetings, I have often heard people use the words “million” and “billion” interchangeably–a slip of the tongue worth a multiple of one thousand.

In journalism school we were cautioned not to use a lot of numbers. Readers will flee. More numbers: The 2008 price of the rail was under $3 billion. Without explanation, that number today has multiplied to $5.3 billion. Cost cascaded so rapidly that the connector to Kapolei was cut on one end, and the connector to the University of Hawaii at Manoa was cut on the other–similarly without significant public discussion.

Without assurance of the fed’s $1.5 billion, Carlisle and HART are asking the City Council for half a billion in city dollars for the coming year. A price which will cover a bureaucracy of 142 HART people, five of whom do public relations full time, and–yes–HART’s coloring books for school children, not to mention HART radio ads we all pay for. By adding the $350 million that Mayors Carlisle and Hanneman already have spent without a public accounting, the rush to lock in a “done deal” approaches $1 billion.

HART is arguing that it must start building now across the ‘Ewa farmland to Waipahu, even if the Federal Circuit Court ultimately rules to tear the rail down. The rationale is, ironically, saving money. HART says the ratio of the construction/deconstruction cost to the “inflationary” cost of waiting is on the order of three to two. Imagine if this is true: Their rush to sign several billion dollars in contracts is now costing so much every month in delay penalties that HART’s idea of the right thing is to rush on.

The Council’s response prior to June 30 will be Step One in this sequence.

Step Two is a Federal Circuit Court ruling on the main environmental lawsuit, a response to which is due in September or October.

Step Three is the mayoral election in the August primary (50 percent, plus one vote wins) or in a November election runoff. Although the destiny of the candidates is not manifest, Carlisle and former-Managing Director Kirk Caldwell are awkwardly competing for how best to rush the rail forward, while former-Gov. Ben Cayetano is committed to stopping the project. It will be one of those rare elections that merits the word historic. In our island and our city’s future, rail is about everything.

Tom Coffman is a prize-winning author, producer/director of documentary films and former chief political reporter for the Honolulu Star Bulletin. He is a director of the environmental advocacy group, Hawaii’s Thousand Friends.