It is saddening to see Hawaii state lawmakers pretending that the soaring cost of Honolulu rail is a uniquely local scandal that can be fixed with some simple budget adjustments.
The cost of rail is soaring because the cost of all public works projects is soaring, here and on the mainland. Yet some people prefer to believe it’s because of crookedness or incompetence, because their kneejerk collective self-loathing makes them think it is ever thus in Hawaii. Some people so devoutly believe in the perfidy of other people, they spot eight out of every two examples of it.
We have seen how rail is dissed as too expensive by people, mostly retirees who don’t have to drive the H1 in rush hour, who were always against it, and simply alter their reasons according to whatever they think will play best at the time.
We have seen architects argue for aesthetic reasons that it should be built at ground level, which would completely defeat the purpose of rail, since it would mean that when surface streets are gridlocked rail would be gridlocked, too.
We have seen arguments for a shift to maglev, a different and more expensive technology designed for long-range railroads, supported by people who don’t understand the technology.
We’re used to all that. What is new is otherwise intelligent state lawmakers pretending that more frugal budgeting will cover costs without permanently extending the excise tax surcharge paid by, and only by, Oahu taxpayers.
The premise of restricting the surcharge to Oahu is false: that neighbor island residents should not have to pay for capital works on Oahu. The state spends more on neighbor island projects and services than it collects in neighbor island taxes. Surprised? It’s true, and not only here. In most states, urban and suburban taxes are diverted to pay for rural roads.
All lawmakers have to do is not sunset the surcharge and the city will have a significant source of funding from a tax that is already in force and supported by the Chamber of Commerce.
Ever wonder why the Chamber supports it?
To understand that, take note of how many delivery trucks use the H-1. Businesses use the expressway for distribution. They can plan for bad traffic on a normal day but they need some kind of relief on those really, really awful days.
One example: cement trucks travel miles from their yard to construction sites. But the cement has to be within a certain temperature range on arrival, or it won’t set properly. Too hot or too cold, and the builder will “reject the truck.” Time is money.
The opposition to rail has from the start been based on distortion of facts, supplied by the highway lobby on the mainland. Opponents complain of how very much it costs (and I have no doubt it is not done rising, if only because it will be extended) without facing the question, “compared to what?”
The cost to build it is less than the cost not to build it, and the economic benefit of transit-oriented development is worth the cost, even if rises more. New construction along the rail line will contribute substantially to the tax base, increasing tax revenue for the state that it can spend on all islands.
The proposed limited extension of an existing surcharge is not a bailout, as has been inaccurately claimed, and indeed the state not only hasn’t spent any money on rail, it has until now siphoned off rail tax revenues. Lawmakers are to be commended for ending that.
If the surcharge is extended indefinitely, and one day rail is completed and there is an effort to repeal the surcharge, that will be worth everyone’s serious consideration. Now is the wrong time to do that.
Some state lawmakers whom I otherwise like and respect are in danger of making a poor decision that will cost us more than it will save.