The legislature’s rail fail

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State lawmakers, who never appropriated a dime in state funds for rail, preferring to leave it to the city, responded to soaring costs by saying the project needed their oversight. Then they ended their session without any funding solution of any kind.

I’ve got to give it to them: that was quite an oversight.

All they had to do to was give the city what it asked for, an extension of the fractional excise tax surcharge that was already in place.

If they suspected the money was not spent wisely, they had the option of hiring accountants to prove it, rather than just saying so.

Cynicism is no substitute for knowledge and suspicion is not evidence.

The suspicion that rail money was not spent wisely was based on the fact that the cost of rail, delayed by politics and litigation for years, had doubled.

This overlooked the fact that construction costs of all kinds, including office buildings, parking garages, hospitals, schools and residences, have been soaring here and nationwide for years. This is fact: Levett Rider Bucknall tracks these costs in 12 cities and one of them is Honolulu.

Rail costs doubled under the city’s watch. But the cost of airport improvements also doubled, and under the state’s watch. These lawmakers second-guessing the city – where were they? And what does this say about their qualification to provide “oversight”?

In this same session there was a ready solution to the airport project problem – creating a semi-independent agency to take over the work. This was supported by all stakeholders except the unions, a solution already proven successful in other cities that more rapidly completed larger and more complicated airport projects. All lawmakers had to do was pass it. They failed to.

On the rail debate an especially unhelpful development was the last-minute proposal to switch from the existing excise tax surcharge, which everyone understood, to a higher hotel tax, raising new issues and creating new opposition without time to debate, persuade or adjust.

The flimsy Economics 101 argument was that the excise surcharge “hit” the little guy. What will “hit” the little guy is if rail isn’t completed, or if it is further delayed, wfurther raising the cost.

While this was going on, we had the usual Greek chorus of people opposed to rail because of the costs, though before the cost soared they were opposed for other reasons.

They would rather see a new highway, and who knows, maybe you would, too, but a new highway will cost even more than rail, and will face even more legal delays. And sending a message to Washington that we can’t support something even after construction starts, doesn’t exactly help win federal funds for a future highway.

I’m not arguing that rail won’t cost a vast sum. Rail is so expensive that building it will cost more than anything except not building it.

There is a reason the Chamber of Commerce has backed rail from the start and still does. Gridlock on our worst traffic days is bad for business. Rail is no panacea and no one ever said it was, but an elevated system unaffected by highway gridlock is a critical part of any traffic solution. That’s why anyone who says let’s redo it at street-level is not part of the solution. Any proposal that involves redoing the plan is Trojan horse opposition.

Transit-oriented development will generate tax revenue, from which the whole state will benefit, and it will lessen development pressure on the more rural parts of Oahu. It will do the economy more good than a new stadium or a new convention center or any other future project. The best course of action is to build it, as planned, no “back to the drawing board,” no further delays, no changes to the funding mechanism. Stay the course.

And if you really think the money is misspent, hire forensic accountants and look into it. Prove it, in other words.

As for the slow pace of airport renovations, and the soaring cost of that, if all the airlines agree on a solution, and they do, and if it worked in other cities, and it did, then the course is clear. I don’t blame union leaders for protecting members’ jobs – they doing their job – but in the long run broken-down airports threaten those jobs by threatening Hawaii’s economy.

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