Monday, August 8, 2005
Transit tax approval not assured
A vote on Wednesday stirs memories of past Council rejection of a plan offered in 1992
By Crystal Kua
Thirteen years ago, when traffic problems were not getting any better, the City Council rejected a mass-transit rail system and the $600 million in federal funding to build it.
THE BIG VOTE
Who: The Honolulu City Council
What: Third vote on Bill 40. If approved, allows the city to enact 0.5 percent general excise tax surcharge to fund mass transit. That means Oahu’s new excise tax will be 4.5 percent.
Where: Kapolei Hale, Room 113
When: Wednesday, 10 a.m.
How the votes have stacked up so far:
» For: Todd Apo, Romy Cachola, Donovan Dela Cruz, Nestor Garcia, Ann Kobayashi, Gary Okino, Rod Tam
» Against: Charles Djou, Barbara Marshall
Today, with traffic only growing worse, the Council is once again ready to take a final vote on a similar proposal.
On the table is a proposal that would raise Oahu’s excise tax to 4.5 percent from 4 percent. If approved Wednesday, the tax will raise several hundred million dollars for a mass-transit project, most likely rail.
Back in 1992, with a clear transit plan in place, approval seemed like a sure thing. And so it does now, even without a final plan on how the money will be spent.
Back then, it took the vote of one councilmember to kill the project. Today, with a different Council, a new strategy to push for mass transit and a more favorable political climate for such a system, the outcome appears favorable.
But in politics, anything can happen, which is why supporters and opponents of the tax proposal anxiously await Wednesday’s vote.
“Every City Council has a different personality, different sense of leadership,” said former Councilman Gary Gill, who voted in favor of the tax increase in 1992.
Prior to the Sept. 22, 1992, vote, the City Council settled on an elevated fixed guideway service. It basically was a driverless train, steel wheels on steel rail, running along a 15.9-mile route from Waiawa near Leeward Community College to the University of Hawaii. Optimistic plans showed it would have been easy to extend the line to East Honolulu. The plan called for 22 stations along the route, with stops at Pearlridge, Aloha Stadium, Pearl Harbor, the airport, downtown (via Nimitz Highway), Kakaako and other points, with a terminal at University Avenue. Buses and other highway improvements also were proposed as part of the overall plan.
Donna Mercado Kim joined Gill, Leigh-Wai Doo and Andy Mirikitani to vote for the tax increase in 1992.
“I felt that traffic problems were not going to get any better,” said Kim, now a state senator. “We needed to give people choices.”
Steve Holmes, John DeSoto, then-Chairman Arnold Morgado, John Henry Felix and Rene Mansho voted no.
“The reason I voted against it was that I could not see people in my district paying for something that they wouldn’t use,” DeSoto said.
Kim said others on the Council also took that position. “It was pretty set. Early on, the lines were drawn,” she said.
But it was Mansho who became the wild card. At first she supported rail, but finally voted no.
When contacted by telephone, Mansho said she was in the middle of a meeting and could not talk but would call back. She did not. A subsequent call was not returned.
But Mansho said at the time that she was concerned about the long-term cost to the city. “I wasn’t going to vote for something I didn’t fully understand,” she said then.
‘Mistakes’ of the past
Mayor Mufi Hannemann used a sports analogy to describe what he called the “debacle” of 1992. “The last time, we were on the 5-yard line, we had the ball, we were going in for a touchdown and we fumbled on the 1-yard line and it was over,” he said.
As Wednesday’s vote approaches, Hannemann said his administration has worked hard to get a different outcome.
“We made a conscious decision to avoid what I believed to be some of the mistakes and shortcomings,” he said.
Hannemann said the new transportation plan is not based solely on rail transit. He is also looking at waterways for solutions, including an intraisland commuter ferry from Ewa to downtown Honolulu.
And he has worked in Kapolei once a week to exemplify his proposal to reverse the traffic flow by moving more jobs to West Oahu.
“I did not want it to appear that we were putting all our eggs in the transit basket, that it was going to be our ultimate salvation from our traffic woes,” he said.
He also wanted to have local funding in place so, he said, “it lets the federal government know that we are serious this time around.”
But his strategy has met with some criticism because a final transportation plan is not in place.
Both Councilmembers Charles Djou and Barbara Marshall have not supported the tax increase partly because the scope of the project and the financial figures have not been defined.
“In 1992 at least we had a plan. Here in 2005 there is no plan,” Djou said. “We have no concept, and we can give no assurances on what we’re going to do with all this money.”
Council Transportation Chairman Todd Apo said the City Council has been forced by the Legislature to enact the tax by the end of the year, giving them little time to come up with a final plan on how to spend the money.
“We can’t wait,” he said. “Clearly, Wednesday is the beginning of the process.”
But he said the Council will have plenty of opportunities to scrutinize the project and could pull back in the future if necessary.
Hannemann also said he wanted to stress the importance of the route starting in West Oahu, an extension of the proposed 1992 line.
“That’s where the pain is more severe in traffic congestion, and two, that’s where the land mass is available for development and right-of-ways and base yards,” he said. “I think the community there will be very supportive to see something like this happen.”
DeSoto, who represented West Oahu when he was on the Council, said that he probably would have voted in favor of the tax increase if the route had started further west.
The key vote
While five councilmembers voted against rail in 1992, it is Mansho who has been blamed for killing the project. Former Council colleagues said Mansho allowed the pressure to get to her. “Rene was clearly in favor until the last couple of weeks, when she started to waver,” Kim said.
“Rene positioned herself as the swing vote,” Gill said.
Keeping Mansho’s surprising final vote in mind, Hannemann said he has tried to avert any surprise endings.
“With this Council here … I’ve always made myself available,” Hannemann said.
He said he has become involved during key moments, one of them when Councilman Rod Tam’s proposed amendments delayed the transit vote in June.
“When there was trouble with that floor amendment draft, I jumped into it right away. I said, ‘What do you folks need? What kind of assurances do you need from the city?’ We quickly resolved their concerns and they were legitimate concerns,” the mayor said.
Kim said the two Councils are quite different.
The 1992 Council consisted mostly of veteran councilmembers. Today’s Council, because of term limits, is composed of relative newcomers to city government and politics.
“They’re not going to be there for long, and they haven’t been there that long. Some of them are taking a vote very young in their political careers, and they may be very pressured,” she said.
Kim said that complaints about traffic congestion have also increased in recent years as more people have moved to West Oahu.
“You didn’t have the kind of traffic gridlock then that you have now,” Kim said. “That’s why you see seven (Council) people in favor. Their constituents are in the cars.”