City council questions rail spending and budget

Tom Berg, Honolulu City Councilmember
Tom Berg, Honolulu City Councilmember
Toru Hamayasu, Interim Rail CEO
Toru Hamayasu, Interim Rail CEO

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - What do coloring books, pencils and mints have to do with building Oahu's rail system?  And why are taxpayers paying for this?  Honolulu City Council members asked those questions and more while discussing HART's (Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation) budget today.

Various city council members attacked the rail authorities spending and decision making and the council wants answers before it gives them another half a billion dollars for next year.

The rail's capital budget is $491 million.  The operating budget is another $23 million all for next year. The Council questioned how the rail authority is spending its money now on things like coloring books which talk about why trains are good and say they have no traffic, no waiting and no waste. The coloring book also calls the rail Earth friendly.

"I find it to be pure propaganda and that is no way to spend taxpayer dollars," said Tom Berg, Honolulu City Councilmember. "It's propaganda to me and filled with misinformation and miss truths and is trying to get a populace and primarily youths to think what rail is all about when I think it's not very factual."

Even though the rail authority has been running numerous radio commercials HART insists it doesn't run ads and instead calls them public announcements.

"I totally disagree with you that this is propaganda. We're providing you with information you are asking for," said Toru Hamayasu, Interim Rail CEO.

"Stop pitching it. Stop trying to sell it and promote it and just get with the facts," said Berg.

Some questioned the need for all 142 budgeted HART salaries, especially the public information officers, comparing it to the State Department of Transportation which includes all the highways, harbors and airports and has only one spokesman.

"Rail isn't even running and they have five people in the propaganda department and that to me is a reckless use of taxpayer dollars," said Berg. "It's a runaway train with no regard to expenses."

Construction is underway and columns will start going up in just a couple weeks.  Some on the council say why not wait about six more months because various things can derail the project including not getting the full amount of federal funds, a pair of lawsuits or a new mayor set on stopping it.  Hamayasu says every month waited adds $10 million in inflation. He insists it's cheaper to build the pillars and tear them down if need be than it is to wait.

"It's cheaper to construct and remove it than wait for all the paperwork is done before we start," said Hamayasu.

"I still do find that hard to believe," questioned Ikaika Anderson, Honolulu City Councilmember, who wants to see the proof.

"We're already starting and we have this financial plan that is so shaky I think that's why our taxpayers are so worried," said Ann Kobayashi, Honolulu City Councilmember. "Let's be straight, let's be straight with our taxpayers so we know what's coming before us."

"The reason we're having this discussion here today is largely because of the Hannemann administration making the decision to prematurely execute these contracts in 2009 before knowing we had the full funding grant agreement," said Tulsi Gabbard, Honolulu City Councilmember.

"We are constantly analyzing the most economical way to proceed with this project and currently our determination is what we're doing is the best way to do it," said Hamayasu.

The council approved the budget in the first reading today but the next hearing may get heated as councilmember want the answers to the questions they demanded today including how much HART is spending on its mailers and why it is paying an additional $300,000 on rent.

Tom Berg voted against the HART budget today and Kobayashi, Gabbard and Romy Cachola voted with reservations. The first reading is almost always unanimously passed along to committee hearings.

To see how HART spends its money click here.

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