Beleaguered rail project takes center stage in mayoral race

Beleaguered rail project takes center stage in mayoral race
Published: Jul. 26, 2016 at 6:15 PM HST|Updated: Jul. 26, 2016 at 7:52 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Honolulu's troubled rail project has emerged as the dominant issue in the mayoral race.

Both Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and former Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle say it must be built to its full length, but it's less clear what former U.S. Rep. Charles Djou, who is staunchly anti-rail, would do about the rapid transit project if he's elected.

"I've asked him what his solution is to rail. He says he's open to everything, but he's stopping at Middle Street for sure and he won't spend any more money. Whatever solution is proposed will cost more money, and he won't answer that question. He doesn't want to be pinned down," Caldwell said, while pressing for specifics at a recent mayoral forum.

While both Caldwell and Carlisle are solid rail supporters, there are differences in their approach to getting it built and funded. Djou, on the other hand, brings up the problems with rail repeatedly -- but when pressed for an alternative plan, his position is far from clear.

A recent Hawaii News Now/Star-Advertiser poll indicates a majority of likely voters want to see rail go all the way to Ala Moana. Both Caldwell and Carlisle have committed to that -- even though there isn't enough money.

Carlisle proposes building rail with just the bare basics -- and as a last resort would be willing to consider raising property taxes, though he says extending the General Excise tax increase is a better source of funding for now.

"The excise tax has been a very good way of doing it. It's been successful so far, so do I believe that extending that is a good idea? Absolutely and unequivocally. I think we need to make sure we do it, again, without all the bells and whistles. We've got to get the guideway done first and get it all the way so that people are on the train and using it. That's the most important thing and the sooner we get to that the better," said Carlisle.

Honolulu rail officials confirmed last week that based on the latest bid for construction from Aloha Stadium and through the airport, there is enough money to build the guideway and all stations to Middle Street.

Unlike Carlisle, Caldwell wants 100 percent of the project built -- not a stripped-down version. He says any hope of getting more funding from the feds is on-hold until after the presidential and congressional elections, so he's looking at other alternatives to cover costs for the remaining four-mile eight-station stretch to Ala Moana.

"I've talked with our state leaders -- both at the Legislature and in our business community. I've gone to the developers where rail has run asking how much would they be willing to pay to have stations built on their properties or through their properties," said Caldwell.

The Hawaii News Now polls says 25 percent of likely voters want to halt construction and only 10% of those polled think Middle Street is the best place for rapid transit to end.

Djou says he wants to do better than that, but he's not saying how.

"I want to get it to Waikiki. I want to get to the University of Hawaii -- that's a solution I think we ultimately need. Some of these proposals that I've heard about -- whether it's conversion to light rail, putting it at grade or BRT -- I think can get us there and get us there a lot cheaper," said Djou.

BRT is bus rapid transit -- essentially running buses on the rail guideway and onto dedicated bus lanes, but Djou won't commit to a specific technology. However, he is firm on no further tax increases for funding.

"The original EIS back in 2003 said we should look at something different other than heavy rail -- I'm open to any of those reasonable proposals here. What I am not open to is this spend to no end mentality that we currently have at City Hall," said Djou.

However, steel-wheels on steel-rails is required in the city charter, which can only be changed by a public vote. Any change to the technology would require a change in the charter that would have to be approved by voters -- at the earliest two years from now.

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