Special session on how to cover $3B rail shortfall set for August

Lawmakers announce special session to tackle rail funding shortfall
Published: Jul. 7, 2017 at 11:09 AM HST|Updated: Jul. 7, 2017 at 9:46 PM HST
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State Rep. Andria Tupola (Image: Hawaii News Now)
State Rep. Andria Tupola (Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - More than two months after lawmakers wrapped up the 2017 legislative session without an agreement on how to continue funding the troubled Honolulu rail project, the leadership sent a memo to their members Friday morning telling them to mark Aug. 28 to Sept. 1 as the dates for special session.

Saiki says the committee chairs have been meeting for the past few weeks to negotiate a deal on how to finance the rail project's budget shortfall, which has been projected to be as much as $3 billion dollars if you include interest payments.

"I'm completely optimistic and I think it was important for the legislature to take a break after the regular session to cool off," he said.

"The best news is that there have been several meetings. Discussions are ongoing and any time you're still at the table talking, that's a good sign," Kouchi said.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell says he's pleased the legislature set a date, while some members believe action needs to be taken now instead of later.

"Why don't you pull us in and get to work now instead of kicking the can down the road? This leads to a lack of certainty for the economy, a lack of certainty on the biggest public works project, and a lack of certainty for those folks working on the project," said State Rep. Bob McDermott, (R) Ewa Beach.

The leadership says they made it clear that rail will be the only issue they take up.

Saiki gave few details about what the final compromise might look like since talks are still ongoing.

"I think the key committee chairs realize that we need to minimize the impact of any further tax increases on Hawaii residents, so that's one of the key discussion points," he said.

The announcement comes nearly a month after state lawmakers wrote a letter to the Federal Transit Administration – which continues to scrutinize the project – assuring them that the discussion would happen before the end of the summer.

City officials were forced to file a recovery plan for the wildly-over budget project with the FTA back in early May, detailing alternative strategies on how HART can reconcile construction plans with available funding.

Including financing costs, the project – once estimated at $5.8 billion – is now estimated to cost as much as $10 billion.

Many had expected the special session – expected to cost taxpayers nearly $30,000 if it runs the required five-day minimum – to commence before the end of July. State Rep. Andrea Tupola told Hawaii News Now on Friday that the complexity of the issue was delaying the scheduling process.

"When the actual decision came out at the end of session and it was just radically different than what they had proposed in the beginning, a lot of people were like 'Where are we going?' I really feel like there's a lot of different things on the table," Tupola said. "Weigh 'em out, figure out which ones are going to work, which ones don't, bring in the stakeholders, make a decision."

The Senate supported Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell's plan to extend the 0.5 percent rail general excise tax surcharge on Oahu for 10 years, while the House wanted to increase hotel room taxes. In the end, an agreement could not be reached during the formal 2017 legislative session.

Once there is an agreement to fund the rail project, there will be hearings where the public will have the opportunity to testify in committee.

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