Time to Get Serious About Rail Conversation02/16/2012
One thing that struck me last week when we met with the leadership of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation was how focused they were on execution of the project, not on whether the project should be built in the first place.
Board Chair Carrie Okinaga carried with her the city charter and specifically Article XVII, related to the public transit authority. It reads in part: "The public transit authority shall have authority to develop, operate, maintain and expand the city fixed guideway system as provided in this article."
These were their bibles. They talked of the day when the debate over rail would not be over the question of "if" it should be built, but "how" it should be built.
That day still is a ways off. As much as proponents may not want it to be, this year's mayoral election will be a referendum on the rail project. That's a victory for rail foes in and of itself.
The public has voted twice on rail and twice voted yes — once in 20081, giving the city the power to build a "steel wheel on steel rail transit system," and again in 20102, approving creation of a transit authority "responsible for the planning, construction, operation, maintenance, and expansion of the City's fixed guideway mass transit system." The first was a close vote. The latter passed overwhelmingly, 64 percent to 29 percent.
When we spoke with Okinaga and Horner, they were respectful of the project's critics. "We welcome concerns," Horner said. "We want to get this right."
That's quite different from Mayor Peter Carlisle, who has often taken a more blustery — and personal — approach. Carlisle is defiant. He's bullish. But he's also harder to believe as a result.
We're going to "plow forward" and build the project even without the $1.55 billion in federal funds the plan counts on, Carlisle told a radio audience recently. No wonder people are afraid. They understandably wonder where the money would come from, if not from them. And how would they afford it?
Opponents, including Carlisle's mayoral opponent, Ben Cayetano, aren't much different.
Just one example: "Horner is conducting himself as no banker should," Cayetano told our Michael Levine recently after we met with Horner about the project's finances.
This from an experienced leader who understandably took offense himself last fall when Carlisle attacked rail opponents for misleading the public and him personally for living in a "mansion on top of a hill."
Former Mayor Mufi Hannemann's administration and the Carlisle administration, as well as some paid rail proponents, have expressed frustration with Civil Beat since we began publishing in 2010 about the fundamental questions we've asked about rail. They would tell us we're going over old ground, probing issues that they think have already been answered.
The reality is that the fundamental questions are always going to be asked and they have to be answered again and again. Frustration isn't the solution.
The city has a believability problem. Their PR is often shallow. The critics also have a believability problem. Just one recent example: Cayetano wrote an op-ed telling the public the project would add "$5 to $7 billion in debt."
When challenged about it, he said maybe he should have said "cost," but then defends his approach and attacks Horner.
It's time for serious people — Carlisle and Cayetano — to talk seriously about the merits or problems with rail. And Horner, Okinaga and others on the unpaid HART board should join the debate, along with thoughtful opponents who have fought the project.
And then the voters — in August or November — will have what should be the last word on the topic.
2008 — "Shall the powers, duties, and functions of the city, through its director of transportation services, include establishment of a steel wheel on steel rail transit system?" ↩
2010 — “Shall the Revised City Charter be amended to create a semi-autonomous public transit authority responsible for the planning, construction, operation, maintenance, and expansion of the City’s fixed guideway mass transit system?” ↩