Oiling The Skids For Honolulu Rail

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - May 11, 2005
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Thirteen years ago, surveyors appeared outside my office window on the edge of the Leeward Community College parking lot. They were plotting the Ewa terminus of Honolulu’s fixed rail mass transit system.

It didn’t happen, of course. After months of debate, City Council member Rene Mansho cast the deciding ballot that killed the project by a 5-4 vote.

Last week Hawaii’s lawmakers decided to try again. By a vote of 32-19 in the House and 19-6 in the Senate, legislators authorized the counties to levy a 0.5 percent increase to the 4 percent general excise tax to pay for mass transit.

This time a train may in fact be built. Gov. Linda Lingle indicates she will sign the bill; Mayor Mufi Hanneman has voiced his support; and seven City Councilmembers have introduced legislation to raise the excise tax in the City and County of Honolulu.

Needless to say, the excise tax hike and rail itself have their critics. They should; estimates of the train’s costs run to $2 billion. The feds will put up much of that sum, and a healthy portion of the increased excise tax will be taken from the pockets of tourists. But Hawaii’s residents will also feel the pain as well.

But it has to be done.

The transportation needs are obvious. Anyone who lives west of Red Hill understands that. To drive from Waianae, Mililani, Kapolei or Ewa to downtown or the University requires the patience of Job. It can take 45 minutes or, depending on the number of fender benders, an hour and f45 minutes — or more.

And it’s going to get worse. An estimated 45,000 to 60,000 new housing units will rise on the Leeward plain over the next few years. One transportation study estimates that by 2030 half of Oahu’s residents will spend 80 minutes or more commuting.

Many Leeward folks will tell you 2030 is already here.

We’re going to have to build rail. And we’re going to have to move more services to the second city. The University will have to develop its West Oahu campus in Kapolei and transfer programs there: the College of Education perhaps — anything that will transfer students and their cars off the H- 1. And we’ll probably have to run a ferry system along the leeward coast as well: from Barbers Point to town and eventually from Hawaii Kai as well.

Simply put, too many people from too many places want to live on this beautiful but small island.

“But what about the tax?” scream the critics of the costs of a train.

We’re already paying a tax — for many people, a much steeper one than the .5 percent hike in the excise tax. We’re paying it in the rising cost of gasoline, and it’s going into pockets of former President George H. W. Bush, President George W. Bush and every other oil man from Dallas to Saudi Arabia.

And they’re smiling all the way to the bank. Neither of our oilman presidents saw fit to fashion an energy policy other than “Drill for more.” Neither, of course, did Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. All four refused to raise fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. All four allowed sport utility vehicles and obscenities like the Hummer to operate off the fuel-efficiency grid.

So consider the young family who, 12 months ago, bought an SUV for $30,000 or so. Then it cost maybe $35 to fill its tank. Now it’ll cost $48, and the cost is only headed in one direction — up. The days of cheap oil are pau, and all those in the science of oil rather than in the profit of oil know it.

The cost of running a gas-guzzling SUV is one part of the tax. The other comes when the young family tries to unload it. Who, as gas rises to $3, $4, $5, or $6 a gallon, is going to give you 50 cents for an SUV, a monster truck, much less a Hummer?

No, Detroit and Tokyo collected the biggest transportation tax this past quarter century. Now they’re going to have to retool; they must build smaller, more fuelefficient cars and they must find alternative fuels. And we must retool as well. We have to build a train, and we and our children and our grandchildren must abandon our cars — whatever mileage they get — and ride it.

World oil production will diminish in the next several years, because the world’s oil reserves are dwindling. World oil prices will go up, because rapidly industrializing nations like China will be competing ever more fiercely with the United States for those dwindling reserves.

We’re looking at a hard, expensive road ahead — and there’d better be a fuel-efficient train running beside it.

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