Rail Looks Like Another Fiasco

Larry Price
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Wednesday - June 29, 2011
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Hawaii’s taxpayers are probably getting a little punch-drunk by now trying to understand our transportation problems. We have enough potholes to name one for each political leader in Hawaii, more and more reasons why the proposed rail transit system won’t fly, and a couple of Superferrys to prove that if all else fails to stop a project, take the political question to the courts and let the judiciary decide.

To no one’s surprise, Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle vetoed the operating and construction budgets for Honolulu’s rail transit authority, just when it looked like all conditions were go. He objected to language in the budget bills that would give the Honolulu City Council final authority over the spending decisions of the semiautonomous rail transit agency, known as HART. The City Council was unimpressed and says it will override the veto during a special session. The mayor, a former prosecutor, was equally unimpressed and promised to sue the council and have a court render a legal decision.

The court wiped out a dream for Neighbor Island residents in one ruling. Superferrys were capable of carrying 836 passengers with up to 282 cars and approaching speeds of 40 knots. The Superferry was shut down on March 16, 2009, after the Hawaii Supreme Court struck down a law ruling it was intended to benefit a specific party in violation of the state Constitution. Throughout foreclosure, the U.S. Maritime Administration bought both vessels for $25 million each, but ended up being owed more than $135.7 million because of two loan guarantees.

Fast forward to Honolulu’s rail system. With numerous power brokers guaranteeing that there are sufficient monies available, including numerous guarantees by the U.S. Department of Transportation that federal dollars are forthcoming, others are saying that Congress can derail the funding with a single vote. What this means is we just have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, back at the C&C of Honolulu, there remains a bigger question. Unlike the Superferry, the rail project has the benefit of an authority made up of knowledgeable experts armed with semiautonomous powers confirmed by the Honolulu City Council, but it has been rendered useless. The question is: Why go through the trouble of naming and confirming a panel of experts to guide the rail transit system though the maze of problems it will surely face and then not listen to their recommendation? Why should they have to wait for a judge to make a ruling? If you are not going to listen to an appointed board, then don’t appoint them! It’s a waste of time, money and effort, and gives the wrong impression.

Sorry to say, this transportation project is beginning to look like it could go down the same stream the Superferry sailed. Maybe the county councils of Hawaii could band together and make a bid for the Superferrys. The taxpayers might get the interlsland transportation dirt cheap.

But then, that’s not how Hawaii’s political leaders do business.

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