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Questions On Transit Abound, Answers Still Political

posted in: Weekly Commentary 0
By Lowell L. Kalapa

As the transit saga continues, even more questions surfaced in the latest round of hearings before the Honolulu City Council.

Perhaps the most on-point question is, “What’s the rush?” Indeed, this is underscored by the fact that there is no plan on the table of what the “preferred local alternative” for mass transit is or even might be. Proponents note that the planning will be set into motion once the Council approves the financing, also known as the tax hike. So, as one witness asked, why hasn’t any planning or even preliminary planning taken place up until now?

Certainly, one would think that if the proponents were truly genuine in their support of a mass transit project, there would have been preliminary discussions of what the project would look like and some exploration of the cost. So, to say the least, the singular focus on the financing of the project and raising the tax should be a red flag for taxpayers that this effort is disingenuous.

“So why the rush?” as one council member continues to ask. With the tax set to go into effect on January 1, 2007 that would seem to imply that a plan for the mass transit system would have to be ready at that time, or does it? It would seem that taxpayers would have a difficult time accepting the tax increase if they don’t know what their tax dollar is buying.

If elected officials have no intent in having a transit plan in place before the tax is imposed, it again raises the question, “why the rush?”

Local officials were badgered by the Congressional delegation that a financing commitment had to be in place by March of this year in order to secure federal funding. Well, March has come and gone and the financial commitment has yet to be signed, sealed and delivered.  And even if the Honolulu City Council adopts the imposition of the general excise tax surcharge, what does that action tell federal officials when there is no plan to review for the transit system?  Does the Congressional delegation really believe that federal officials are a bunch of fools willing to commit hundreds of millions of dollars when they can’t evaluate a transit plan that has yet to be created? And just how much would those federal officials commit if there is no price tag or financial plan to review?

So it seems that the rush to adopt the general excise tax surcharge has no logical underpinning. No plan so that taxpayers and federal officials know what the system will look like, what kind of technology will be employed, or for that matter the path and the stations of the mass transit system. More importantly, how much will the plan cost not only to build but also to operate? Will, in fact, the one-half of one percent rate for the general excise tax surcharge be sufficient to cover the costs? And will the federal ante be enough so that a larger local share will not be needed?

So let’s play out the scenario that the Council is currently implementing. The plan is not ready by the time the tax is imposed on January 1, 2007, but the tax surcharge is collected. The transit plan with all of its requirements like environmental impact statements, financial impact statements, public hearings, technology evaluation, and the route and site locations drag out to the end of 2007.

Let’s also say the federal officials look it over and decide to allocate, say a half billion dollars to the proposal. And at that point, with the 0.5% surcharge being imposed, will taxpayers and elected officials have any choice in backing out of the plan because the local share may be larger than what the surcharge is already generating?

Of course not, and in the end taxpayers will be left holding the bag and forced into paying for something that they don’t think is worth the money. But it will be too late because the project will be so far down the road that pulling out will be even more embarrassing than the 1992 failure.

So why the rush? There is no other explanation than a political one, not one based on common sense. The current scenario has absolutely no logic. Does the effusive Congressional promoter perhaps have an eye on a promotion to the upper house, while some of our local politicians may want a promotion to the Potomac? While there is nothing wrong with having political ambitions, those ambitions should not come at a tremendous cost to not only the taxpayers, but the economy as a whole. And that’s what the tax hike will be.

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