City council approves rail tax extension with additional $1.1 billion price cap

Oahu’s extra half-percent tax to pay for rail will likely continue, after a final vote by the Honolulu City Council Wednesday.

The vote was 7-2 with councilmembers Ann Kobayashi and Ikaika Anderson voting against the measure.

The extension means the surcharge will continue until the year 2027. The bill also puts a cap of an additional $1.1 billion to go to the project.

Even those who voted to extend the tax say they’re still concerned about the escalating cost of the project. They want make sure the price tag does not go any higher, even if it means cutting the route shorter.

The latest projected cost for the rail project is now at $6.57 billion, more than a billion dollars over the original projected cost.

In addition to putting a cap on the bill that extends the tax, council chairman Ernie Martin says there is also a restriction that will help stop the cost from getting any higher.

“At the end of the day, all the council are allowing HART is one last check. There’s no more checks in the checkbook if they encounter any more difficulties,” Martin said. “Then those hard decisions that I think some have been advocating for, including myself, we really have to take a serious look at perhaps shortening the route.”

“Is it feasible that this could be a shorter route?” KHON2 asked Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation CEO Dan Grabauskas.

“Not really. From the standpoint of the Federal Transit Administration, we bought into a 20-mile-long system with 21 stations, 80 rail cars. We committed to that,” Grabauskas said.

Grabauskas says there’s no turning back from the 20-mile route from Kapolei to Ala Moana, because it will jeopardize funding from the federal government.

But critics say when you add in the cost of maintaining the project, we just can’t afford it.

“They keep saying that, but have they really told the FTA we’re gonna go bankrupt? We can’t afford to do this. We can’t afford to continue with the operation and maintenance after construction. We have to stop at Middle Street or we just can’t do it,” said Councilmember Ann Kobayashi.

Grabauskas adds that any additional costs to the project will be determined in June or July. That’s when the final bids will revealed for the remainder of the project.

The bill now goes to Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell for final approval. He issued the following statement:

“I want to thank the Honolulu City Council for passing Bill 23; it allows the rail project to proceed to completion. I am thankful we were able to work together to amend the bill to avoid jeopardizing our federal funding. I want to thank Chair Martin for his efforts to move the bill through the Council. As Council Member Pine alluded to so eloquently, rail offers opportunities for our residents to reduce travel time, it offers opportunities for affordable housing, and it offers opportunities to reshape Honolulu’s urban footprint. Generations of Oahu residents, young and old, will benefit from today’s decision.”

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