Lawmakers grill rail officials on funding: ‘I just don’t know why you don’t get it’

A special session on how to pay for the rest of Honolulu’s rail project may be in jeopardy.

State lawmakers told us they were committed to holding one, but now things are up in the air.

On Monday, lawmakers held an informational briefing, and grilled Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation officials for hours.

They used words like “crisis,” “uncertainty,” and “disappointing” when describing the troubled rail project. Some weren’t satisfied with the answers rail officials provided. One even told rail officials: “You should have done better.”

After an entire day’s worth of grilling, lawmakers still haven’t decided whether the state will help.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell says when he first assumed office, the project was estimated at $5.2 billion. The current price tag: $8.2 billion.

He wants a 10-year extension of Oahu’s half-percent GET surcharge to get the rail to Ala Moana Center, completing all 21 stations. The total price balloons to $10 billion.

Caldwell says he supports an audit to keep costs down and the rail construction schedule on time.

“Yes, it is a city project. As mayor, I’m at the top of that,” he said. “I’m not running away from rail. I put my entire life, political life on the line for this project.”

But the request was met with skepticism.

“Four years ago, we were told that a certain amount was sufficient funds. Two years ago, we were told a certain amount was sufficient funds,” said Sen. Laura Thielen, D, Kailua, Waimanalo, Hawaii Kai.

Lawmakers threw out ideas like extending or raising the GET or hotel taxes, or a combination of both.

“I want to be clear with the people of the state that either plan, raises taxes on them. it means they will be paying. whether through you, us, or both of us,” said Rep. Matthew LoPresti, D, Ewa Beach, West Loch Estates.

The line of questioning was harsh with many expressing their disappointment to HART officials over the way the project is being handled.

Either way, we’re told taxes must be raised to save the rail.

“It’s no longer your decision. It’s our decision to figure this out for you and I just don’t know why reasonable, intelligent people cannot figure this thing out,” Rep. Sylvia Luke, D, finance committee chair, told HART officials. “What you need is more money and front-loading right away to close the gap in revenues so we can save tax dollars in the long run. I just don’t know why you don’t get it.”

The city expressed its urgency on getting funding, saying the FTA needs to hear back from the city by Sept. 15 on how it’s going to come up with the money to finish the rail.

A special session in the Legislature must occur to get that money.

Lawmakers need to come up with a solution to fund rail. If both the House and Senate agree on the solution, then they can go into special session, which is tentatively scheduled for two weeks.

So far, nothing is set in stone.

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