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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 12, 2005

Transit tax gets early green light

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

The latest plan for a new public transit system for Honolulu began its journey through City Hall yesterday with Mayor Mufi Hannemann testifying personally for a tax increase to support transit. Opponents argued that the plan won't ease growing traffic congestion.

The bill, which would increase the general excise tax from 4 percent to 4.5 percent to pay for transportation projects such as a rail transit system — whose cost has been estimated at $2.6 billion — cleared the first of three required votes, with only two of nine council members objecting.

With complaints growing each year about traffic congestion, pressure is building for officials to find some way to ease the ever-increasing rush-hour commute.

Hannemann said the yet-to-be-determined form of transit would run from Kapolei to downtown and the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. He said the system will help all parts of the island, easing traffic overall because "there'll be less cars on the road."

He said the city also is seeking ways to ease traffic to other communities. "No way are we suggesting everyone's going to get out of their cars overnight," he said.

Those who objected to the proposal were council members Charles Djou and Barbara Marshall, who said they aren't ready to vote for the biggest tax increase Honolulu has ever seen.

"This is a massive tax increase," Djou said. "The poor will be paying a greater percentage of the increase than the rich."

And he questioned whether the city could resist the urge to use the special tax for other projects when times get tough.

Hannemann assured the council that the money collected would be used only for transportation projects.

A new transit system on O'ahu has been elusive. Proposals have been debated for at least 30 years, but each plan has been derailed by concerns about cost, failure to reach agreement over the technology and a lack of political consensus at crucial times.

Councilman Gary Okino, who has worked as a planner for 40 years, said the city must build a transit system.

"We can't wait until we end up in gridlock," he said. "This is the only solution that we can turn to, to help our community."

Longtime rail-transit opponent Cliff Slater, of the Alliance for Traffic Improvement, testified before the council that the system will cost too much and won't solve the problem.

"Rail transit is wishful thinking since it cannot be shown to have improved traffic congestion anywhere," he said. "The administration should be made to show you, and our voters, what has happened to traffic congestion in other communities that have built rail lines."

Instead, Slater favors repairing, rebuilding and expanding Honolulu's highways to ease congestion.

He said it's clear that this first tax increase won't be the last since the city administration asked for a 1 percentage point increase — and got a half. "It has not reduced the scope or cost of the rail project, which tells us that future city taxes will have to be increased to make up for the half they did not get."

State Rep. Marilyn Lee, D-38th (Mililani, Mililani Mauka), said transit must be supported because "traffic is slowly strangling our state's economy and degrading our cherished quality of life."

She said state lawmakers authorized the counties to increase the general excise tax because it raises the large sums of money needed in a way that makes sense. By comparison, to get the money needed from the gas tax, the city would have had to raise the fuel tax by 55 cents a gallon or to get it from property tax, rates would have had to go up by 45 percent, she said.

Mililani resident Katherine Kupukaa said rail transit won't solve traffic congestion. "It is too costly," Kupukaa said. "We are overtaxed as citizens."

Vernon Ta'a, of the Plumbers and Fitters union, Local 675, said the time has come for rail transit and he believes many people will ride such a system.

"We debated this issue to death," Ta'a said.

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2429.