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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, May 22, 2005


Time's right for mass transit option — and tax to pay for it

By Jim Tollefson

As the largest representative of the business community, the Chamber of Commerce of Hawai'i and its board of directors understand that some decisions we make in representing the best interests of business may produce controversy and questions.

Such an issue is the recent decision by the chamber to support an increase in the general excise tax for a mass-transit system.

These past few weeks have garnered reactions and opinions from both sides of the issue. Communication will be key to educating ourselves and staying informed and connected on this important issue.

The chamber's position on the issue of transportation wasn't taken lightly. It was reached with careful deliberation by the chamber's board of directors.

Finding solutions to our traffic challenges has been a sobering process for many years. Traffic congestion is not just now becoming a problem.

The topic has been discussed at one time or another in every household in Hawai'i. The conversation normally ends with how and when will things get better. It is also not something that can be solved with one solution.

It will take various approaches and transportation options. But having a choice is key.

When the chamber first addressed the topic of Hawai'i's traffic challenges in 2004, the board of directors, comprised of business leaders equally representing small, medium and large businesses, agreed that traffic had reached a critical point. The chamber publicly acknowledged the need for some resolution to our traffic challenges and that it would require a funding mechanism.

When the recently adjourned Legislature first proposed legislation in this regard, the chamber's board members lacked information that prevented them from making an educated and informed decision.

The request for a funding mechanism without a plan or option was, in our minds, putting the "cart before the horse."

However, recognizing that finding some resolution to our traffic challenges is critical, discussions continued and the chamber board expressed a desire to see a plan assuring that any funding would be used solely for the alleviation of our traffic challenges.

Subsequently, an initial plan was provided by the city administration that outlined a possible solution, as well as a proposed time line for the initial phases of the project. At the same time, assurances were made that the revenue generated from the tax increase would be used specifically to alleviate traffic challenges.

With a strong consensus, the chamber's board agreed the timing was right to support the tax increase with various safeguards in place, including a formal hearing process that would provide for business and community input, dedicated funding only to transportation projects with an annual audit, and a sunset option if funds collected are found diverted from the original intent.

I stress that we understand a mass transit system is not the sole solution to our traffic challenges. But the chamber recognizes that supporting this is the first critical step in initiating the development of a transit system as an additional transportation option.

Furthermore, we see this as a process. Once the bill is passed, the City Council will conduct public hearings for community input before the taxing ordinance can be enacted. These hearings will give us all the opportunity to express our concerns and suggest other transportation options.

The chamber will be a key voice throughout these hearings.

Even as these hearings take place, an Alternative Analysis Draft Environmental Impact Statement will be prepared to evaluate major transportation alternatives to assist in the selection of the future system.

The chamber is developing a series of Issues Events, which are forums designed to disseminate information, present both sides of the issue and give everyone the opportunity to express their ideas and opinions.

We are doing this because the chamber believes one of the most important steps in this process is input from businesses and the public.

The economic benefits that could be derived from the sale of transit-oriented development would allow for more affordable housing and urban revitalization, thus helping to offset the costs involved with a transit system.

Any increase in taxes will always be a challenging issue. But the chamber, through careful consideration, recognizes that if something doesn't happen now, O'ahu will face even worse transportation challenges that will harm our businesses and our economy.

The chamber and its board recognize that this is a long-term project with many steps and phases. The bottom line is this is a quality of life issue for all of us. We believe it is up to the chamber to think big and act as a leader for positive change, as it has for 155 years and as it must for our future. And that future is now.

Jim Tollefson is president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawai'i. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.