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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, December 23, 2006

Transit approved

 •  Special report: Deciding O'ahu's transit future
Mass transit hearing gallery
 •  Vote delivers holiday cheer to supporters
 •  Next move: picking exact route, method
StoryChat: Comment on this story

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

Mayor Mufi Hannemann greets Councilman Rod Tam after the City Council voted 7-2 in favor of a new mass-transit system for O'ahu.

REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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O'ahu residents listen to the debate about whether to postpone testimony on transit issues. More than 100 people waited to be heard yesterday before the final council vote.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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HOW THEY VOTED

In the end, City Council members voted 7-2 to approve a fixed-guideway transit system, as they did when they approved increasing the excise tax on O'ahu by a half-percentage point to help pay for the system.

Yesterday's vote had two major elements: selecting the mode a fixed-guideway system and choosing a route.

The council ended up expanding the route options, but it's clear that those may be narrowed again to keep the system costs down.

Voting in favor of the mass-transit bill were City Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz, Todd Apo, Ann Kobayashi, Romy Cachola, Nestor Garcia, Gary Okino and Rod Tam.

Opposed were East Honolulu Councilman Charles Djou and Windward Councilwoman Barbara Marshall.

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The City Council yesterday approved a mass-transit plan for O'ahu that could go from Kalaeloa to Manoa and Waikiki and cost more than $5 billion.

After a daylong session with more twists and turns than a train heading up a mountain pass, council members voted 7-2 to designate a fixed-guideway system, using either buses or rail, that supporters say will shape and guide O'ahu's growth for generations to come.

"It's going to give us the ability and means to improve the quality of life in Honolulu for years to come," said Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who for two years has shepherded the transit project through public and political ups and downs. "It's the best Christmas present one could have asked for."

Yesterday's vote to pick a locally preferred alternative clears the way for the city to move forward on a transit project that has been considered and stalled in one form or another for more than three decades. Hannemann said he hopes to begin construction on a transit line by 2009, with a first segment open for ridership by 2012.

The decision drew enthusiastic approval from residents of traffic-clogged West O'ahu, who had feared right up until the last minute that the transit line would bypass their communities.

Instead, several council members reversed their positions on the preferred route at the 11th hour after hearing impassioned pleas from some of the 130 people who had signed up to testify.

"It was the fantastic response from the community that carried the day," said Councilman Todd Apo, who championed an alignment favored by the city administration that would start in Kapolei and wind through the developing areas of Kalaeloa and North-South Road before turning toward town.

"I'm not one to push changes down the community's throat," said Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who late in the day backed off a proposed route that would go through urban Kapolei and include a spur partly down North-South Road.

DECISION FOR LATER

In the end, council members left a decision on the final alignment up to the city administration, saying that the designated route could include both West O'ahu alignments as well as two possible routes through Salt Lake and Honolulu International Airport.

"It helps out 'Ewa and 'Ewa Beach, and it won't make that much difference for the folks coming in from Wai'anae. And it will serve more people that way," said Tesha Malama, a former 'Ewa Neighborhood Board member.

With the Kalaeloa plan in place, it would take someone in 'Ewa Beach about five minutes to drive to a transit station; under the other plan, the same person would have to drive about 35 to 45 minutes to reach the first park-and-ride facility along a transit line, she said.

If the entire route is built, it will be more than 30 miles long, include more than three dozen stations and cost at least $5 billion.

However, the bill passed yesterday includes a provision that bars the city from spending more money on the rail than it can raise through an excise tax increase, federal grants, and state and private development funds.

"We're all going to keep an eye on it to make sure it's done correctly," Apo said.

Hannemann said the city can reasonably expect to raise about $3.6 billion from the first two funding sources.

"We will continue to be prudent in our assessment of what we can afford," he said. That means the city will have to decide which portion of the line will be built first and which will have to wait until more funds become available.

Those voting in favor yesterday were City Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz, Apo, Kobayashi, Romy Cachola, Nestor Garcia, Gary Okino and Rod Tam.

Opposed were East Honolulu Councilman Charles Djou and Windward Councilwoman Barbara Marshall.

DELAY FEARED

Earlier in the day, it appeared that the council might not vote at all on the transit bill before Christmas. Kobayashi's same-day introduction of the route-change proposal raised state, city and ethical questions about the need to give adequate public notice to the public before proceeding.

Concerned about those issues, council members spent almost two hours hovering with each other and meeting with corporation counsel attorneys before voting 5-4 to delay a decision until at least Tuesday but accept testimony from the more than 100 people waiting to be heard yesterday.

That testimony produced several heated exchanges between West O'ahu community leaders and Kobayashi, who said she was trying to bring the rail line closer to Fort Weaver Road while giving riders starting in Kapolei a more direct ride to town.

"We want rail and we want it now. We did our part by going to all the meetings for years telling people what we need, and now, at the 12th hour, you are doing something different. How dare you?" said Maeda Timson, chairwoman of the Makakilo/Kapo-lei/Honokai Hale Neighborhood Board.

Kurt Fevella, head of the 'Ewa Neighborhood Board, went toe-to-toe with Kobayashi over the need for building the full Kalaeloa alignment, also known as the green route.

"The route you're choosing is a big mistake," he said. "The green route is the one people from Makaha to 'Ewa Beach voted on. We don't want your chopped-up line, with a trunk here and stop there. We're tired of having hamburgers and french fries; we want lobster and steak."

Those exchanges helped the council revisit the earlier decision to postpone the vote and decide to proceed with a final decision yesterday.

Apo said the vote gives city planners a choice to decide whether one or the other or both lines will be included in the final alignment: "They have the ability to do both."

Councilman Gary Okino, a longtime supporter of transit, said he was happy and relieved to be finally voting on the start to transit after decades of debate. He said he studied this issue as a career city planner since the 1970s when "it was clear that this was the one answer."

Opponents of a fixed-guideway system said they were disappointed in yesterday's decision and promised to keep fighting as the project continues.

"I don't think that the public realizes that even with rail, traffic congestion will be much worse," said businessman Cliff Slater. "Right now, we are 6 percent over capacity. With rail, we will be 31 percent over" by the year 2030.

Djou, who had been the council's staunchest opponent of a rail transit proposal, said he doesn't think the traffic congestion will be eased enough by the plan and that it will cost far too much.

"If the city had an unlimited supply of money, we could think, maybe, in terms of doing rail, but the average family is paying too much in taxes as it is. I fear this will bring them to their knees," Djou said.

Marshall said she couldn't support the system as planned.

"I cannot subject our constituents to a major decision with too little information," she said.

Several council members made a point of thanking the public for participating in the year-long alternatives analysis process and waiting through several daylong meetings in the last few weeks as the council decided how to proceed.

"I can sleep good tonight knowing that we listened to them through this whole process," Tam said.

A TRANSIT HISTORY

A history of mass-transit proposals on O'ahu:

  • 1982: The city abruptly ended more than five years and $6 million in planning for a billion-dollar fixed-rail commuter system when Eileen Anderson replaced Frank Fasi as mayor and raised questions about projected ridership.
  • 1992: After Fasi was re-elected and spent years developing a proposal for a $1.7 billion light-rail system, the City Council refused, on a 5-4 vote, to approve a half-percentage-point increase in the state's excise tax on O'ahu that would have covered the local share of the project, causing more than $708 million in federal money earmarked for Honolulu to lapse.
  • Oct. 27, 2003: State and city officials announce plans to build a $2.6 billion light-rail transit system for O'ahu. The new rail line was expected to run for 22 miles from Kapolei to Iwilei.
  • Feb. 7, 2005: Members of the state House and Senate transportation committees approved similar bills that would give counties the option to add a surcharge of up to 1 percent on top of the existing 4 percent general excise tax to pay for an O'ahu mass-transit system.
  • April 12, 2005: The state Senate votes to give Honolulu and Neighbor Island counties the option of adding a 0.5-percentage-point surcharge on the state's 4 percent general excise tax to pay for mass transit.
  • April 29, 2005: State House and Senate negotiators agree to give counties the option of adding a 0.5-percentage-point surcharge to the state's 4 percent general excise tax. It is expected to raise as much as $150 million a year to pay for mass transit.
  • May 2005: The city awards a $9.7 million contract to analyze Honolulu's mass-transit alternatives and the environmental impact of such a project to Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas. The company worked on similar studies for Honolulu's last major attempt at transit, which ended in 1992.
  • May 11, 2005: City Council approves on first reading a bill that would increase the general excise tax from 4 percent to 4.5 percent to pay for O'ahu mass transit.
  • July 11, 2005: Gov. Linda Lingle agrees not to veto the Legislature's bill giving counties the option to raise the excise tax after state lawmakers agree to try to change the law when they meet in regular session the following year. Lingle had said she would veto a county tax option for mass transit if the state, instead of the counties, were to collect the new tax revenue.
  • Aug. 10, 2005: The City Council gives final approval to a tax increase to pay for a Honolulu mass-transit system. As a result of the 7-2 vote, the general excise tax on O'ahu will rise in 2007 from 4 percent to 4.5 percent a 12.5 percent increase.
  • December 2005: City consultants identify three likely technologies light rail, monorail and magnetic levitation and four routes that could be used for a new mass-transit system between Kapolei and the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. Also, a new elevated roadway for buses, carpools and toll-paying vehicles was still being considered.
  • Dec. 13, 2005: Planners hold the first of two public "scoping" meetings as part of a federally required process for all mass-transit projects that hope to receive federal funding.
  • March 23, 2006: City releases details of possible mass-transit stations, including 64 tentative stations along four alternate routes, with 25 to 30 stations on each route intended to serve the main residential areas from Kapolei to the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.
  • June 22, 2006: City planners release new cost and ridership estimates for mass transit, with a cost of $3 billion and between 120,000 and 150,000 riders a day by the year 2030. The new cost estimate is at least $200 million more than previous estimates.
  • Dec. 7, 2006: City Council approves on second reading a bill to commit to some form of a fixed-guideway system as the locally preferred alternative for a mass-transit project that the city estimates could cost between $3.8 billion and $4.6 billion.
  • Dec. 14, 2006: The council's Transportation Committee recommends some sort of fixed-guideway system, which could include rail or buses. It also recommends a route that leaves out the Kalaeloa and 'Ewa Plains areas.
  • Yesterday: The full City Council approves a proposed $4.6 billion fixed-guideway system from Kapolei to the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.
  • January 2007: Mayor Mufi Hannemann will go to Washington, D.C., to meet with federal transit officials and Hawai'i's congressional delegation.

    Staff writers Robbie Dingeman and Gordon Y.K. Pang contributed to this story.

    Reach Mike Leidemann at mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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