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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 28, 2006

VOLCANIC ASH
Transit war: political mischief at its worst

By David Shapiro

O'ahu taxpayers can expect a long ride to nowhere if political chaos continues to drive decision-making on the city's proposed $3 billion rapid-transit system from Kapolei to Manoa.

The recent quarrel between the state and city over the seemingly simple question of how to collect O'ahu's half-percentage-point excise tax for transit is typical of the mayhem that has ruled since Mayor Mufi Hannemann launched his push for transit last year.

If our leaders can't get past the partisan posturing and start working with good faith and common purpose, this biggest public works project in Hawai'i's history could become our costliest disaster.

So far, politics and turf warfare have shaken public confidence in transit development nearly every step of the way.

Gov. Linda Lingle engaged in prolonged waffling last year before signing off on legislation authorizing the city's transit tax after House and Senate leaders promised they would make a significant effort to transfer responsibility for collecting the tax from the state to the city.

That ended in a double-cross when lawmakers quickly killed the transfer this year without much effort at all by leaders to uphold their deal with Lingle.

In their haste to stick it to the governor, legislators neglected to give the state Tax Department funding to collect the tax, which provided Lingle an opening to get even by refusing to collect the money unless the city fronted the administrative funds.

That led to weeks of cheesy drama in which the City Council refused Hannemann's request to guarantee the front money, Hannemann threatened to sue Lingle, and Lingle and the council finally cut their own deal while the mayor was out of town.

Hannemann tried to march back to the head of the parade upon his return last week, announcing a "final" deal for the state to collect the tax, with the city guaranteeing the $5 million start-up money until the Legislature corrects its funding error.

Except the details have not been finalized and the state is still hedging on whether it will be ready to start collecting the tax on Jan. 1, as the law provides.

Still unanswered is why the state is siphoning off 10 percent of the transit tax $15 million a year to cover "administrative costs" that the Tax Department fixes at $5 million.

In effect, lawmakers have run up the huge cost of building a transit system by 10 percent more to create a pool of slush money in the general fund for other projects.

Also lingering as we roll to key decisions by the end of the year are charges of political favoritism in the selection of companies for the city's first transit contract, questions about the total cost of building and operating a rail system, and concerns that the city is locked into rail without adequately considering less-expensive options such as expanded buses and enhanced highways.

The overriding worry is that our leaders have not been able to pass up opportunities for political mischief so far, and these opportunities will expand exponentially as contracts are awarded, station sites are selected, land rights are secured, and taxes are inevitably raised even higher to pay for completing construction and operating the system.

All of us, whether we support rail transit or not, have a keen interest in seeing that any system is built competently and efficiently and that every dollar taxed from our already-strained family budgets to pay for it is spent judiciously.

It's discouraging that common sense and good judgment have been in such short supply in the initial stages of this massive undertaking.

In fact, it's been no way to run a railroad at all.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.