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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 2, 2008

Pro-rail holds 5-1 spending advantage

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Voters can voice their opinion on the city's rail project on Tuesday. The wording of the ballot issue is as follows:

"Shall the powers, duties and functions of the city, through its director of transportation services, include establishment of a steel wheel on steel rail transit system?"

More rail coverage at www.honoluluadvertiser.com/rail

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Pro-rail lobbying groups outspent rail opponents by a 5-1 margin through Oct. 20 and entered the final weeks of the campaign season with more than $161,700 in cash, according to the latest campaign filings.

Between Sept. 6 and Oct. 20, seven pro-rail political action committees raised about $754,100 and spent nearly $592,400 urging residents to vote for Tuesday's proposed Charter amendment authorizing the city to build a steel wheel on steel rail train.

That's on top of the more than $170,000 of taxpayers' money the city spent in that period to inform voters about the rail project.

In contrast, the primary anti-rail group Stop Rail Now spent nearly $118,400 and had nearly $43,300 in unpaid debts, according to documents filed late Friday with the Hawai'i Campaign Spending Commission.

The spending figures show how one-sided the advertising campaign promoting the state's largest public works project has been. Despite the mismatch in spending, the once seemingly inevitable project now could be in jeopardy. Polls show that Tuesday's vote on rail likely will be close, which could partly be a result of concerns about the project's massive cost and the state's slowing economy.

Plunging visitor arrivals and slumping real estate and construction sectors are forcing the city and state to reduce tax collection forecasts and reduce spending. The train from East Kapolei to Ala Moana, which will be funded mainly via local taxes, is expected to cost between $3.9 billion and $4.8 billion.

Rail opponents point to the costs, aesthetics and noise as potential problems. They argue that not enough people will use the trains and that cheaper alternatives would do more to reduce traffic congestion.

Rail proponents say the rail project could provide Honolulu's economy a needed boost. The rail is meant to give H-1 Freeway commuters an alternative to the highly congested freeway. The elevated commuter line with its 19 stations also could encourage more sustainable urban development and reduce suburban sprawl.

"It benefits our community in many ways economically, environmentally as well as reducing congestion in the years to come on a part of the island that's designed for all of the growth for the next 20 years," said Ron Taketa, business representative for the Hawai'i Carpenters Union, which spent about $243,600 primarily on prime-time TV ads promoting the project. "In that context it's very important that we get the word out and that the people of O'ahu support it."

GROUPS VS. INDIVIDUALS

In addition to the carpenters union, the Pacific Resource Partnership and the Committee For Balanced Transportation (Go Rail Go) were the top three pro-rail spenders. The Pacific Resource Partnership, which is a joint program of the Hawai'i Carpenters Union Local 745 and contractors across the state, spent $144,300, according to campaign commission records.

Go Rail Go spent nearly $142,500. Go Rail Go's contributors include transit contractors such as InfraConsult, employees of transit contractors such as Parsons Brinckerhoff, and hoteliers such as Outrigger Enterprises Inc.

Go Rail Go collected $192,000 mostly from individuals and businesses that donated prior to the rail issue being placed on the ballot. As a result, the details of those contributions don't need to be disclosed to the state, according to Justin Fanslau, campaign manager for Go Rail Go.

"We have received small donations from over 800 people as well as support from business and community groups that believe rail is the best thing for our community now," he said in an e-mail.

Stop Rail Now's contributions were primarily from individuals. The group's largest individual financial backer is retired businessman Cliff Slater. Just how much money Slater has pumped into Stop Rail Now was not disclosed in Friday's filing, but will be included in a future filing, he said.

That money, which was contributed after Oct. 20, "will be substantial," Slater said.

SPECIAL-INTEREST FUNDS

On the pro-rail side, "it's all special-interest money and ours isn't," Slater said. "I'm hopeful that the public sees right through it."

The Carpenters' Taketa acknowledged that the union's members have a financial stake in the rail project. About 1,000 of the union's 5,700 O'ahu members are idle because of Hawai'i's flagging economy. However, what's good for the construction industry is good for the state, he said.

"It's critical that we use our reserves to help stimulate the economy that we all depend on," Taketa said.

Political action committees that raised or spent a minimum of $1,000 were required to file a spending report with the state by midnight Monday.

However, that deadline was extended by nearly a week after the Hawai'i Campaign Spending Commission experienced problems with its online filing system.

Spending by PACs excludes ads paid for by the city to promote rail and educate residents. The city has spent more than $2.7 million in taxpayer money since August 2005 on public relations and outreach efforts.

Separately, Mayor Mufi Hannemann's re-election campaign also has purchased pro-rail ads.

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.