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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 23, 2009

HAWAII MAY HIKE TAXES TO FUND HIGHWAY PROJECTS
$4B highways plan would set drivers back $170 a year

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

O'ahu's infamous Middle Street merge would get an additional diamondhead-bound lane under the improvement plan.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Drivers would pay on average $170 more a year on fuel and vehicle weight taxes and registration fees under a state proposal meant to help pay for a six-year, $4 billion highways modernization plan that would target congestion, pedestrian and road safety and backlogged maintenance.

The state Transportation Department would start collecting the increased taxes and fees, which include a 10-cent per gallon gas tax hike, in approximately two years, when the economy is expected to be improving. Brennon Morioka, state Department of Transportation director, said the increases would be triggered by 1 percent job growth over two consecutive quarters.

Morioka conceded the increases might be tough for some.

But he said tax and fee hikes would be outweighed by benefits for drivers from the massive modernization plan, designed to decrease the number of people killed on Hawai'i highways each year by about 40 and cut daily commute times. The $4 billion plan would go toward 183 projects statewide, including 76 on O'ahu that total about $1.9 billion.

"Business as usual is simply not working," Morioka said at a news conference yesterday. "The theme of this plan is basically saving lives, saving time and saving money. We are asking them (drivers) to pay a little bit more and in return we are providing them with more long-term savings."

By the end of the plan, DOT says savings could add up to about $1,825 a year for someone who lives in Kapolei and works in Honolulu. DOT calculated the savings based on savings in gas, time and vehicle wear and tear.

Several drivers yesterday said they would be willing to pay the estimated $170 more a year for better, safer highways with less congestion. "You can't get something out of nothing," said Joaquin Borja, who commutes to town from Pearl City. Borja added congestion is only getting worse with each year.

Beatrice Ramos-Razon, of Salt Lake, agreed. She said in addition to congestion, she's concerned about the state of the highways, which she said are often rutted and poorly designed. "The highways are so bad," she said.

She said $170 is not a lot, if drivers get real results in return.

Dawn Cuccinello, of Manoa, isn't so sure that the increases are worth it.

She takes the city bus, but said lots of folks won't be able to afford any increase in taxes and fees. She also said she didn't think the highways were so bad that they needed anything beyond regular, annual maintenance projects.

BACKLOAD OF PROJECTS

Transportation officials said the highways system has a mounting maintenance backlog, which won't be met with annual appropriations alone.

"We need to take a bigger bite out of this mountain of projects," said Jiro Sumada, deputy director of DOT, adding the highways plan is meant to save about $20 million each year in maintenance costs for deteriorated roads.

"We're trying to spend our money smarter," he said.

Sumada said the laundry list of projects in the modernization plan were identified as priorities after officials examined the state highways system, from how well traffic lights are coordinated to how to improve bottlenecks.

Key improvements planned statewide include:

  • $750 million for projects on O'ahu to increase highway capacity and decrease congestion, including a $100 million project announced last week to add a diamondhead-bound lane at the Middle Street merge from Ola Lane to Vineyard Boulevard one of the worst bottlenecks on the island.

  • More than $12 million on O'ahu for "traffic signal optimization."

    More than $90 million statewide for bridge improvements.

  • Some $30 million for rockfall and slope stabilization, including about $10 million for rockfall protection work on Kamehameha Highway in Wahiawa and the North Shore and $20 million for rockfall work on Hawai'i Belt Road.

    The highways modernization plan which has the support of key Democratic lawmakers is part of the state's effort to invest heavily in infrastructure as a way of revitalizing Hawai'i's ailing economy.

    It also comes as the state is in the midst of a $2.3 billion airports modernization plan and an $842 million harbors modernization plan. The City and County of Honolulu is also planning to break ground this year on a $5.3 billion elevated commuter rail line from East Kapolei to Ala Moana.

    LANA'I, MOLOKA'I EXEMPT

    State Sen. Kalani English, chair of the Transportation Committee, supported the highways plan yesterday in a news conference, saying drivers have long been calling for improvements and less congestion. He said the hit to drivers' wallets is a necessary evil, given the state of the highway system.

    "We had to find a way to fund it," he said.

    Gov. Linda Lingle, in the news conference, added that the 1 percent job growth trigger is meant to make sure the tax and fee increases aren't hurting struggling families.

    "We know the economy will turn around," she said.

    Officials said the proposed increases in taxes and fees will generate an estimated $174 million annually, enough to cover debt repayment on $2 billion in highway bonds for the long list of projects. An additional $500 million would come from federal funding, while the remaining $1.5 billion is the maintenance and capital improvements appropriations that state highways would have received over the next six years, even without the modernization plan.

    The proposed tax and fee increases will be submitted to the state Legislature for approval. The state fuel tax per gallon would go from 17 cents to 27 cents. The state gas tax last went up in 2007 - by a penny.

    The state Transportation Department is also seeking an increase in vehicle weight taxes from 3/4 cent per pound for vehicles up to 4,000 pounds to 2 3/4 cents per pound. Also, motor vehicle registration fees would be increased from $25 a year to $45 a year, under the plan.

    And the rental vehicle surcharge tax would rise from $3 to $5 a day.

    Projects are proposed for all islands, except Lana'i. Because they won't be getting as much benefit from the highways plan, English said, drivers on Lana'i and Moloka'i would be exempt from the increases in taxes and fees.

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