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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Don't blame rail delays on Lingle

By David Shapiro

For months, Mayor Mufi Hannemann has made like Gov. Linda Lingle was the one holding up the final environmental impact statement and the start of construction on the $5.3 billion O'ahu rail project.

He engaged a war of insults over her intent to conduct an independent review of rail finances before signing off on the EIS.

He got legislators in both houses to sign letters pressuring the governor to give rapid approval to the plan.

He trotted out former state transportation directors and held a rally in the Capitol auditorium to highlight the jobs and dollars Lingle is supposedly costing Hawai'i's faltering economy.

But behind the orchestrated effort to cast blame Lingle's way, the fact is that she had absolutely nothing to do with the mayor's failure to meet his December target for starting construction on the 20-mile commuter train from Kapolei to Ala Moana.

The final EIS is being held up at the federal level and hasn't yet reached Lingle's desk for review. And it's starting to look like even money on whether she'll ever see it before she leaves office at the end of the year.

The city has repeatedly described the federal issues with the EIS as minor, but one of the more significant matters is the train's route potentially running too close to a runway at Honolulu International Airport.

This is certainly not a dealbreaker for rail, but it appears that either the train or the runway may have to move and that issue could take months to resolve.

The city administration would be well advised to focus its attention on settling this rather than putting up political smokescreens to shift the blame for the mayor's inability to get his signature initiative started on time as he revs up his campaign for governor.

No matter how they spin it, the delay in getting the EIS approved by the feds and starting construction is on Hannemann and the city at this point and not Lingle and the state.

The city's soft-pedaling of the routing problem actually gives impetus to the governor's desire for an independent financial review to see if there's fudging on how the train will be financed.

With revenues from the city's half-cent rail excise tax coming up short month after month, there's a real question about whether it will raise enough to pay the city's share of $4 billion or more, depending on cost overruns.

If we're going to have to increase this tax or come up with other ways to finance rail, we should know up front rather than after 10 miles of track have been laid.

While not endorsing Lingle's study, the Federal Transit Administration has also recommended an independent forecast of future transit tax revenues.

Lingle yesterday started the search for a consultant to perform the financial review and set an application deadline of April 6, so she's moving briskly to get the work done before she leaves office.

The city's financial plan for transit was laid out in the preliminary EIS she received and its soundness can be studied at the same time the runway issue and other unresolved federal concerns are hashed out.