- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 3, 2017

HONOLULU (AP) - Mayors of all four Hawaii counties are asking Gov. David Ige to extend the 2017 legislative session to find funding for the troubled Honolulu rail transit project, but Ige says he’s not inclined to do so.

The Honolulu Rail Transit Project, which is under construction, is facing a shortfall that could surpass $1.5 billion if a bill passed by the House became law, said Andrew Pereira, spokesman for Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. Cost estimates for the rail project have gone from about $5 billion in 2014 to nearly $10 billion, including financing costs.

Without an adequate funding plan, the federal government could withhold future money and could also ask Honolulu to return money already spent. The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation has already spent nearly $722 million in federal funds on the rail transit project, out of approximately $1.5 billion committed by the federal government, according to report from the authority.

“I’m concerned about what happens in the next day or two with rail,” Caldwell said at a City Council meeting Wednesday. “We need to complete the project.”

Lawmakers in the House and Senate had competing proposals to fund the shortfall, but were too far apart to reach agreement on a funding plan by the legislative deadline Tuesday.

Caldwell and the mayors of Hawaii, Maui and Kauai counties wrote a letter to Ige imploring that he extend the session that’s scheduled to end Thursday. The rail is planned for Oahu, but mayors on neighbor islands are concerned about how various tax proposals could impact their coffers.

The state constitution allows the governor to extend the legislative session and it also allows lawmakers to do so on their own if two-thirds of the House and Senate agree.

The mayors did not think it was likely that two-thirds of the Legislature would vote to extend the session, so they asked Ige, Pereira said.

But Ige told reporters Wednesday he’s not interested in extending the session unless there is a funding agreement reached by the Legislature.

“I think that it would be a waste of time. The Legislature - House and Senate - is too divided at this point in time. I don’t think that it would be productive.”

A last-minute agreement last week between a small group of House and Senate negotiators called for hiking the transient accommodation tax by 2.5 percent to fund rail construction, which would shift rail construction costs to visitors. But with no legislative hearings on the issue and potential impacts to the tourism industry, lawmakers - primarily in the Senate - balked at the idea.

“This bill was concocted in the 11th hour by a privileged few with the complete absence of transparency and collaboration and accountability…the industry was sidestepped, the counties were a mere afterthought,” said state Sen. Kai Kahele, who represents parts of Hawaii Island.

The Senate voted to amend the bill to fund the rail Tuesday, calling for a 10-year extension of a surcharge on the general excise tax, but the House rejected that proposal. Meanwhile, the House passed its own amendment to increase the hotel room tax by 1 percent for 11 years, among other things.

House and Senate leaders did not return phone calls asking whether they would vote to extend the session.

Ige said it’s premature to discuss the possibility of calling a special session before there’s agreement on a plan of what the city and state can afford and how the project will be funded.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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