Rail Yes! Rail No! Enough Already

Media and government officials were given a tour of the elevated rail guideway under construction in East Kapolei under unusually rainy skies. It's the first completed mile of the elevated guideway east of Kualakai Parkway that runs parallel to Farrington Highway DENNIS ODA / STAR-ADVERTISER PHOTO

Media and government officials were given a tour of the elevated rail guideway under construction in East Kapolei under unusually rainy skies. It’s the first completed mile of the elevated guideway east of Kualakai Parkway that runs parallel to Farrington Highway DENNIS ODA / STAR-ADVERTISER PHOTO

A resident of Leeward Oahu for the past 40 years and an occasional palm-sweating victim of its traffic jams, I’ve long been a supporter of building rail transit. I take my lead from all the mayors, save Eileen Anderson, going back to Neal Blaisdell.

My wife’s uncle Ben, an engineer by profession, opposes rail. He belongs to the party of Ben Cayetano, Cliff Slater and Panos Prevedouros.

Then there’s Jube, an esteemed Honolulu attorney and the husband of Tess, among the most beautiful of the family’s many beautiful women. Few of us can afford Jube’s hourly billing, but his generosity allows us to refer to him as “the family lawyer.”

We gathered over dinner a couple of Saturdays ago. Before dessert hit the table, Ben turned the conversation to rail.

In the reported $910 million recently added to rail’s original $5.4 billion price tag, Ben finds hope for stopping it. He argues that overruns will continue, ballooning the final cost of rail to $10 billion. Add making permanent the half-percent excise tax surcharge Mayor Kirk Caldwell wants, and Ben sees taxpayers trudging under the weight of rail debt unto eternity.

So what about the rail guideway that’s been constructed? Ben argues that it would support lanes for automobile traffic as well.

I, of course, disagreed, arguing with, I must admit, a fine mix of erudition and vigor, that rail’s being built for 30 years hence, not for now, but that we can’t continue to rely on the automobile, contributing to global warming, air pollution and clogged streets.

And so on. And so on. And so on.

Jube, a politically conservative man who’s seldom seen a tax increase he approved of, concurred on not extending the half-percent excise tax. If anything, he would have rather had a street-level transit system, but he didn’t understand surprise and indignation over cost overruns. They were predictable from the outset.

The lawyer’s final advice: “Get over it, Ben. Rail’s like Obamacare, it’s a done deal.”

The after-dinner talk grew heated at times. Rail does that to people. Uncle Ben’s 92-year-old sister grew concerned. She tried to shush Ben and me, we both being more, shall we say, fixed in our positions and excitable than the attorney.

But it’s an issue that people are getting over only slowly, if at all. The morning after our after-dinner talk of rail, Honolulu Star-Advertiser published its Hawaii Poll, this one asking some 400 Oahuans, “What do you think is the best solution to the rising costs of the rail project?”

Twenty-nine percent answered “halt construction”; 27 percent said “continue the excise tax surcharge beyond 2022″; 25 percent urged “cut costs of the project by building fewer stops or shortening the length of the rail system”; 12 percent advised “reallocating funds from other city projects”, and 8 percent didn’t have a thought on the matter or weren’t going to share it.

That’s roughly a 63 percent-acknowledgment that rail’s a “done deal.”

Rail’s always been an issue for Hawaii commuters. But in the recent Hawaii Poll, it’s risen to the top of respondents’ concerns. To the question, “What would you say is the most important issue facing Oahu in 2015?” 19 percent answered “rail.” Not surprisingly, 17 percent said “traffic.” “Homelessness” and the “economy” also drew double digits.

Rail’s critics blame the increased traffic on rail construction. To a degree, they’re right.

But Leeward Oahuans supported rail long before Kiewit’s pile-drivers appeared in our neighborhoods. We knew, and know, traffic.

Enough. I grow heated. Downright excited. Grandma says, “Alright, Daniel. Hush.”

dbboylan70@gmail.com