Mayor Alone Cannot Determine Fate Of Rail

Tom Berg

Tom Berg

No matter who the mayor of Honolulu is or will be, the mayor alone cannot unilaterally stop the rail project unless a minimum of four City Council members of like-mindedness were to join in that effort.

To explain how to stop the train in its tracks, let’s assume a scenario in which a mayor no longer wants to expend funds for the rail endeavor:

An anti-steel wheels on steel rails mayor sends a budget to the City Council for approval, and that budget does not include any funding for the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART). Subsequently, assuming the majority (five out of nine) City Council members support the rail project, the council counters the mayor and restores the funding for rail. The council then sends the budget bill back to the mayor containing funding for HART. The mayor responds with a veto of the budget bill. It takes two-thirds, or a total of six councilmembers, to override the mayor’s veto.

Thereby, if the council were to have four members in agreement with the mayor, and these four members voted to sustain the mayor’s veto, the budget bill override would be defeated; funding for the rail would come to a halt. The mayor cannot stop the train unless he or she has a minimum of four councilmembers agreeing to that position when it comes to the budget season.

There are four council seats up for grabs in the 2012 election. The remaining five members not up for re-election all have supported steel wheels on steel rails.

One could deduce then, that in the absence of the five councilmembers currently in office changing their position, that all four open seats up for election would need constituents from each respective council district to elect a “stop this train from leaving” candidate to make any anti-rail mayor in office be of value.

What would happen to the money collected for the rail project if the steel-wheeled train were stopped? The mayor could propose the funds be expended for light rail, monorail or even rubber tire on concrete technology instead.

HART already has the authority and means to construct and run all of the aforementioned rail technologies. There is no mandate in HART’s governing documents that the technology must only be steel wheels on steel rails. The federal government will fund all options.

The mayor also could request from the Legislature that ACT 247 (Hawaii Session Laws 2005) be amended and allow for the funds to be used for highway technology bus rapid transit, for example. Another possibility would be to have the money returned to the city and open the discussion for public debate.

In the end, it is important to know that the mayor cannot stop a project by merely refusing to release funds. HART has a level of autonomy to carry out its operations. The mayor is trumped by the language of the charter that puts the purse strings for HART in the domain of the City Council. That battle was fought last year, and the mayor lost.

To put it bluntly, all the chatter about a mayoral race to feature who is for and who is against the steel-wheel rail is moot without first securing four council candidates who agree that the rail project as it stands needs to come to a halt.

City Councilman Tom Berg represents District 1. For more information, visit