US Senator Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii
US Senator Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, the Senate Appropriations Chair, is the most powerful advocate for Honolulu’s controversial rail project. The senior Democrat pledged to bring in as much as $250 million in New Starts funding this year for the rail and as much as $1.55 billion in federal funding for the $5.3 billion elevated steel on steel rail project.

But Republicans in the House Appropriations Committee seems to have thrown a kink in that plan – at least for now.

Yesterday, a House subcommittee removed $150 million of the $250 million in New Starts funding allocated for the Honolulu rail.

Transportation Weekly explains in its June 8 news report: “The House bill has $226.5 million less for new subway and light rail projects than does the Senate bill. Both bills provide the same amount for projects with existing grant agreements, but the House bill shortchanges proposed new grant agreements by $200 million versus the Senate bill and the budget request, and most of that comes from reducing funds for the proposed Honolulu rail project from the requested $250 million down to $100 million. This, of course, is bound to set up conflict with full Senate Appropriations chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI).”

Greg Cohen, who is the head of the American Highway Users Alliance, knew about the cut in appropriations, and called it a “direct shot” from the House at the Senate appropriations chair.

“Sen. Inouye is a very powerful senior senator appropriator, and this is seen as a direct shot at a project of the chairman.” Cohen said. “Ultimately, it is in negotiating, and something for the House to use as leverage in negotiations with the senate,” Cohen said.

By picking a project of particular concern to Inouye, Cohen said, this was a “very direct confrontational statement.”

Cohen said his guess is that Inouye will “work very hard to restore those funds” and he said given Inouye’s position, “Inouye can probably do so.”

“But it goes to show,” Cohen added, “that the House has picked up on this specific project.”

Peter Boylan, spokesperson for Inouye, said: “The Senator and his staff have not had the opportunity to review the House language. He remains a strong supporter of rail and will work hard in conference to ensure that Honolulu receives their fair share of federal funds for the project.”

Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa with U.S. Senator Inouye and Congresswoman Mazie Hirono

Richard Rapoza, spokesman for U.S. Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, D-HI, explained the bill making appropriations for transportation is still in the House Appropriations Committee, was just reported out by the subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development and the current draft of the bill does not contain specific appropriations, but a “top line” number only. Specific appropriations will be officially decided after the committee meets again, after the 18th of this month, Rapoza said, adding: “In other words, discussing the amount appropriated for specific projects is premature.”

In terms of the House Republicans’ strategy, Rapoza said: “We cannot speak to the motives behind what the House Republican majority may or may not do with regard to any specific legislation. However, as they have refused to provide funding to support teachers, firefighters, police officers, students, and senior citizens, among others, I don’t think it would surprise anyone to see them attempt to slash appropriations for other important projects.”

Rapoza added Hanabusa will “monitor its progress and work to do what is best for the state.”

Congresswoman Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who is in Rhode Island today for a political forum at Netroots Nation event, was in Washington DC yesterday.

Her spokesperson Marvin Buenconsejo said today: “As a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Congresswoman Hirono has worked with our delegation to support rail and she will continue to do so through the appropriation process.”

Honolulu City Council Member Tom Berg, who is opposed to the elevated steel rail project, said the money the city has expected to receive from the federal government for rail has already spent – “squandered on propaganda, misrepresentation and deceit” – to sell the controversial rail project to taxpayers.

“The FTA, in my opinion, is allowing us to be taken for a ride by backing this over-priced, poorly-planned and underfunded rail project. But the cut in federal funding by the U.S. House members will lessen the pain for federal taxpayers and a hint the buyer should beware.”

City officials with the mayor’s administration and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation could not immediately be reached for comment.

If constructed, Honolulu’s rail project would be the most expensive rail project per mile in the country, and would also be the largest ever public works project built in the state.

Besides federal funding challenges, there are legal challenges to the project, which include a state case claiming the project will negatively impact native Hawaiian burial sites that is pending before the Hawaii Supreme Court. There also is a federal challenge, filed by Honolulu transportation expert Cliff Slater, former Gov. Ben Cayetano, University of Hawaii Law Professor Randall Roth and five other plaintiffs, who claim the city’s Environmental Impact Statement is defective in several respects. That case goes before a 9th Circuit Court judge in August.

There are also the August and November elections. Cayetano is running for mayor in large part to stop the rail project from moving forward.  Cayetano is challenging Carlisle and former City Managing Director Kirk Caldwell, both who are rail supporters. But Cayetano, who served in public office for nearly three decades and has never lost an election, has had the lead in the media political polls.

Roth believes the debate over federal funding won’t matter in the end because he and the other plaintiffs will win the federal lawsuit and Cayetano will win the mayor’s election and stop the project.

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Malia Zimmerman is the editor and co-founder of Hawaii Reporter. She has worked as a consultant and contributor to several dozen media outlets including ABC 20/20, FOX News, MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal, UPI and the Washington Times. Malia has been listed as one of the nation’s top "Web Proficients, Virtuosi, and Masters" and "Hawaii's new media thought leader" by http://www.thewebstersdictionary.com Reach her at Malia@hawaiireporter.com