City Should Work Harder to Build Consensus on Rail

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BY CHARLES DJOU – Controversial measures come and go — it’s the nature of politics. No issue, however, has been as controversial for the past six years as the proposed heavy fixed-rail project for urban Honolulu.

The Honolulu rail system will be the largest public works project in Hawaii history and is already being financed by the largest tax increase in our state’s history. This alone ensured that rail would be controversial when it was proposed. Rail’s continuing controversy today, however, reflects poorly on City Hall.


I opposed the rail project as a City Council member, but after the rail system was narrowly approved by Oahu voters in 2008, I tried to improve the project by changing the route from Salt Lake to instead include the airport. I thought this would be the first of many efforts to bridge the divide between rail supporters and opponents; taking the fight away from arguing over if we should do the project, toward consensus on how best to do it. Sadly, my efforts to build consensus on the rail route appears to have been the last time rail opponents and supporters came together to work cooperatively.

In the months following the ’08 vote, the city squandered any goodwill resulting from the vote. Rather than reach out to proponents and opponents alike, the Hannemann administration, the majority on the City Council and the rail transit division charted a divisive path relying on the narrow mandate from the public to do as it pleased without regard to the nearly 50 percent of residents who opposed rail.

Since the 2008 election, the city has not adequately followed up with any broad outreach to the community in seeking consensus on rail. Instead of pausing to reflect and explain the costs of rail to the public, the current city administration and Council have brushed aside legitimate concerns by rail opponents.

Today, rail is embroiled in litigation and it appears the courts may ultimately dictate how rail gets done.

As a result, Oahu residents are now just as bitterly divided over rail as they were in 2008. A recent Star-Advertiser poll shows that the slim support for rail in the 2008 vote has narrowed even further since the question was put on the ballot three years ago. This spells trouble for the future of rail. As long as the city relies on a razor-thin majority favoring rail, it will subject success of the project to the whim of just 2 percent of the electorate changing its mind.

The city should alter its approach and start by making a stronger effort to include those who oppose rail in the decision-making process. To build public confidence that the new transit authority won’t waste the people’s money, the Carlisle administration should clearly state that the City Council must exercise oversight and control over spending by the rail transit authority.

The City Council should insist on transparent financial plans that clearly explain to the public what will happen to the project, and the city’s ability to finance the project if tenuous federal funding fails to materialize.

Decision-making should include all residents and not be limited to just the strongest rail supporters.

I continue to believe that the Hono­lulu rail project is financially unsound, but I respect that the voters narrowly approved it three years ago. If we want to move beyond constant squabbles, we need more consensus-building by city officials on this project. They need to understand that reasonable people can disagree. Whether rail becomes a success, failure or complete fiasco depends on how well city government handles the project’s planning today. Thus far, the prospects do not look good and the public has every right to be concerned.