Proposal would create board to oversee rail

Voters will be asked soon whether the city needs the new agency

By Gene Park

Voters will decide next month whether to centralize oversight of the $5.5 billion rail project under a 10-member authority.

Some City Council members argue that an appointed board of directors would depoliticize the project.

New board: What it is, what it would do

The following question will be on the general election ballot for Oahu voters:
"Shall the revised City Charter be amended to create a semiautonomous public transit authority responsible for the planning, construction, operation, maintenance and the expansion of the city's fixed guideway mass transit system?"

If enacted, the agency will be called the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation. Its responsibilities include:
» Making and executing contracts and labor agreements.
» Acquiring property for the project by eminent domain, purchase, lease or other means.
» Directing the planning, design and construction of the system.
» Preparing annual operating and capital budgets for the system.
» Creating, promoting and assisting transit-oriented development projects near the system that would promote ridership.
Source: City Council Resolution 09-252, CD1

"When you have a group of people selected for the specific purpose of having jurisdiction over an entity like the mass transit project, I think you will get better decisions that way," said Councilman Ikaika Anderson, who is among the three who introduced the Council resolution last year to place the City Charter amendment on the general election ballot.

Rail opponents, however, question whether the system, which only serves Oahu, needs what they characterize as "another layer of bureaucracy."

"When it crosses many political jurisdictions, it becomes really necessary," said Cliff Slater, a vocal critic of the project and chairman of "But we don't have that problem here. It's tough enough for Council members to get information out of the city directly without having to go through another layer."

The proposed Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, or HART, would govern rates, execute rail-related contracts and acquire property for the project through condemnation. Currently, the city and City Council are the administrative and decision-making bodies of the project.

"This board will be directly accountable for those things," said Toru Hamayasu, general manager of the city Rapid Transit Division. "It will almost be like the Board of Water Supply."

Creating the board through City Charter amendment is necessary because it is the Charter that grants control over the project to the City Council and the mayor, Hamayasu said.

The board would still answer to the City Council during the budgeting process and for approving bond sales and land acquisition through condemnation. But the authority would prepare its own capital budget and maintain the rail accounts.

It would also be required to hold public hearings before it can adopt a proposed budget, and before it can adjust fares.

"So there's always a check and balance," said City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi.

The board would be made up of three members appointed by the mayor and three by the City Council. The directors of the state Department of Transportation and the city Department of Transportation Services would be ex-officio voting members of the board.

Those eight members would vote for a ninth member. The city Department of Planning and Permitting director would be a 10th nonvoting member.

The City Council approved the question for the Nov. 2 ballot, in part, to minimize politics in the rail system, Council members have said.

"I wish we could've had this earlier in the process to really help coordinate all our transportation issues," Kobayashi said. "Although the appointing bodies are political, they'll be answerable to the public. Hopefully there will be more transparency in how the money's spent, especially when it comes to rail."

Panos Prevedouros, a University of Hawaii civil engineering professor and rail critic, said he believes forming an authority is a "political move from seasoned politicians beginning to shield themselves from responsibility."

"It is to absolve the politicians of the boondoggle," said Prevedouros, who came in third place in last month's mayoral election.

Like Slater, Prevedouros said the board would be unnecessary given the size of the population and area the rail projected would serve. He cited TriMet, the Portland metropolitan transit agency that serves three counties, or the Chicago Transit Authority, which serves Chicago and 40 surrounding suburbs.

An organization of religious and community leaders said it supports the idea of having a rail board that does not have to run for re-election every few years.

"If you look at (former Mayor Mufi) Hannemann's administration and the rail project, it felt to me that it was very political," said Drew Astolfi, state director for Faith Action for Community Equity Hawaii, which supports rail construction.

"It would be nice to have an extra layer of distance. Most cities have a transit authority because it's just too big of a task to be left to the day-to-day work of the City Council, who is already doing a lot of other things."

Anderson said creating a board not made up of politicians would be an asset to the rail system's development. Political ambition and worries about re-election would not hamper the decision-making process, he said.

"These people will be making decisions on what's best for Honolulu's public, rather than what's best for their individual careers, as we've seen over the years," Anderson said. "We're not sure what kind of City Council or mayoral administration we're going to be facing over the outlying years."

Hamayasu said an authority will not cost much because the Rail Transit Division that is under the city Transportation Services Department would be the authority's staff.

Hamayasu said other jurisdictions have created boards to perform different functions.

"Some of them focus more on the operation because it crosses so many jurisdictions, while some are focused only on the construction part of it because they're still building," he said.

Hamayasu said although the city will not be doing any advocacy on the ballot question, his department is planning to disseminate information to the public, since excitement from the primary election has cooled.

For passage, the amendment needs 50 percent plus one vote. A blank or spoiled vote on the question will not be factored into the count, he said.