A tax for transportation

LIHUE — Kauai County Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura says more must be done to ensure that the county’s public transportation system remains viable and becomes a key part in alleviating traffic congestion throughout the island.

“Affordable transportation is really important to our families, so the bus is a very big part of that — it is an important solution and will help to lower the cost of living, which is high and difficult for families,” she said. “In order to develop the system from bus shelters to more frequent, reliable service, we need to expand our bus system and have a source of funding to do that.”

A proposal that Yukimura is slated to introduce during Wednesday’s County Council meeting could allow for one of those funding sources to be a county surcharge tacked on to the state’s 4 percent general excise tax, which is levied on business activities in Hawaii and is reflected on many consumer purchases, including food and groceries. The funds would be used to increase buses and stops.

“If we are to build our bus system to meet the needs of now and in the future, we’re going to need a more stable funding source, and the (surcharge) provides that,” Yukimura said.

But not everyone is on board.

“I won’t support the GET as a taxing mechanism at the county level ever for any reason,” Councilman Tim Bynum said. “You know what, it’s a regressive tax — it taxes everything including hair cuts, medicine and rent. It hurts low-income and poor people more than anything, but middle-class people, too. Targeting it on transportation makes it less egregious than if it went to the general fund, but it’s egregious nonetheless.”

State lawmakers, in 2005, amended tax laws to provide a 0.5 percent county surcharge on transactions attributable to the City and County of Honolulu. Revenue from the surcharge, Yukimura said, was intended to subsidize the island’s rail system now under construction.

The resolution that Yukimura is proposing, meanwhile, will ask state lawmakers to give county officials the authority to enact a surcharge of up to 0.75 percent that would be earmarked for public transportation initiatives on Kauai, making the total tax that people see on their retail receipts or bills equal to 4.75 percent.

If approved by state lawmakers and the County Council, the proposed surcharge could generate about $8 million annually for the Kauai Transportation Agency, which oversees The Kauai Bus operations.

It is money that, Yukimura said, will be needed as county officials move forward with The Kauai Bus improvements.

Adding holiday services and expanding operating hours for The Kauai Bus about two years ago added about $1 million in annual costs, Yukimura said.

Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. said he and his administration support “this concept and finding new revenue sources to support the expansion of The Kauai Bus.” More time and discussions, however, is needed so county officials and state lawmakers can come to a consensus on it.

Expanding the island’s public transportation service, however, won’t necessarily benefit everyone, Bynum said.

“For tons of working-class, single parents, their life, in our current state of the bus, is not an option for them,” Bynum said. “They have to have their kids at school at a certain time, their jobs are on certain schedules, so it’s not accurate that all people who struggle economically will benefit from the bus. Some people who benefit from the bus are wealthy — they choose to not have two cars and like the free time.”

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Darin Moriki, county government reporter, can be reached at 245-0428 or dmoriki@thegardenisland.com.

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