Hawaii senators pass rail funding bill keeping project alive

HONOLULU  — A bill to fund Honolulu’s financially beleaguered rail transit project has cleared a major legislative hurdle, placing rail officials one step closer to meeting a federal deadline to present a viable funding plan.

The Hawaii state Senate passed the bill Wednesday with a 16-9 vote.

The proposal would generate an estimated $2.4 billion in additional tax money for the commuter rail line to close a budget gap that could be as large as $3 billion. It goes next to the Hawaii House.

Rail executives are up against a Sept. 15 deadline to show the federal government they can fully fund the $9.5 billion project, which is one of the most expensive per-capita in the nation. If they can’t they risk not receiving about $700 million in federal funds and having to return $800 million already spent.

“We can’t turn back,” said state Sen. Will Espero, who supported the bill. “We’re not going to tear down what’s been built. We need to complete this for the sake of Oahu, Honolulu’s economy and for future generations. Our backs are against the wall. If someone has a better idea, please present it because I haven’t seen it or heard it.”

Senators against the proposal said Hawaii should be solving other problems such as the homelessness crisis and housing shortage. They also said legislative leaders quashed debate by urging lawmakers to pass a bill crafted behind closed doors without any amendments.

“Please ask yourself why we race to spend $2 billion top solve the rail problem…when we can’t do anything to solve these other questions and hundreds of things here at the Capitol,” said Sen. Josh Green, who voted against the bill. Green, an emergency room doctor, said he wonders every day while caring for patients why the state doesn’t have more resources for kids overdosing on methamphetamine, heroin and prescription pills.

“Those bills die year after year after year in the committees and we gloss over it and say we’re accountable,” Green said. “We’re not accountable.”

State Sen. Gil Riviere, who also voted against the proposal, said the state shouldn’t throw more money at a project where there’s a spending problem.


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