HI governor signs $2.4B rail 'bailout' bill
Hawaii Gov. David Ige this week signed a $2.4 billion measure to narrow the estimated $3 billion funding gap for Honolulu's $9.5 billion commuter rail project, according to Hawaii News Now.
The measure, which the state legislature passed on Sept. 1, will raise the funds by extending a general excise tax, increasing the state hotel tax and reducing the administrative fee on Oahu's rail tax. Despite the controversy over the additional funding, Ige called the bill "a strategic investment in the community."
The bill requires audits and regular reviews of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART), the agency in charge of the rail initiative. It also allows state lawmakers to appoint two non-voting members to the HART board. In April of last year, two former HART executives resigned after charges of mismanagement.
The Federal Transit Administration has given rail officials until Sept. 15 to demonstrate how they plan to make up the $3 billion shortfall, and the new bill should go a long way in demonstrating that. If the FTA doesn't believe the plan is viable, it could require the state give back $800 million in grant money and would most assuredly not give the rail project the expected additional $700 million in funding.
Large infrastructure projects like the Honolulu rail typically require state funding in addition to federal support, so having state lawmakers on board is critical. A "no" vote on financing usually kills such initiatives, unless, as in the case of the Minneapolis-area Southwest LRT, local enthusiasm picks up the slack.
The Minnesota legislature voted against a bill that would have provided the balance of funding necessary for the light-rail project to receive almost $1 billion of matching funds from the FTA. Instead of giving up, the region's Metropolitan Council raised the necessary money from surrounding counties. Even so, state lawmakers still tried to kill the deal and made an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the FTA to hand the rail grant over to the state for use on other infrastructure projects, a proposal the agency rejected.
Texas lawmakers were unsuccessful in their attempts to kill a proposed $12 billion high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston through a series of bills that would have made it almost impossible for the project to survive.
Their anti-rail fervor was fueled primarily by landowner claims that developer Texas Central Partners was being heavy-handed in its attempts to acquire the necessary property for the project. The legislature ended up passing just two bills related to the rail — one preventing the state from contributing any financial assistance and another concerning safety.
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