Talk Story with Ben Cayetano
Candidate for Honolulu Mayor
Photo: Olivier Koning
Ten years after retiring as governor, Cayetano has been drawn back to the campaign trail by his opposition to Honolulu’s rail project. He talks about rail, why it’s a bad idea and what he would do instead to help commuters.
What do you think of the selection of Dan Grabauskas as the new head of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART)?
He promised more transparency. If he means what he says, I think that’s good for the taxpayer. Because one of my biggest complaints about the rail issue and how it’s been handled has been the lack of transparency. I think they use information to mislead people. I think, along with my three fellow plaintiffs in the lawsuit, we’ve shown that over and over again.
Are your complaints about rail essentially financial ones?
They’ve been financial, but I don’t mind paying for something – even if it’s costly – if it will do the job. Steel-on-steel, heavy rail will not do the job for a city like Honolulu or an island like Oahu. First, it’s 19th-century technology, with a makeover for the cars. That’s about the only thing that looks modern, if you ask me. But no city in the United States that I know of, particularly cities of our size – comparable metropolitan areas – has built or is planning to build steel-on-steel, heavy rail.
Rail advocates point to other cities with popular rail systems.
First of all, when they try to make comparisons, they compare us to cities that are much larger. They make comparisons to cities like Denver, which has a metropolitan population of 2.7 million. We have only 950,000 people on Oahu. They also make comparisons to cities that have adjoining metropolitan areas. If you look at San Francisco itself, maybe it has about 900,000 people, but San Francisco has Marin County and all these other areas that feed into the system. We don’t have that; we’re an island.
Maybe the most relevant comparison is to San Juan, Puerto Rico. This comparison is valid, in my opinion, first, because Puerto Rico is an island. It has about 2.4 million people, which is a larger population than ours. And the same company built rail in San Juan: Parsons Brinkerhoff. If you Google them, you’ll see they always say the same thing: “This thing is going to alleviate the worst traffic congestion in the world.” The reality is they told the city fathers in San Juan they were going to build an 11-mile system for, I think it was, $1 billion, and it would carry a weekly average of 80,000 passengers. Well, when it was built, it had a 113 percent cost overrun – two-point-something billion dollars – and, instead of 80,000 riders, it’s carrying something like 28,000.
If not steel-on-steel heavy rail, what kind of transit system do you envision for Hawaii?
Bus/rapid transit. (Mayor Jeremy) Harris’s BRT is basically the concept that I would be for, with some revisions. The EIS was approved. Parsons Brinkerhoff – they do BRTs and rail all over the world – in the 2003 alternative analysis, they rated BRT superior to rail. In fact, they said – and I’m paraphrasing now – bus/rapid transit will give the same level of service at substantially less cost. Then, a year or so later, Hannemann’s elected and he said, not BRT, we’re going to go steel-on-steel. He made an arbitrary decision like that. So Parsons did the analysis again and they said that was the best. But they left out BRT from the alternative analysis, and that’s a big flaw they’re going to have to deal with in our lawsuit. They’re supposed to consider all the alternatives; that’s how we got stuck on this thing.
You once supported Peter Carlisle; now you’re trying to take his job. Why is this issue so important to you?
It’s because of the risk they’re taking. Mufi Hannemann was told by his engineers that it didn’t make sense for the city to start (in Kapolei), that the city should start from inside the city and build outward. Then, if you run out of money, you can stop and run the system at least partially. When you have the money again, you can continue to build. But Hannemann ignored that advice and decided to start outside the city. And the risk that they face is: What if the $1.5 billion (from the federal government) doesn’t come in? What if it only comes in partially? What if the GET doesn’t produce as much revenue as they projected? What if the city loses the lawsuit that we’ve filed? What if I win as mayor? What’s going to happen to the system if it’s only halfway built? They don’t have an answer to that. You have to raise taxes so you can continue to build. And if you don’t get the $1.5 billion (from the federal government) or only part of that, you’re going to have to raise taxes by quite a bit. By building this way, they can’t shorten the line.
Are you running a one-issue campaign?
This issue is so big that it involves all of the other so-called issues. Let me give you a demonstration of the size of this issue: I think we’ve got about 260 public schools. If you were to tear every one of them down and build new ones for $100 million apiece, you’d only spend $2.6 billion, or half the cost of rail. So, when people say, “Are you a one-issue candidate?” I say, “Wait a minute, this issue’s so big that it’s affecting all the other issues.”
One of your criticisms of rail is that the money should be spent elsewhere. But if rail isn’t built, is any of that money actually available to use on other projects?
Obviously, the $1.5 billion of federal money would not be available. For the other funds, I would have to go to the Legislature and say, “Listen, I’ll make you guys a deal. You revise the law so that I, as mayor, can use the money from the half-percent (excise tax) surcharge to upgrade the sewer, upgrade the water system, develop a bus/rapid-transit system, things like that, and you guys take the rest.” So, maybe there’s half-a-billion dollars left over; they can take that or they can terminate the tax and give the people some tax relief.
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