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    On Politics: With rail finally open, thanks to mayors’ support, it becomes less of a burning political issue

    Almost all of Honolulu’s recent mayors have carried on a political love affair with the city’s train. For decades Honolulu’s mayors have defined their idea of what Honolulu should be, through their adoration of rail.

    Most of it has been love in the abstract. During his one term running the city, Mayor Peter Carlisle was one of rail’s most ardent supporters, once telling reporters that the fault of rail was supporters not declaring their love loudly enough.

    “I haven’t done the right amount of activity telling people why it’s the right thing to do and I’m going to be more active about that, you better believe it,” vowed Carlisle after a State of the City speech.

    Longtime Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi made planning for a rail line part of his dreams for Honolulu. Fasi and rail were synonymous. But, when former state Budget Director Eileen Anderson became mayor, rail, she said, became too expensive and unneeded. This was a fixed rail valentine Honolulu couldn’t afford and the city lost the love bug for rail, canceling the transit plan called HART in 1981. Fasi rekindled the love in 1986, only to have the Honolulu City Council throw cold water on it in 1992.

    Mayor Jeremy Harris might have also loved rail, but failed with a proposed mixed marriage of a bus and rail rapid transit project that just never took off.

    The fourth mayoral infatuation with rail was by Mayor Mufi Hannemann. He went after the big bucks needed for rail, getting the state Legislature to approve a new tax directed to pay rail construction costs..

    All that love doesn’t come cheap. If the city is going to hitch up to rail, someone will have to pay for it.

    In 2013, Kirk Caldwell took over and he also had to find the money to continue the rail love going.

    Rail construction expenses and overruns are now expected to cost about $9.9 billion.

    The big change now is that rail is no longer an abstraction; it is a functioning train. As Mayor Rick Blangiardi said in opening ceremonies: “This is truly a momentous and historic day for the island of Oahu. Today’s announcement marks the culmination of decades of hard work, perseverance and overcoming difficult challenges of every kind.”

    Blangiardi will soon be running for reelection. So far no serious opponents have surfaced, and if they do, the one constant will be how much do you love rail.

    The most serious attempt to break up the Honolulu mayors’ love affair with rail failed when former Gov. Ben Cayetano ran for mayor on an anti-rail platform, and lost.

    Going forward, potential opponents will have to decide if a fight over rail is worth it. What would be the political benefit you gain by being against the train that has decades of mayoral support?

    Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii Public Policy Center, agreed when I asked him about it, adding that barring low ridership numbers or significant operational problems, the existence of rail is no longer a city political issue.

    “Now that the rail is open and operating, talking about what should or should not have happened years ago won’t give the mayor’s opponents much leverage,” Moore said.

    Once, you might have been able to argue about the route or design or cost — but now, it is a permanent part of the city, love it or not.


    Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays. Reach him at 808onpolitics@gmail.com.


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