Good morning and aloha. I don’t know about you, but I feel so lucky, one, to be reelected, but to live here.
As we sit outside in this morning’s sun, in the most dense part of our island in terms of population, we enjoy these beautiful banyan trees at the McCoy pavilion, the gift given by the McCoys to the City and County of Honolulu decades and decades ago. It’s so clean and pristine thanks to the Parks and Recreation folks, the guys in blue shirts who sweat day and night to take care of our parks. They continue to keep this as a crown jewel, kind of hidden for most people, but today we are here.
We wanted this swearing-in ceremony to be simple. We begin on the ‘aina with [Hawaii’s] first people. That’s why I feel I’m so lucky, as we hear the blessings from Uncle [Kumu Hula] Ainsley [Halemanu], and [Executive Director of Culture and the Arts] Misty [Kela‘i], and [Kauai] Mayor Bernard Carvalho singing the national anthem and Hawaii Pono‘i. It reminds me of how lucky we are that the first peoples have allowed us to thrive here, and this administration is about thriving well into the future.
You know I get choked up every time I take the oath of office, whether I served in the [State of Hawai‘i] House [of Representatives] or as mayor. Because I can’t believe a guy born in Waipahu and grown up in Hilo gets to participate in our form of democracy, which I believe is the fairest yet invented anywhere in the world to govern people. Not perfect, and always evolving, but I can’t think of a better system.
I welcome that push and pull between the three branches of government, having served in the legislative branch, and now in the executive branch. That’s why, when I walked in here, my heart sung when I saw Chair [Ernest] Martin here, Councilmember Ron Menor, Councilmember Carol Fukunaga, my Councilmember Ann Kobayashi, Councilmember Kym Pine, and [Councilmember] Brandon Elefante, the kid of the team. [Councilmember] Ikaika Anderson said he was with family and couldn’t make it. [I was happy to see them] because we are part of one team working really hard for the benefit of everyone on this island.
And while I have my second swearing in, I did not get here by myself. I got here with the cabinet that is sitting here before you who have worked so hard every single day for four years. I got here because of the hard working 10,000 people of the City and County of Honolulu, doing jobs that we can’t even imagine, and doing it every day, every hour of every week.
I couldn’t have gotten here without working with our fellow mayors, Mayor Bernard Carvalho, and the other mayors and representatives. [Former Maui Councilmember] Mike Victorino, it’s good to have you here from Maui. Always. I want to thank all of them for the very hard work that they have produced for all of us.
I look at every day as an opportunity to do good in our city. We worked really hard in the past four years to improve our parks, repave our roads, upgrade our sewers, improve our bus service, house more homeless than ever before, and yes build rail all the way to Ala Moana.
Those are the priorities we have been focusing on. We have 1,460 days left, and the days fly by really fast. Two days are already gone. I don’t want to waste one of them, Ross Sasamura, Department of Facility Maintenance. I call him every day, and he continues to answer my calls about homeless issues, or potholes, or whatever else. But it’s just an example of what we need to do every single day. We are going to have other major initiatives to announce shortly.
One of them is going to be affordable housing. We need to address this huge challenge that we face. Change it structurally, so that whomever is mayor, whomever is at the City Council in future years, once we set this new infrastructure in place, we will build housing for the people of this island. Housing which deals with quality of life, which deals with helping people stay here, live here, and thrive here.
But I want to reserve the rest of my comments for today about rail, because that too is about quality of life. It is a game changer. It is the most major, impactful thing that we are doing on this island and I believe in the State of Hawai‘i since a century ago.
It is so important. And it’s been a huge dream of mayors going all the way back to Mayor [Neal] Blaisdell in the 50s and 60s. When you think about it, Dan Inouye worked on rail the entire time that he served in Congress which was over 52 years. It’s that important. This journey began long ago and it continues to this day. It is about the quality of life here on Oahu and how we grow into the 21st Century.
Honolulu is the capital city of the State of Hawai‘i, and it is the economic powerhouse for the entire state. With almost a million people on this island, sorry [Kauai Mayor] Bernard [Carvalho] (laughter), three fourths of the population is here. It is the tax base that supports everything else in the State of Hawai‘i. Five million out of the eight million visitors who come to the state go to Waikīkī, go to Ko Olina, go to the North Shore, and they spend their money here.
Military and defense spending continues to thrive. Because the People’s Republic of China’s saber rattling, we remain relevant, even post-Dan Inouye. Congress continues to support our facilities out here because of the importance in the Pacific region.
Construction is booming, you can see it around here, both private and public. The City and County of Honolulu alone is spending $11 billion on infrastructure projects. And it’s raising the tide for all ships.
Unemployment on O‘ahu hovers between 2.8 and 3 percent, among the lowest in the United States. In fact when I tell [mainland] mayors what our unemployment rate is, they don’t believe me. I tell them, “Google it!” They are blown away. And the credit goes to a lot of people, I’m not standing here to claim the credit, the credit goes to the federal government for what they do, to our state partners for what they do, and to the [employees of the] City and County of Honolulu for what they do.
The reason why I want to talk about what Honolulu does for the state: I don’t want to see a discussion where it’s us-against-them or mine-versus-yours. It’s all of us. We are anchored in the middle of the Pacific, this island chain. We don’t talk about Kaua‘i as separate; they are part of us. When they need help, we help. When we need help, the neighbor highlands help. We are one fleet of islands and we depend on each other, and we should help each other. O‘ahu should provide the tax base for the rest of the state. But how O‘ahu thrives determines how the rest of the state thrives.
A vibrant thriving resilient City and County of Honolulu helps everyone. Rail is the most important thing about how we thrive. It is the major part of this equation. No other major transportation project is planned for the City and County of Honolulu right now. None. Not now, not in the near future, other than rail. We have gridlock with no alternatives in terms of new roads or highways. Unless you want to take a helicopter (laughter).
Rail is that alternative. It is how we are going to deal with [transportation] issues and how we thrive in the future. Yes, rail is an alternative to get out of gridlock. It doesn’t say gridlock is going to go away, because every major city that has rail still has traffic. But it gives people a choice. And it allows us to grow differently, in a more dense urban core, on this side of the island. We can keep Chair Martin’s North Shore “country” for the next century, or more. Make the city more city to keep the country more country. And it’s a big, big, big dream. A huge idea that I believe is worth fighting for.
You know, in life, in the history of this place, it’s the big ideas that are the most difficult. And they are the most risky. It’s much easier to say let’s think smaller, let’s not take the chance, because then you don’t have to worry about failure or the huge problems that you encounter. But I believe that rail is worth fighting for every single day.
I want to emphasize “We.” Because it is our partners at the federal level and at the state level and at the city and county level that we need to rely on in order to get the project done. And much has been done. You think about it, in just four years, these partners coming together have built 11 miles of elevated rail system. 43 acres of a maintenance facility. This is amazing.
We’ve had much progress, and yes, we have encountered major, major problems. I’ve come to understand as mayor over the last four years that large infrastructure projects like this encounter problems. Right, [Acting HART CEO K.N.] Murthy? (Murthy nods.) There are none that just sailed through.
There are going to be great risks and we’ve had our difficulties. Whether it’s an increase in cost, whether it’s splints that have cracks. Whether it’s tendons that aren’t working properly in certain areas, whether it’s the railcars. These are things that have occurred that are being addressed at the expense of others [the contractors], and not us. There will continue to be problems, difficult decisions must be made, and none of them are popular. But to say: let’s not make them and let’s think smaller; it’s not what I believe we should be doing. It’s about being steadfast and persevering.
To build the minimum operating segment, which is 20 miles and 21 stations all the way to Ala Moana. With an eye towards the locally preferred alternative which is up to U.H. Mānoa and all the way to downtown Kapolei and [Councilmember] Kym Pine’s district. It is a journey that we have begun, and it is absolutely worth finishing, all of it. Not only for the people of O‘ahu today or in the next 10 years, but for the people of this place 100 years from now and into the next century.
If you think about it, the challenges we face and the sacrifices were making are the stories of many of your ancestors who came here with nothing. Who worked for [next to] nothing and saved everything they had for that next generation or the one after that. That is the story of this place. And I believe it’s the story of rail, looking to a future.
And this question about how far we go? Where do we end up? Do we end up here at Ala Moana or somewhere shorter? It is going to be answered in the next four months as the legislative session begins.
Whether to build rail to budget, meaning we have about $6.8 billion and perhaps we could get all the way to Aloha Tower? Or we budget to build rail all the way to Ala Moana, one hundred percent of everything needed to get the minimum operating system up and running, the backbone to future rail systems. Maybe the technology will be different, maybe the cost will be less, but we build the backbone. We can continue this journey and dream big or we can retreat and think smaller.
I’m hoping that we dream big and continue to fight for the entire system. If we don’t, if a decision is made to think smaller and to stop somewhere short of Ala Moana, we will have legal challenges like we did when we started the system. We will have to do a supplemental Environmental Impact Survey (EIS). There will be lawsuits, there will be greater delay. And with the delay comes cost. I believe that with that delay, [HART will] not go forward with [completing] this project, and ridership drops.
If we go all the way to Ala Moana Shopping Center, there’s 120,000 riders [expected to use the train] every day. If we go just to Aloha Tower, it’s [only estimated to be] 60,000 rides. People could dispute ridership by 10,000 here or 10,000 there, but we are talking tens of thousands of rides [fewer every day].
To think that we would spend $6.8 billion to get half of the ridership, to me is not the choice we want to make. For 1.5 more miles from Aloha Tower to Ala Moana Shopping Center, we get an additional 60,000 rides on this system. Anything less means half a system in my mind.
I believe we [would] suffer the Superferry effect. If we stop short of Ala Moana, I believe it will be decades before it’s taken up again, just like the Superferry. People now regret what happened [with the Superferry] and people say “let’s revive it” but no one in the political arena wants to touch it because it still smells. It still has poison on it, and it’s going to take decades before people step forward and say “let’s try again.”
I don’t want to see that happen [to the rail project]. I believe if it does, the journey is over for rail. Honolulu [would have] a partially funded system for $6.8 billion. We must not allow this to happen. Too much of our future rides on the rail.
HART must do its part. It has to do better at controlling costs, and I think it [now] is [succeeding at controlling costs] under our new leadership. It must be more realistic and accurate on its estimate to complete the project. They say [it will cost] 8.2 billion dollars now to complete the project; the rest up to 9.6 billion is financing costs and interest.
[HART] must push back on slippage on schedule, [asking] what can we do to go faster, to get it done more quickly? Because delay is cost, and it dooms us to more and longer disruption from construction.
The city must step up, both me as mayor and our entire City Council, to support revenue raising measures, to support the operation and maintenance of our combined bus-rail system. You know our bus will be about two thirds of the entire [cost of] operation and maintenance of running the combined [bus-rail] system. [That cost] will still be there even if rail is not built. And we will be introducing such revenue raising measures and seeking the support of the Honolulu City Council, not just today but going forward, so that we can show that we have the ability to pay for the operation and maintenance of a combined system long into the future.
The city has a AA+ bond rating. And with that bond rating, the full faith and credit of the City and County of Honolulu is behind this rail system. The state is going to be requested to extend the [General Excise Tax] surcharge so that we can raise additional funds so that [HART] can complete the minimum operating segment all the way to Ala Moana, and I hope longer than that to build the locally preferred alternative.
I know it’s [raising taxes is] unpopular, but with the visitor industry at an all-time high in terms of arrivals, tourists pay about one third [of the General Excise Tax]. Some say less, some say more. But assuming it’s in that range, tourists willingly pay it and continue to come in record numbers.
To say, “let’s find another revenue source where more of it is based on the residents of this island, or the residents of the state,” I think is not the proper way to go. [Instead,] we can look to get it from our visitors. I believe the [General] Excise Tax extension, something we’re all paying now and continuing to pay until 2027, should continue [beyond 2027]. That will allow us to continue to issue long term bonds at low interest rates to fund the [rail] project.
And, I think the city should be willing to negotiate with the state on a sharing of this income stream, as long as it’s long enough [beyond 2027] so that the state can build needed transportation infrastructure on this island. Hopefully it’s given to the other counties, and I know Mayor Carvalho you tried hard to get the [General Excise Tax] surcharge extended on Kaua‘i so that it could be used for transportation infrastructure projects on your island, for instance in Kapa‘a that suffers gridlock, unless you ride a bike. We love Mayor Bernard for his bike path.
Sharing this income stream, the Federal Transit Administration, our federal partner, needs to step up to and make sure that it funds the full $1.55 billion under the full-funding grant agreement that it committed to. And we will look for more federal support in [certain] areas, working with our congressional delegation.
Finally the private sector developers and major landowners along the rail route need to be able to step up. I’ve met with all of them; none of them have said “no” about contributing to the cost of construction and perhaps being open to other forms of revenue raising measures along the route to help pay for the operation and maintenance. Some of these [partnerships’] impact wouldn’t be felt immediately, which doesn’t help the actual construction.
As you can see we have our work cut out for us, all of us working together for a better City and County of Honolulu. We have another 1,457 days, and they are going to fly by. So let’s not waste a single day. I ask all of us here, all of us, our cabinet, our council, our private sector, to step up and work together to solve difficult problems. To tackle them, not to run from them. Not to make the political decision, but to make a proper policy decision. Not just look for the easy way out.
Let’s work hard to persevere and have no regrets, and finish what we started with rail. I want to thank again everyone here for sitting here on this beautiful, beautiful morning, on the first working day of the new year. I want to wish all of you the best of the new year, I look forward to incredible things for the next four years. I love all of you, mahalo and aloha. Thank you.