Projects hit roadblock

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Lawmakers are expecting a gas tax hike to be on the table again next year following the deferral of major highway improvements, including further widening of Highway 130 in Puna.

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Lawmakers are expecting a gas tax hike to be on the table again next year following the deferral of major highway improvements, including further widening of Highway 130 in Puna.

Without an increase in funding, the state Department of Transportation says it intends to delay new “capacity” projects for as much as 20 years or more.

The bombshell, first reported by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, came following the defeat of a proposed 3-cents-per-gallon fuel tax increase and hikes to registration fees last legislative session.

Combined, the increases would have raised another $70 million annually. Instead, lawmakers provided a one-time $37 million funding boost.

Transportation officials say they will focus on road maintenance instead, with only 10 percent of its funds going toward adding lanes or building new roads. As of last year, 20 percent of funds were being used to increase highway capacity.

That leaves essentially every major project in the pipeline for Hawaii Island on hold, according to a chart provided by Transportation. Only the ongoing realignment of Saddle Road above Hilo would be completed.

“The needs of the highway system have outgrown and well surpassed the funding revenue and sources to keep up with that,” said Transportation spokesman Tim Sakahara.

But some lawmakers remain skeptical about the explanation and point to problems within the department of spending federal funds that it has received.

A backload in federal funds, currently at $524 million, was one reason why the tax proposal was defeated.

“I think a little bit of it is posturing,” said state Sen. Russell Ruderman, who represents Puna and parts of Ka‘u.

“I think that’s what it’s really about. They didn’t get the increase they wanted this year and they are punishing people as a result.”

He said the tax hike would hurt low-income residents the most.

Sakahara said the department’s federal funds have been dedicated to projects.

“Those projects will still happen,” he said.

Transportation recently completed a Highway 130 widening project from Keaau to Shower Drive, but bottlenecks still remain.

The decision could have the biggest impact on Hawaii Island, which is projected to see a 62 percent population increase between 2007 and 2035, according to the state’s highway transportation plan.

Ruderman said he wasn’t told this could be the result of defeating the gas tax bill and wasn’t shown the spreadsheet Transportation provided to the media explaining the current funding plan.

But he said he is willing to consider it again to save the widening project.

“They never talked to me and gave me an ultimatum,” he said.

Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said the deferral list didn’t come as a surprise. She voted in favor of the gas tax increase and expects it to be proposed again next year.

“It doesn’t only affect the Big Island,” she said.

“It affects several projects throughout the state.”

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Another option could be to increase capital funding for highway projects in the state budget, Inouye said.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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