Monday, November 16, 2009

Searching for ‘News’ in the Rail Tax Stories

Comparing the two daily newspapers’ coverage of the Honolulu rail project is probably a consequence of our former life as a newspaper reporter here. Both editorial pages are solidly supportive, as seen in recent Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin editorials. It’s in the news hole that the coverage seems to differ.

The Advertiser today has a story in its website’s Top Breaking News section (and sure to be highlighted in tomorrow’s print edition) that transit tax collections in October were down from a year earlier. So far, the Bulletin has no similar story, but beyond the play of this particular story today, the Advertiser continues to display what some might call a fixation with rail tax revenues.

The fact that revenues are down year-to-year during the nation’s economic recession isn’t surprising in the least. Someone wrote in the Comments section below the Advertiser’s online story today that the paper’s monthly coverage of the tax revenues has the same predictability about it as the “Hawaiian Airlines Tops On-Time List” stories we see each month.

Viewing with Alarm

Until the economy turns around (which it will; it always has), can’t we safely predict that rail tax revenues any given month will be below those of a year earlier? Almost certainly there will be such an announcement in mid-December, and we’ll be treated to yet another view-with-alarm assessment in the Advertiser. Why “view with alarm?” Because the thrust of these stories suggests an implied concern about a tax “shortfall” that seems out of line with common sense.

As the City has pointed out repeatedly, the rail project’s financial plan is sound. The construction contract for Phase One came in $90 million under budget, and future contracts are just as likely to be favorably below original forecasts. That’s what happens in a recession, and that’s what’s happening elsewhere around the country.

Local economists are predicting a recovery beginning next year, and some anticipate rather robust economic times in the coming decade. The rail project itself will provide a stimulus by employing thousands of local residents and creating taxable profits by the companies involved with rail.

Tax revenues are lower in a recession and Hawaiian Air flies on time -- two rather unremarkable factoids that nevertheless still generate headlines. You be the judge of how newsworthy they are.

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