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Schatz to ‘work very hard’ for Saddle Rd. funding

Guarantee isn’t the word Hawaii’s senior Senator — who’s been on the job just two weeks — would use when describing what he’ll do to get funding for a long-term federal project on the Big Island.

Hawaii’s two new U.S. Senators, Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, spoke with Hawaii media by phone Tuesday morning. Schatz said one of the committees on which he will serve, Commerce, Science and Transportation, puts him in a position to try to continue funding for the Saddle Road extension project. But, Schatz said, he was hesitant to say he could do anything to guarantee funding.

“We’re going to work very hard on that,” Schatz said, adding that advocating for federal money for Hawaii projects is a big component of the Congressional delegation’s job.

He added Hirono also worked to secure funding for the project while on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Hirono said she supports some kind of “infrastructure bank” from which Hawaii can draw funds for its federally qualified projects.

The late Sen. Daniel Inouye championed the Saddle Road project, noting the need to improve access to Pohakuloa Training Area for all military branches, as well as the cross-island highway for island residents. In 2009, at a dedication for a completed phase of the road realignment project, Inouye vowed to remain in Congress until the road was finished. Work on the third phase of realignment, from about mile marker 42 to Mamalahoa Highway, began in 2011. A fourth phase, from Mamalahoa Highway to Waikoloa Beach Drive, is in the early planning stages.

The first three phases of construction have cost about $120 million, with funding mostly coming from military and federal transportation coffers. The fourth phase is estimated to cost $45 million to $50 million, and no money has yet been appropriated.

The two senators spent most of the short media call talking about their committee assignments. Hirono will serve on the Armed Services committee, which she said will put her in a good position to advocate for U.S. soldiers stationed here.

That assignment “is a huge win for Hawaii,” Hirono said. “They are a big part of our economy. I will certainly press our case that Hawaii is a strategic part of our national security.”

Hirono is also on the Veterans’ Affairs committee and the Judiciary committee, where she will continue to press for a visa waiver program for Chinese tourists.

Schatz will also serve on the Energy and Natural Resources committee and the Indian Affairs committees.

They said in addition to their committee assignments, they have a close relationship with Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, and Alaska’s Congressional delegation. Those relationships will help Hawaii, Hirono said.

She acknowledged Hawaii’s loss of seniority following Inouye’s death and Sen. Daniel Akaka’s retirement. Combined, they had more than 70 years in the Senate.

“This is why the committee assignments Sen. Schatz and I have are critical,” Hirono said.

Schatz said they’ve already met with some Republicans, and he’s finding common ground with several whose whose personal backgrounds are similar to his.

“We’ve been reaching across the aisle,” Schatz said. “It’s going to be important.”