Honolulu Rail's Next Stop?

Since Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle came into office, the $5.3 billion elevated-rail project has gone into overdrive—and so have its critics.


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Waipahu under rail: The elevated-rail route construction will begin in West Oahu. Here is a photo simulation by the local AIA—its members oppose the rail project—of Mokuola Street and Farrington Highway.

photo: urban advantage inc.

Challenge No. 1: The Federal Lawsuit

Cliff Slater is no rookie when it comes to the city’s history of mass-transit proposals. He’s been involved in organizing movements against rail initiatives since the mid-1980s, with former Mayor Frank Fasi’s rail proposition. He also fought against former Mayor Jeremy Harris’ bus rapid-transit proposal. In 2004, he was plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that he says helped kill the project, even after construction had already begun.

Here is a photo simulation of Mokuola Street and Farrington Highway (same as above) by the local AIA depicting street-level light rail, instead.

Photo Courtesy: Urban Advantage inc.

This time is no different. After the FTA gave its stamp of approval, Slater got to work on a lawsuit aimed at halting the city’s current rail plan—and he has bigwigs from both sides of the political aisle to back him up.

In May, they filed a federal lawsuit against two FTA administrators, the U.S. secretary of transportation and Wayne Yoshioka, the city director of transportation services. In addition to Slater, the plaintiffs include nonprofits Hawaii’s Thousand FriendsHonolulutraffic.com and Small Business Hawaii Entrepreneurial Education Foundation (founded by Republican state Sen. Sam Slom), Judge Walter Heen (former chair of the Democratic Party and former OHA trustee), UH law professor Randy Roth, Dr. Michael Uechi and former Gov. Ben Cayetano.

The lawsuit might be the only time these plaintiffs—unlikely allies—will ever agree on any single issue, and, yet, says Slater, all of them opposed elevated rail enough to publicly tie themselves to the action. Cayetano even donated his own money to pay for legal costs. They’re not anti mass transit, though most would prefer elevated tollways; Cayetano likes light rail.

The Hawaii Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) supports a street-level light rail system. This is a rendering on Hotel Street.

Photo Courtesy: urban advantage inc.

The lawsuit alleges that officials failed to properly consider and analyze transit alternatives and thus violated the Transportation Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. It also claims that an improperly limited EIS was submitted without fully studying the proposed rail-line extensions to West Kapolei, Waikiki and UH.

“We’re asking the city to follow the law,” Slater says. “They’ve not been honest about it; if they were, it would never get built.”

The group feels confident it’ll win. It doesn’t hurt that it has Nicholas Yost, one of the nation’s most prominent environmental lawyers, arguing the case. Yost, based out of San Francisco, Calif., served as general counsel on the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, and was instrumental in drafting the National Environmental Policy Act, which governs EIS regulations. He received the American Bar Association’s award for outstanding achievement in environmental law in 2010.  “Objectively, we think we have a good case,” said Yost during a press conference. “There are so many good arguments.” You might recall that Superferry opponents won by legally disputing the ferry’s EIS.

The case won’t be heard here, but rather in San Francisco, because because all nine of Hawaii’s federal judges and magistrates recused themselves because of conflicts of interest. Turns out they have their own beef with rail. All but one of the judges signed a letter to the FTA opposing the project because the proposed route running down Halekauwila Street, adjacent to the federal courthouse, raises “unacceptable, severe security concerns.” 

Related Links:
Online Rail Survey Results
Photos: Our streets now, and our streets with rail.

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Honolulu Magazine August 2018
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