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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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Kamehameha Highway and Kaonohi Street with elevated rail.

photo: honolulu rail transit project

The out-of-state venue doesn’t bother the plaintiffs and their supporters. Panos Prevedouros, a UH civil engineering professor, says he feels confident about the case. One of the most visible rail opponents—he ran for mayor twice on an anti-rail platform—Prevedouros says he’s not a plaintiff so he can be an expert witness if needed. He has served on the City Council’s Transit Advisory Committee and a transit technology panel; he was the only one opposing an elevated, steel-on-steel rail system both times.

Kamehameha Highway and Kaonohi Street, as it is now.

photo: honolulu rail transit project

“If you are a diligent transportation professional, you would never propose such a project for our city and the tax-paying population we have,” he says. “The engineering properties of the project are not appropriate, and I believe the numbers are being manipulated to show a far rosier picture.”

City officials have heard all this many times, to the point where it’s become amusing to some. No one in City Hall was surprised at the news of the federal lawsuit, says Doug Chin, the Honolulu managing director. In fact, the city budgeted $300,000 years ago to ward off legal challenges.

“We feel like we’re on a good footing,” says Chin, who’s also an attorney. So far, he’s right. This March, the city successfully walked away from a Circuit Court lawsuit filed by Paulette Kaleikini, who wanted to delay the project until city officials commissioned an archaeological survey for the entire 20-mile route, instead of in phases.

Officials had little to say about the current lawsuit. Toru Hamayasu, the chief rail planner and arguably the person most versed on the technical aspects of the project, insists that the city analyzed the different alternatives. “We presented that to the City Council and they chose [elevated rail] because at the time they saw this to be the most cost-effective system,” he says. “Our analysis shows others either cost more to construct and some of them just cannot be done,” including such alternatives as street-level, light rail. He adds that the public’s concerns and comments, including Slater’s, were addressed before submitting the final EIS.

Will this derail rail?

It’s too soon to tell, despite the self-assurance on both sides. Regardless of the outcome, the lawsuit will delay construction—it could take two to three years to play out—especially if the plaintiffs get an injunction to stop all rail-related progress.

The lawsuit is Slater and his group’s last card to halt rail. “We couldn’t risk not going to court,” he says. “Once it’s built, it’s there forever.”

Our streets now (left) and our streets with rail (right): Halekauwila and Cooke streets near Mother Waldron park.

photos: honolulu rail transit project

If they win, it will probably kill the city’s elevated-rail plan. It’s not something city officials like to think about; there is no solid Plan B—a big gamble when you’re talking about a $5.3 billion project, largely funded by taxpayers. If rail fails, the city will have to give back the federal money it’s already accepted, most likely using funds from the GET surcharge.

Breene Harimoto, the City Council transportation committee chair, says the city needs to “build the rail as is. I agree with the [anti-rail] arguments being made, I sympathize with them, but I’m not the one willing to say ‘scrap the rail, go back to square one.’ If we forego the federal-money commitments, someone else will get that money. That means this is going to be our third failed attempt. Why would they ever believe us next time? I think it’s either move forward now or forever lose the federal support.”

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

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Honolulu Magazine March 2019
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