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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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Rail through town: The Hawaii AIA chapter supports a street-level, light rail system instead of elevated-rail, because, in part, it is less obtrusive. To prove its point, here’s what the chapter says elevated-rail will look like on Ala Moana Boulevard at Bishop Street.

photos: urban advantage inc.

Challenge No. 3: The city’s strained relations

The Ansaldo contract issue aside, the City Council and the mayor’s administration have been butting heads. While the system’s checks and balances means that political entities will never truly be harmonious, for some officials, dialogue has been worse than they’d like, especially regarding rail expenditures. (Tens of thousands have already been poured into the project, and more than $2 billion has been promised in contracts.)

The latest problem revolves around the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART). In 2008, residents voted to create the semiautonomous board. This April, the City Council and Carlisle appointed three members each, including First Hawaiian CEO Don Horner and William “Buzzy” Hong, the retired Hawaii Building and Construction Trades Council director. The board’s first meeting is this month. The problem is, the council and the mayor have different definitions of semiautonomous.

The City Council wants budget approval over the rail project, but Carlisle says that violates the charter amendment.

“When I campaigned for office, I didn’t say I’d wash my hands of rail, that was a critical issue for me,” says Council member Martin.

Both sides say they aren’t budging on the issue; Carlisle recently vetoed the Council’s operating and capital budget bills and even threatened to go to court over it. Says Harimoto: “The mayor is an attorney, and I’m not, but there is some question: Can he really take us to court?”

The two bodies don’t mind airing their criticisms openly: The city wants the Council to stop micromanaging, and the Council wants the city to be more forthcoming—to both its members and the public—about the project and its costs.

“It’s almost to the point where the mayor is fully confident that the support for rail is so strong that he doesn’t need to generate more public support for it,” says Martin.

Like Martin, Harimoto has also voiced his concerns to the media and during Council meetings. “As I got into this position and … [saw] things close up, my concerns grew. It wasn’t concerns about whether rail was right or wrong, it was more about how things are being done,” he says.

Will this derail rail?

It’s certainly making things more difficult. HART members won’t be able to do their job if the city and the Council can’t agree on what their responsibilities are. Their grumbling could delay the board’s and the project’s progress. If the different offices can’t maintain a mostly unified front about something they all support, how is the rail project going to get off the ground?

“I think what the mayor underestimated was that, although the Council is supportive of rail, it’s a fairly new Council,” says Martin. “We would have expected that the administration would have been more accessible to providing the Council with the depth of understanding of rail that we should be given.”

Next stop, or last stop?

The city insists that the lawsuits will fail and the remaining federal funding is as good as in the bank. Members of the administration, from Carlisle on down, also think that the past votes for rail mean never having to justify the project to the public again—even if some people are growing skeptical—stating that it needs to continue on the path that’s been forged.

Cayetano disagrees. “Just because it was voted on doesn’t mean it’s written in stone. A vote doesn’t cancel the requirements of the law,” he said at a press conference regarding the federal lawsuit.

Opponents, from concerned citizens to jilted bidders, will have their day in court, delaying progress by years, if not halting rail outright. Those with the “not in my backyard” mentality say rail isn’t worth the visual blight and the worsening of traffic.

If the city and its rail supporters are victorious, you, HONOLULU reader, can enjoy the magazine while jetting into town on the elevated-rail line in 2019.


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

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Honolulu Magazine June 2018
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