Editor's Page: Training Day

Lawsuits, bid protests and turf battles throw new hurdles at the city’s rail project.

Photo: Linny Morris

Two things stood out for me in associate editor Tiffany Hill’s article on Honolulu’s $5.3-billion-and-growing rail project. First, there’s the unlikely band of allies that recently filed a federal lawsuit to stop the project on environmental grounds.

The city goes out of its way to paint anti-rail critics as single-issue loner loons. Mayor Peter Carlisle, for example, called Panos Prevedourus, the UH civil engineering professor who ran against him on an anti-rail platform, “clueless” in our January interview with the mayor.

The new coalition filing suit will be harder for the administration to dismiss. It has brought together a land-use watchdog group and a pro-business foundation, an alliance you don’t see every day. Plaintiffs include such heavyweights as Judge Walter Heen, a former chair of the Democratic Party and former OHA trustee, UH law professor Randy Roth, one of the co-authors of the “Broken Trust” essay that ultimately brought down a corrupt generation of Bishop Estate trustees; and former Gov. Ben Cayetano.

None of these people stand to gain personally if they prevail, and they hardly need the grief of opposing a project favored by roughly half the city. There’s nothing single-issue about their backgrounds. It will be amusing to see if city officials think it will work in their favor to try to paint this group as “clueless.”

Second, I’m frustrated—as are even pro-rail people in the City Council—with the administration’s insistence that it has a mandate from the people to build this thing, thanks to the results of a 2008 rail ballot measure, approved by a narrow majority of voters. On the basis of that vote, the administration’s attitude has hardened into, “Why are you still asking us to justify rail? You voted for it!”

To refresh your memory, the question put to voters in 2008: “Shall the powers, duties and functions of the city, through its director of transportation services, include establishment of a steel wheel on steel rail transit system?”

Notice what the question wasn’t. To his credit, then-city councilmember Gary Okino wanted the ballot measure to be a more direct, yes-or-no, should we build a rail system question. Instead, what voters got was a lawyerly pretzel of prose in which the only operable verb was “include.” Read it again. The ballot question didn’t ask if rail should be established. At face value, the question, and its majority approval, did nothing but confirm that city transportation projects are a function of city government.

At best, putting such a question on the ballot was a waste of time. Of course, the city has the “power” to build rail. So what? The relevant question—should it build the current proposed project?—was not plainly asked.

Worse, it was a sham. As Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter Laurie Au noted in 2008, even a “no” vote on that ballot measure, “would have [had] no legal power in stopping the city from continuing to build a mass transit system.”

Something to keep in mind when the city tells you rail was all your idea.