Complaint aims to stall City rail plans

Jamie Winpenny

HONOLULU—A press conference was held yesterday by plaintiffs in a complaint filed in Federal court against the Federal Transit Administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, and Wayne Yoshioka, Director of the City Department of Transportation. The complaint contends that the defendants have failed to comply with federal law regarding the Environmental Impact Statement filed by the City for the elevated rail rapid transit project.

Plaintiffs in the complaint include former-Gov. Ben Cayetano, the Small Business Hawaii Entrepreneurial Education Foundation (HEEF), Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, and long-time rail gadfly Cliff Slater.

The primary counsel for the plaintiffs is Nicholas Yost, an influential environmental attorney based in San Francisco. Via conference call with the plaintiffs and local news media, Yost discussed the reasons for the complaint.

When asked why the defendants were chosen, Yost said that they are “the ones responsible for violating the law.” One of the laws he spoke of was the National Historic Preservation Act. The plaintiffs argue that the chosen route of the propsed rail project will damage or destroy culturally significant historical sites along the route, in addition to being “immensely obtrusive.”

The complaint further argues that viable alternatives to the proposed project have not been thoroughly examined.

“The law requires them [the defendants] to evaluate alternatives,” said Cayetano. “The people who have the duty to do due diligence haven’t done it.”

Federal law requires such civic projects as Honolulu’s proposed rail system to avoid damaging historic and environmental resources without a full evaluation of prudent and feasible alternatives. Plaintiffs in the case contend that such alternatives have not been addressed in current plans submitted by the City.

Among details discussed by Yost and the plaintiffs was the administrative process begun by the filing of the complaint. Because several of Honolulu’s federal judges signed a letter to the courts opposing the current rail plan, there is a possibility that it may cause them to recuse themselves from the case, which could mean a judge from outside would be brought in to hear the case.

Honolulu attorney for the plaintiffs Michael Green said: “I would prefer a judge that understands, culturally, what we are facing.”

Yost said, “Objectively, we have a very good case here.”

The mood of the conference became, at times, jovial, as the plaintiffs in the case recognized that they do not always see eye-to-eye, and that not all of the plaintiffs are opposed to rail. The purpose of the lawsuit, said Cliff Slater, “is to get them to follow the statutes.”

When asked about the fact that voters approved rail by referendum, and how that might affect the outcome of the case, Cayetano pointed out that the vote does not supersede federal law. Of that vote, Cayetano also said, “That was the most one-sided public relations campaign we’ve ever seen.”

“It was driven by politics and not sound fiscal analysis,” he added.

Hawaii Senate Minority Leader and plaintiff Sen. Sam Slom stressed the fact that the lawsuit represents a nonpartisan effort. Slom and his organization, HEEF, are concerned about the impact that current rail plans will have on small business. Citing the City’s assertion that job creation will be a major benefit of the rail project, Slom pointed out that those jobs will be temporary and that “we’re going to be importing labor.”

Regarding the involvement of public input in the process of the rail transit plan, Slom said that it has never been an open or friendly atmosphere. “This lawsuit is the last stand,” he said.

Related Story:

Former Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano blasts rail plans