With elections coming, officials navigate a bump in the road to rail

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—The Honolulu Rail Transit Project has been, and for some still is, one of the most contentious in our history. It spans decades and despite the outcome of the vote in 2008 giving the thumbs up to rail, opposition continues. Meanwhile, the City and County of Honolulu says it’s moving ever closer to breaking ground.

While you may be feeling some déjà  vu over that statement, last month, the Federal Transit Administration approved the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) on the 20-mile, 21-station elevated route from Kapolei to Ala Moana. The 600+ page document now sits with the State. According to the governor’s Chief of Media Relations, Russell Pang, the State Office of Environmental Quality Control still had the FEIS as of July 14. 

City managing director, and soon-to-be acting mayor, Kirk Caldwell says the purpose of the FEIS is to look at every environmental impact the rail system would have on the communities it will touch. “It’s not an analysis of an at grade or above grade system. It’s about disclosure and that’s all it’s about,” Caldwell says.

“There are certain statutory requirements that the EIS has to address,” according to Wayne Yoshioka, City Transportation Director, “both for the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] requirement and for the [Hawaii Revised Statutes] chapter 343. That we have a released FEIS is a statement from the Federal Transit Administration that says the FEIS for the NEPA purpose has satisfied all the NEPA requirements for a final environmental impact statement. Otherwise they wouldn’t have let us release it publicly.”

Yoshioka agrees the FEIS isn’t 100 percent complete. There is further work to be done on the programmatic agreement with the federal government, State Historic Preservation Division, and the State Department of Land and Natural Resources to get resolution on the issue of Hawaiian remains found along the rail route.

If the State’s Office of Environmental Quality Control finds the FEIS complete, they will send it to Gov. Linda Lingle, who has already said she will contract with an independent firm to conduct her own financial review. Mayor Mufi Hannemann and his administration say that’s an unnecessary, redundant step causing a delay in the acceptance of the project. 

Maybe that’s the point, Caldwell says. Asked directly if he views the governor as an impediment to the process, Caldwell answers: “I do, actually. I would dare anyone to find an FEIS where there was an independent financial review done by the accepting authority, the State of Hawaii, ever. I don’t think you’ll find one. It’s not part of the EIS process; it’s not required by federal or State statute. It’s required by the FTA ... I don’t know if she understands the FEIS process.”

The governor gives three monetary reasons in her recent weekly radio show why she wants a financial review: First, there is one pool of taxpayers being asked to pay for sewer repairs in the coming years and taxpayers are already paying more for water and sewer rates, property taxes, and motor vehicle registrations. Not many could argue with that. Lingle also says the City has not submitted an updated financial plan to the federal government and that the one submitted in August 2009 was essentially nixed by the federal government because the plan couldn’t pay for itself.

“That is completely wrong,” says Yoshioka. As for the need for a more current plan, Yoshioka says the City only has to submit updated financial information as requested by the FTA and at certain junctures—and it’s not necessary now. “When we go into final design, which we are not ready to do yet, we do have to submit a report and we will do so at that time.”

Citing the project’s financial viability resulting from a half percent excise tax increase to raise $3.7 billion from taxpayers and the $1.55 billion the federal government is expected to kick in, Caldwell ponders whether the governor’s position could be a stalling tactic. “I think it is. I hope I’m wrong, but I think it is,” Caldwell says.

These are not exactly olive branches, and while Caldwell says he would welcome the chance to sit down and talk to the governor, will she want to talk with him? On the flip side, what’s the incentive for the City to do anything other than wait out her term?

Last week at the Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs summit on physical infrastructure, U.S. House Transportation Committee chairman Jim Oberstar praised Honolulu rail as “the premier transit project in the entire country.” And the Hannemann administration clearly feels good. Oberstar’s remarks showed up in a press release by that afternoon.

So what does either side lose by just hanging tough? What’s the impetus to go beyond intractability and talk to each other before the next five months have elapsed and a new governor comes to power? More to the point, is there anything the rest of us have to gain by getting further caught in the crossfire between the accusative fingerpointing on both sides?

Maybe right now we all need to stand still a little, quietly retrench, refocus and relearn … and maybe even read some of the FEIS on our own. It’s online on the City’s website, on a DVD, and at libraries. Not a lot of people saw the recession coming or were prepared for it when it arrived in full force two years ago. We watched the value of money, commodities, and property change. And we heard a lot of people behave badly in the process. Really, do we need any more?

The full interview with Kirk Caldwell and Wayne Yoshioka is in the Town Square archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org.