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Selling rail

Yes, half of the audience at this public meeting were HART employees.

Gary Chun

Fifty-four people attended the March 27 community meeting put on by the Honolulu Authority for Rail Transportation at the Blaisdell Center. During an early moment in the rail project update meeting, HART CEO Dan Grabauskas asked for his staff members to stand up to be identified.

Surprisingly, about half of the 54 stood, all primed and ready to take on what remained of the audience’s questions and concerns. So welcome to the start of the big PR push to get Oahu residents to use a 20-mile rail system that is planned to be fully funded and totally operational in 5 years’ time.

This, despite a year-long delay due to two federal lawsuits by project opponents that halted construction. On February 18, federal court rulings found in favor of rail supporters, stating that environmental law concerns were met — squelching the possibility of a tunnel running under Beretania Street — and that proper consideration was given to an alternative route that would end at the UH-Manoa campus instead of the planned Ala Moana Center station.

With that out of the way, the voices of protest fading, and the building of a rail system seemingly a foregone conclusion, Grabauskas started the positive spin cycle, full speed ahead. “We become your neighbors in this project,” he said — albeit “neighbors” that will help pay 70 percent of with a planned hike in the General Excise Tax that will be solely for rail. So there’s that, with the other 30 percent coming from federal funds for the $5.2 billion project. But one other bit of recent news was not addressed during the presentation, namely that HART approached the city in mid-March for a loan to finance the $1.56 billion it plans to dole out to contractors to help plan, design and build the system.

If for some reason HART defaults or is unable to pay back the requested loan, it’ll be up to those who pay property taxes to pony up the money.

But, hey, Grabauskas said “more than a thousand jobs have been created” by HART, and during full construction, that number will supposedly quadruple. And there’s that promised infusion of billions of dollars into the economy after completion.

Armed with large easel maps of the entire route, an illustration of the “refined alignment” of the portion of the Queen Street route in Kaka‘ako, and a Powerpoint presentation, Grabauskas and his staff attempted to paint the rail system as all things to all people, hoping it will placate harried commuters, elderly bus passengers, and the Internet and social media-savvy, via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Vimeo.

Other questions from the public came up during the meeting: Parking concerns? The promise of upwards of 4,600 spaces in 4 park-and-ride facilities along the route. Ride costs? There’s plans to incorporate one common fare system for use of the rail and TheBus. Noisy? The electric trains will be quieter than the buses on their street routes. Possible effect on private properties? Here, talk to Morris Atta, deputy director of right-of-way, after the meeting. Landscape view concerns? Transit art administrator Lisa Yoshihara said that will come into play with the design of plazas at the major stations, with design aesthetics to reflect the history of each station’s history.

But before the future becomes the present, there’s still the construction of the rail system that Oahu residents will have to deal with, and all its attending inconveniences, as the project heads to its planned completion in 2019.

The first phase, between East Kapolei and Aloha Stadium, is scheduled to open in ‘17. Elevated rail columns — 220 of them — are supposed to be up by the end of this year, 125 feet apart, and 25-30 feet high. With soil strength being tested along the system’s route, column foundations will vary between 40-140 feet in depth.

There were, at times, an apologetic tone to the meeting, in hopes to deflect any upcoming concerns. It’s a tone that will be tested in future forums with various communities once full-scale construction starts.

An upcoming community meeting will unveil the initial draft of station designs, and a train model is currently on display at Kapolei Hale, through April. Go to to view its redesigned website and more information on the project.