HONOLULU (CN) - A federal judge on Wednesday heard arguments on a challenge to Honolulu's controversial High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project, a 20-mile elevated rail line that environmentalists and a small-business coalition say will spoil views and despoil protected cultural land.
Ninth Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima is sitting in on the case, after all nine judges in Hawaii recused themselves due to possible conflict of interest. In a packed courtroom, Tashima heard arguments from counsel for the defendant Federal Transportation Administration and City and County of Honolulu, and from lawyers for eight plaintiffs, led by HonoluluTraffic.com, the Small Business Hawaii Entrepreneurial Education Foundation and former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano.
Tashima himself requested the 90-minute hearing, after the defendants sought partial judgment.
Tashima called the motion "possibly premature," said, "It will not make the case go away," and indicated that he would rule on it soon.
Nicholas Yost, Matthew Adams and Michael Green represented the plaintiffs. Assistant U. S. Attorney Harry Yee and Robert Thornton represented the FTA, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and the City and County of Honolulu.
The $5.3 billion rail project is planned as a 20-mile-long, elevated mass transit system to connect Honolulu's densely populated historic and business districts to Kapolei, a growing suburban area in western Oahu. Other portions are planned to extend to the tourist area of Waikiki and elsewhere on the 30-mile-wide island.
Opponents claim the city and the FTA exceeded their jurisdiction and violated environmental law by failing to consider any more than two of 75 potential alignments, by selecting steel-on-steel technology, and by failing to conduct legally required historic preservation surveys.
They claim the 4-story-high rail line will be an eyesore, will take land from parks and schools and is bound to unearth Native Hawaiian human remains buried along the route.
One reason for the recusal of local judges is that a downtown section of the project would come within 45 feet of their chambers in the courthouse, which plaintiffs claim would make the building vulnerable to a terrorist attack.
State funding for the project is partially secured and piggybacked by $1.5 billion in federal money, set aside and expected by the end of 2012. Infrastructure for the rail is already being put in place, including utility line relocations.
The defendants say this preliminary work is focused on the western portion of the island, in the town of Kapolei. Work, if permitted, is expected to be limited to Kapolie throughout 2012. It is expected to be at least a year until work begins in the historic downtown that is of primary concern to the plaintiffs.
Tashima opened the hearing by saying he intended to render a decision on the case, which was filed in May, as soon as possible.
He said the case rested solely on whether all parties had exhausted the lengthy procedures under the Administrative Procedure Act.
Despite the 6 months that have elapsed since the lawsuit was filed, the FTA has made available only about 75 percent of its administrative record, which it estimates contains 500,000 documents.