(CN) - A $5 billion high-speed railway being built in Honolulu does not violate federal environmental and preservation laws, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.
The ruling deals a further blow to project detractors who worry that the 20-mile elevated transit system will destroy Native Hawaiian burial sites and other cultural resources.
When complete, the rail system is planned to run from the University of Hawaii campus through downtown Honolulu, connecting several of the island city's historic, tourist and business districts with suburban neighborhoods. The project aims to alleviate traffic problems in what Time magazine called the second-most congested metropolitan area in the nation.
Honolulutraffic.com is among several groups to have nevertheless challenged the project. It joined Hawaii's Thousand Friends, the Small Business Hawaii Entrepreneurial Foundation, former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano and others in a 2011 lawsuit against the Federal Transit Administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the city and county of Honolulu and several officials.
They argued, among other things, that the project would destroy "natural, historic, and cultural resources (including Native Hawaiian burials) and creat[e] a massive new four-story concrete barrier along the way."
U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled for the defendants on the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act claims, and on all but three claims under Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act, which governs historic sites.
While Tashima enjoined the fourth phase of the project pending remand of the remaining claims, construction moved forward while the challengers took their issues to the 9th Circuit.
The groups argued that there were better, less destructive alternatives to the "steel-wheel-on-steel-rail Fixed Guideway system", and that project planners had failed to properly consider all of the choices.
But a three-judge panel unanimously rejected these concerns Tuesday and affirmed Tashima's ruling, finding that planners had done all they were required to do to avoid destroying the island's environmental and cultural treasures.
"Defendants have made a good faith and reasonable effort to identify known archaeological sites along the proposed project route and have developed an appropriate plan for dealing with sites that may be discovered during construction," Judge Mary Schroeder wrote for the San Francisco-based panel.
The first section of the rail project is expected to open for riders in 2017, with the entire system is slated for completion in 2019, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation says.
Attorney Nicholas Yost, of San Francisco's Dentons US LLP, argued the case for the plaintiffs. He did not immediately return a request for comment.