HONOLULU (CN) – Oahu is in an uproar over plans for a 20-mile-long rail system that citizens groups say will spoil views and despoil protected cultural lands. Media and interest groups have conducted polls that they claim show the public opposes – or favors – the railroad, and just about all of them claim their opponents’ polls slanted the results.
Honolulu’s High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project is planned as an elevated mass transit system, fixed in concrete along at least 20 miles of the 30-mile-wide island of Oahu.
The first such rail system in Hawaii, it would connect Honolulu’s densely populated historic and business districts to the sparsely populated, but growing, suburban-agricultural area of west Oahu known as Kapolei.
The city began planning a rapid transit system from downtown to outlying areas in the 1990s. HonoluluTraffic.com and others sued the Federal Transit Administration and the City and County of Honolulu in Federal Court in May to try to stop the project.
The plaintiffs, which include The Small Business Hawaii Entrepreneurial Education Foundation, say the railroad is meant to induce growth in and near Kapolei. Other portions of the system will extend to the University of Hawaii Manoa campus, the tourist area of Waikiki and the small community of Ewa.
The rail line will be three to four stories tall, with passenger-loading platforms as high as 240 feet at each station.
The plaintiffs call it an eyesore that will be visible from most city streets and hillside vantage points on the southern half of the island.
The city concluded in a 2006 study that the project would have a “severe” visual impact on the historic downtown.
The plaintiffs say many Native Hawaiian burial sites lie along the proposed route, and construction can be expected to unearth the human remains.
State Historic Preservation Administrator Pua Aiu told the online magazine Honolulu Weekly last year: “We have found a lot of burials in that area and I think we will find more. I’m not sure that moving the rail system anywhere in the downtown corridor will alleviate the [Oahu Island] Burial Council’s concerns because they have been found throughout the entire downtown area.”
The plaintiffs also complain that the rail line will run within 45 feet of judges’ chambers in the Federal Courthouse, which could make both the rail and the courthouse terrorist targets.
The plaintiffs claim the City and County of Honolulu and the Federal Transit Administration exceeded their jurisdiction and violated environmental policy by failing to consider alternative technology, allow independent review and conduct legally required historic preservation surveys along the rail route.
“The FTA claims that more than 75 potential alignments for the project were considered; however, the FEIS [final environmental impact statement] presents just two,” the complaint states.
“The EIS also failed to consider an alignment in which the elevated fixed guideway would not cross downtown Honolulu, but rather would begin west of downtown and its historic sites (allowing other transportation improvements to be made downtown),” the complaint states. (Parentheses in complaint.)
In response to the lawsuit, the City and County said they spent $24,000 to conduct a poll that showed most Honolulu citizens supported the project.
The Star-Advertiser reported that 443 of Honolulu’s 907,000 residents were polled, of whom 57 percent said they “strongly supported” or “somewhat supported” the project, but 31 percent of whom had concerns about the cost.
The cost of the project was estimated at $3.7 billion in 2008, but since then has risen to $5.3 billion.
The percentage of Oahu commuters using public transportation has been declining since 1980, according to Honolulu County census data, though that could be cited as an argument on both sides of the rail line.
Lead plaintiff HonoluluTraffic.com claims on its website that “The trend away from public transportation is national as well as local and makes little difference whether cities have rail or not.”
The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation Board this month provided the city with a list of properties to be acquired for the rail line. But opponents of the project say they still fear that land will be taken away from parks and schools.