HONOLULU (CN) – The biggest rail project in Hawaii’s history suffered a setback Friday when the state Supreme Court affirmed that it was inadequately planned.
The Hawaii Supreme Court partially vacated an Oahu First Circuit Court summary judgment involving sent plans for the Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project, and remanded other parts for further proceedings.
Five justices of the high court found that the city, county and state defendants broke the law by failing to conduct an historic preservation survey for the controversial rail project. But the court affirmed judgment in favor of defendants on two of six counts, finding that they got the necessary approval from the governor on a final environmental impact statement, and properly valued cultural and historic assets along the proposed route.
The rail is slated to run from a growing suburb of Kapolei on West Oahu to the downtown Honolulu business district and beyond, with possible arms reaching to the tourist area of Waikiki and the University of Hawaii Manoa campus.
Groundbreaking in Kapolei came in February, but opponents want to use the opinion to begin issuing change orders to halt construction.
Defendants include the City and County of Honolulu, Mayor Peter Carlisle, Gov. Neil Abercrombie, the Department of Transportation Services and its Director Wayne Yoshioka, the Department of Planning and Permitting, Board of Land and Natural Resources and its Chairman William J. Aila, and the Oahu Island Burial Council.
The lawsuit is one of three still alive in Hawaii courts, challenging the project.
The 20-mile-long rail, initially estimated to cost $5 billion, is partially funded by the Federal Transportation Administration. It is one of a handful of mass transit projects in other cities funded under an initiative of the Obama administration.
This lawsuit, brought by native Hawaiian plaintiff Paulette Ka’anohiokalani Kaleikini, was argued by David Kimo Frankel, with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation. After Oahu First Circuit Judge Gary W. B. Chang granted summary judgment to the city and state on all claims, Keleikini appealed. She challenged the defendants’ position that they could assess the project in phases, as it progresses.
The defendants planned to run a portion of the rail through oceanfront Honolulu property that is known to contain native Hawaiian burial sites.
Mayor Carlisle, a champion of the rail, was voted out in the August primary, leaving mayoral candidates Ben Cayetano, an opponent of the rail project, and Kirk Caldwell, a supporter, to duke it out in November.
Cayetano and retired Judge Walter Heen are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit being heard by 9th Circuit Judge Wallace A. Tashima, after all Hawaii federal Judges recused themselves due to conflicts of interest.
Neither the federal judges nor the U.S. Marshals or General Services Administration were consulted on the route, part of which would run within 30 feet of judges’ chambers. The recused judges’ official position was that that portion of the rail was a terrorism threat.
Of the federal complaint, Hawaii federal judges wrote: “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 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 judges wrote in their recusal letter: “We disagree that there are no reasonable alternatives.”
Carlisle and City Council members who support the rail have come under fire for making significant cuts to Oahu’s public bus system, in an effort to save money for the rail. Bus cuts have left many Oahu residents stranded, with long commutes on crowded buses.
Oahu’s “TheBus” has repeatedly been voted one of the country’s best. Rail opponents would rather have the city upgrade it, repair roads and consider alternatives explored in costly studies paid for by the previous administration.
The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART), which oversees the project, says that even if Cayetano wins the election, he will not be able to stop the project.
Honolulu is plagued with traffic congestion in the country, and no one doubts that alternatives are needed.
But rail opponents say in the federal lawsuit that the technology is wrong: a raised, heavy concrete, steel-on-steel system that would be an eyesore, has brought more outside contractors than local jobs to Honolulu, and will leave taxpayers with an economic burden that will last their lifetime.
Cayetano, attorney Frankel and Councilman Tom Berg, all staunch opponents of the rail project, held a Friday press conference at the Hawaii Supreme Court building.
“The question is,” Berg asked, “how does the taxpayer feel about paying for the city to defend it in a lawsuit that exposes its ill will? The arrogance of HART was exposed today. The arrogance of the city was exposed today. The city is going to lose. It’s going to cost more money to tear down than build. It would cost $1 million to go back and do a revised EIS, as opposed to the thousands HART is spending on propaganda to push the rail.”
Berg said that when he was “grilling HART Director [Dan] Grabauskas” on whether he “had a ‘Plan B’ in the event HART was to lose any one of the three pending lawsuits against it … Grabauskas continuously responded with the same answer: “We are confident that we will not lose any of the lawsuits, so we have not discussed a Plan B since we will prevail.'”
Local media reported that the rail opponents asked the city to stop construction by 8 a.m. today (Monday), or they will file an injunction.
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