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Watchdogs & Ex-Hawaii Officials Aim to Shelve Mass Transit Project

HONOLULU (CN) - Citizen watchdog groups and former state legislators are raising the red flag on one of the country's newest and proportionately expansive proposed mass transit systems, which opponents lambaste as a trophy project that will deface the state's natural beauty without providing any real benefits.

Honolulu's "High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project," a 20-mile-long, steel-on-steel, elevated concrete viaduct, slated to be three- to four-stories tall with passenger loading platforms at heights of 240 feet at each station, will connect Honolulu's densely populated historic and business districts to the sparsely populated, but growing, suburban area of west Oahu known as Kapolei.

But the plan comes at a hefty environmental, aesthetic and historic price, according to a new federal complaint., Hawaii's Thousand Friends, the Small Business Hawaii Entrepreneurial Foundation, former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano and others sued the Federal Transit Administration, the U. S. Department of Transportation, the city and county of Honolulu, and several officials.

Cayetano served as Hawaii's governor from 1994 to 2002, following an eight-year stint as lieutenant governor and terms as chair of the state House and Senate's transportation committees.

Another of the four individual plaintiffs is Walter Meheula Heen, a former city council chairman, state senator and federal judge. Part Native Hawaiian, Heen supported a state law designed to protect agricultural land and the environment.

The rail project has come under fire by Native Hawaiians and others, ever since the FTA and city and county of Honolulu released their draft Environmental Impact Statement in 2008.

According to the complaint, the statement simply piggybacked two 2006 reports that were prepared by Honolulu's independent consultants. The plaintiffs say there were no independently evaluated alternatives, and that Honolulu had previously concluded that the project would have a "severe" visual impact on the historic downtown district, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Opponents say the picturesque beaches of Hawaii were not meant to be canopied by a theme-park-like rail and buttressed by high-rises.

Portions of the rail's tracks will run "immediately adjacent to" 11 schools and 14 parks, and within one-half mile of 35 and 39 more, respectively, according to the complaint.

Federal judges meanwhile will be treated to views of downtown tracks within 45 feet of their chambers in the U. S. District Courthouse. After being excluded from consideration in planning, eight of nine federal judges, and the U. S. Marshal for the District of Hawaii, decried the prospect in a letter asking for alternatives, according to the complaint.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs also filed a complaint against the project last year, pre-empting what the current complaint calls an attitude of "Dig first, and then worry about locating burial sites." Numerous Native Hawaiian burial remains are known to exist in areas that the project will traverse, the opponents say.

Transportation officials have all but failed to complete their own required "historic preservation survey," according to the complaint. The opponents say the government has instead relied on its own "Panel of Experts" as a way to eliminate alternatives, like monorail, light-rail and other technologies that have smaller "footprints" and have been used in other cities.

The final environmental impact statement (FEIS) describes the project's purpose as "provid[ing] high-capacity rapid transit in the highly-congested east-west transportation corridor between Kapolei and U[niversity of H[awaii] Manoa," as quoted in the complaint. It also purports to induce and promote growth in and near Kapolei, and the project is planned to have an additional tentacles that would extend to the tourist area of Waikiki, according to the complaint.

"The project is not actually expected to materially improve current traffic conditions," according to the complaint. "In fact, the FEIS indicates that the project will result in long-term traffic improvements at just 5 of the 24 facilities surveyed. Traffic conditions would deteriorate at an equal number (5 of 24) surveyed facilities."

Opponents say the FEIS acknowledges significant interference with protected views and "admits that the project will take land from parks and schools ... and have an adverse impact on at least 32 historic resources, including Pearl Harbor National Historic Landmark, the National Historic Landmark at the Pacific Fleet Headquarters, the Chinatown Historic District, the Aloha Tower, the Dillingham Building, eight historic bridges and four parks," according to the complaint.

Oahu is called the Gathering Place, and Honolulu, in the Hawaiian language, means place of shelter. Hawaii is the most isolated populus on the earth, the 11th largest metropolis, and was voted the second most livable by the London-based think tank, the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The 2010 census put Hawaii's most populated city, Honolulu, at 907,574. Honolulu does not have a high-capacity, high-speed transportation system, but its 40-year-old public-transit service, TheBus, has a solid reputation.

TheBus says it is the only system to have been "recognized twice by the American Public Transportation Association as 'America's Best Transit System,' in 1994-1995 and 2000-2001." The system carries an estimated seven million passengers monthly and 75 million residents and visitors yearly over the majority of the island of Oahu.

In April, the Obama administration lost $1.5 billion of $2 billion budgeted to improve America's antiquated transportation systems, with high-speed rail projects. Though the funds will now likely go toward deficit reduction, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a defendant in the Hawaii rail lawsuit, has asked for $53 billion over the next six years.

The plaintiffs seek a ruling that the defendants' Record of Decision to approve the project violates the National Environmental Policy Act, National Historic Preservation Act and the Department of Transportation Act. They also seek an order withdrawing the approval decision, and requiring public review of a new or supplemental EIS, followed by a new or revised Record of Decision. They are represented by Honolulu's Michael Green and Nicholas Yost of SNR Denton in San Francisco.

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