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Debate over rail’s future flares after court ruling

By Gordon Y.K. Pang

LAST UPDATED: 8:17 a.m. HST, Nov 3, 2012

Supporters and opponents of the city’s $5.26 billion rail project continue to disagree over the impact of a ruling by a federal court judge on Thursday that orders transit officials to do more work before proceeding.

Mayoral candidate Ben Caye­tano, who has vowed to kill the project if elected Tuesday, said visiting U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima’s decision will lead to the city needing to redo its final environmental impact statement and record of decision before continuing with the rail project, something that would add a considerable amount of time, effort and money.

“It shows to the public that this project was rushed so badly that the city didn’t do the work it was supposed to do,” the former governor said at a news conference Friday.

He said the city’s claim that Tashima’s ruling was a victory for the project was “a little disingenuous.”

He added, “I see this as a victory for us.”

But outgoing Mayor Peter Carlisle and other rail advocates said Caye­tano is overstating the impact of Tashima’s ruling to try to score points with voters in the waning days of a close election fight with opponent Kirk Caldwell.

Cayetano “is trying to blow up the parts of the ruling that suit his purposes,” Carlisle said. “While the city did not win completely on all of the major points, the truth is that the issues that remain can and will be addressed in a responsible manner.”

The 45-page decision by Tashima sided with the city on all but three of 57 points of concern raised in the 2011 lawsuit against the city filed by Caye­tano and other rail opponents.

Supporters and opponents put the three remaining points under the magnifying glass Friday, Specifically, the judge said, the city “failed to complete reasonable efforts to identify” traditional cultural properties along the proposed 20-mile rail line and must do so now; must re-evaluate the possibility of putting a tunnel under Beretania Street as an alternative to a portion of the elevated rail line; and reconsider the impact the project will have on Kakaako’s Mother Waldron Park.

Supporters and opponents of rail differ vastly on the interpretation of the three points.

“It will set the project back … and it may kill the project,” Caye­tano said, noting that he expects Tashima to hear a motion Dec. 12 seeking a permanent injunction preventing the project from advancing — ever.

Carlisle and other city officials have wrongly portrayed the corrections being sought by Tashima as “a very simple task for them,” Caye­tano said. “We don’t think that’s the case.”

Cayetano said that even if a request for a permanent injunction is unsuccessful, the need for a supplemental EIS would likely delay a Federal Transit Administration decision to provide $1.55 billion for the project. Such a process could take months of study and public hearings.

“This project, for all the assurances given to the public, is really based financially on a house of cards,” Caye­tano said, adding that the details pointed out by Tashima are just the latest examples of project mismanagement.

But Daniel Grabauskas, executive director of the Hono­lulu Authority for Rapid Transit, said “nothing in the judge’s ruling requires a supplemental EIS.”

Some of the additional information being sought “we actually have; we just simply didn’t collect it and insert it into the EIS, so we just need to do that,” he said. “Nothing that we’ve seen here says that we can’t do this in a timely fashion.”

Grabauskas believes the work could be done within the nine to 12 months still needed to complete an archaeological survey for the entire rail line ordered by the Hawaii Supreme Court as a result of a separate lawsuit. All construction on the project was halted in August and cannot begin again until the survey is completed.

Carlisle said city officials have not yet spoken to FTA officials about how Tashima’s ruling will affect the timeline for its final decision on the $1.55 billion because the federal officials are busy dealing with the devastation caused by last week’s storm on the East Coast.

Caldwell, in a news release, said Caye­tano is distorting the impact of the judge’s order. “By his own words, this is clearly last-minute electioneering, and I think voters are smarter than that.”

Judge's decision in rail transit lawsuit

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