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Federal funds for rail plan sealed in signing ceremony

The sense of fulfillment among officials is muted by the death of the man who pushed the project

By John Yaukey / Special to the Star-Advertiser

LAST UPDATED: 3:43 a.m. HST, Dec 21, 2012

WASHINGTON » Hawaii received a long-awaited $1.55 billion check from the U.S. Department of Transportation Wednesday, a major milestone in paying for a commuter rail line that is the largest public works project in Hawaii history meant to relieve some of the vexing congestion along the H-1 freeway.

"I'm proud today to seal the deal," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said during a signing ceremony at the U.S. Capitol.

But the deal was bittersweet.

On Monday, the project's shepherd for so many years, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, died in Washington, capping one of the most celebrated careers in American public service.

His loss was central to the signing ceremony.

Like all the speakers there, LaHood paused to remember Inouye.

"Sen. Daniel Inouye's life has always been about the people of Hawaii — never about him," he said.

The signing capped a long, twisted and politically charged debate that eventually bled into Hono­lulu's last mayoral race.

At the core were concerns that the 20-mile line will traverse Native Hawaiian burial grounds, is too costly, and the city started it too soon.

Outgoing Mayor Peter Carlisle staked considerable political capital backing the project, and was ultimately ousted.

Still, Carlisle was present at Wednesday's signing, sporting a lei and a proud smile. He spoke not of himself in any way, but only of the project's champion for decades, Inouye.

"This is a fitting legacy for a remarkable man," Carlisle said during a short, but heartfelt statement.

It took years for the city to secure the $1.55 billion in federal funding, and in doing so it cleared one of the most significant hurdles to paying for the $5.26 billion rail system.

The rail line will run from Kapolei to Ala Moana Center, and is expected to be completed by 2019. Oahu residents and visitors have been paying a half-percent general excise tax surcharge for rail since 2007, and that surcharge is providing the bulk of the rail funding.

The surcharge is expected to generate a total of $3.29 billion from fiscal year 2010 to 2023.

Despite the signing of the federal funding deal, some of the sticky issues remain unresolved, although they are in the process of being worked out.

The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that the State Historic Preservation Division should not have allowed the city to begin work on the rail project until the city completed an archaeological survey along the entire proposed route.

That is under way.

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation estimates the delay in construction caused by the ruling will cost an extra $64 million to $95 million. But the city maintains the overall cost of the project is not expected to increase.

The city has been surveying the rail route in sections, and experts agree that burials are most likely to be found in urban Hono­lulu.

The survey is not expected to be completed until early next year, and the city said the halt in construction will likely delay the rail project by nine months to a year. Each month of delay will cost an extra $7 million to $10 million.

But a deal that some thought would die in bureaucracy was inked Wednesday with all the fanfare of Washington: souvenir pens, photo ops and smiles all around.

Yet the focus was on the empty 20-foot mahogany table in the room where the Senate Appropriations Committee met.

This was Inouye's study.

Brass nameplates adorn each place set.

No one sat during the ceremony. But the old leather chair reserved for Inouye bore a lei draped solemnly over its back.

On the table rested a silent gavel at 45 degrees on its hammer stand. In front was a vase of white roses, now an omnipresent sight throughout the Capitol, wherever the clack of Ino­uye's old leather shoes were heard on century-old marble.

A simple contract signing became one of the many memorials for Dan Inouye.

"This moment is an honor and a tribute to a person who has been great for the people of Hawaii and America," said U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, speaking of his lifelong friend and colleague.

Today, Inouye will lie in state in the Capitol's Rotunda.

His colleagues were torn between their elation at the success of the rail project and their sense of loss.

Hawaii's Democratic Sen.-elect Mazie Hirono gazed at Inouye's empty chair, gathered herself, and said, "This is a huge milestone for this project."

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