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Honolulu's rail project wins 2 key federal court rulings

By Marcel Honoré

LAST UPDATED: 5:19 p.m. HST, Feb 18, 2014

Local transit officials are declaring lanakila -- victory -- after two huge wins in federal court Tuesday, while opponents suing to stop the project said the court decisions bring their legal fight to an end.

A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled that Oahu's planned elevated rail project complies with environmental law, siding against opponents who had sued to stop the project. 

Meanwhile, on the lower court level in the same case, visiting Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled Tuesday that transit officials had properly considered an alternative route ending at University of Hawaii's Manoa campus before instead selecting the route ending at Ala Moana Center.

Tashima also lifted an order blocking most construction and property acquisition in the heart of town.

Together, the two court decisions represent a major victory for the $5.26 billion rail project, currently under construction in West Oahu -- and a decisive blow to opponents who were leading the charge to stop the project, including retired businessman Cliff Slater, former Gov. Ben Cayetano and prominent UH law professor Randall Roth.

"Our preliminary decision is that there is little likelihood of prevailing in any further legal action," Slater told reporters at a briefing Tuesday. "Therefore, today's rulings conclude our legal fight."

City officials were more upbeat at a press briefing earlier. 

 "It's now time to get on with the transit project to provide mobility to those who need it and to complete the rail time on-time and on-budget," Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong said.

The decision released by the federal appeals court panel upholds Wallace Tashima's original 2012 order in the suit, which largely sided with the city but also required that it further study the so-called "Beretania Street Tunnel Alternative" in town.

The panel of three appellate judges found that transit officials sufficiently considered alternatives to the rail project as required by federal environmental laws. The judges further maintained that they had jurisdiction in the matter -- despite spending most of an hour-long hearing last August in San Francisco questioning whether they did in fact have jurisdiction.

Members of the rail opponent group that brought the federal suit,, have previously stated that the appeal before the Ninth Circuit would likely be their last chance to stop the project.

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